"You don’t have to be an anthropologist to let your curiosity about different ways
of being in the world take you on little journeys of discovery."
Story by PROFESSOR REBECCA GEARHART MAFAZY
Anthropology Professor Rebecca Gearhart Mafazy says she believes it is essential “to
provide opportunities for my students to interact directly with members of different
societies.” Those opportunities include inviting cultural experts into her classroom,
organizing field trips that offer “cross-cultural immersion experiences,” and challenging
students to conduct ethnographic fieldwork “that includes integrating themselves into
a society or sub-culture in which they have no prior experience.”
The goal is for her students to transcend stereotypes and suspicions of people from
other cultures, replacing these with curiosity and the desire to know others. She
notes that “Illinois Wesleyan students are more and more adventurous in terms of their
openness to interacting with people of diverse backgrounds and moving outside of their
comfort zones. This makes my teaching more exciting and creates a wonderful learning
Mafazy brought a taste of her immersive teaching style to this spring’s Honors Convocation
in Westbrook Auditorium. The ceremony paid tribute to the 2017 graduating class and
to other students who have earned academic and activity honors. It also honored Mafazy
as winner of this year’s Kemp Foundation Award for Teaching Excellence, the University’s
highest teaching honor given annually to a faculty member who brings spirit, passion,
and scholarship to the art of teaching.
Her convocation keynote address revealed her journey from a small-town Minnesota upbringing
to becoming an expert on non-Western expressive arts and for whom East Africa has
become a second home. Using her own life experiences as an example, Mafazy examined
human curiosity and its role in motivating us to overcomeour fears and begin to know and understand one another.
In a surprise, near the end of her speech, Mafazy introduced the IWU gamelan orchestra.
Ever the teacher, Mafazy provided useful guidance to her audience on what they were
about to hear: “Please draw your attention to how each musician plays a unique but
harmonically related melody, and to the interlocking soundscape, which musically replicates
the interconnections and circularity of life.”
With a glowing smile, the professor joined the gamelan. Led by I Ketut Gede Asnawa,
who has taught many IWU students in the orchestra, the gamelan comprises metallophones,
xylophones, gongs, and a hand drum played by the conductor. Asnawa and Associate Professor
of Music Adriana Ponce collaborated to bring the gamelan to IWU in 2014. Asanwa guided
its construction on his home island of Bali, blessing the new instruments before they
were played for the first time. “Because it is used to summon the gods and ward off
evil spirits, [the gamelan] plays a central role in almost all sacred and secular
events. Every village in Bali has a community gamelan like ours,” Mafazy explained
in her introduction.
And so the music began, strange and discordant at first to the untrained ear, but
in time sounding more melodic and delicate, inspiring minds to move places unknown
just moments ago. Joining onstage was Asnawa’s wife, Putu Oka Mardiana. Draped in
colorful, embroidered layers of cloth and wearing a golden headpiece, she performed
the Baris Dance. With gestures and facial expressions communicating the heroic emotions
of Balinese warriors, Mardiana’s movements guided the gamelan’s music with bold, precise
gestures as her bare feet moved firmly but gracefully across the stage’s amber floorboards.
After the performance, Mafazy summed up what rewards may come with appreciating and
celebrating humanity’s myriad expressions of culture and identity such as the gamelan:
“One way that societies communicate important messages is through art forms such as
music and dance that transcend our ephemerality by connecting us with those who have
come before us and with those who will be here after we are gone — and who we hope
will carry our messages forward.” – Tim Obermiller.
More of Mafazy's speech, titled "Curiosity and What to Make of It," is excerpted below:
Our curiosity about the world and about each other is one of the defining characteristics
of being human.
Curiosity drives creativity: How can we do it better? Curiosity drives courage: How
far can we push our boundaries? And curiosity drives compassion: How can we understand
one another more deeply?
We are born with insatiable curiosity. It is the reason we as babies touch, smell,
and taste everything and everyone around us. We want to fully engage with the world;
it is our nature. Think of how much self-confidence and bravery it takes for us as
toddlers to start walking, even though we know we will fall down, and start talking,
even though we know nobody will understand us perfectly. Anthropologists believe that
this lack of inhibition — which seems to stem from curiosity — is why children are
the inventors of the world’s languages.
Recently, for example, aboriginal children have created a new language called Warlpiri rampaku in Australia’s Northern Territory. Like all new languages, this one combines words
from languages spoken in the region with new ones, has its own structure, and, in
this case, a tense that does not exist in the other local languages, making it a completely
unique way of communicating. That children all over the world, since the development
of human language 100,000 years ago, have worked together to create effective ways
to communicate and identify with each other demonstrates the amazing things we are
capable of when we let our creativity be guided by our innate curiosity.
What I have observed among Swahili children in coastal Kenya is that young children
eagerly play with other children in their neighborhoods, despite differences that
separate their parents such as ethnic background, religion, or economic class. When
we are young, the categories adults use to divide people are insignificant to us.
We simply enjoy each other’s company while impervious to the social divisions in operation
all around. As we grow up, we are taught to focus on each other’s differences, and
gradually allow stereotypes to override our childlike inclination to treat everyone
as a potential playmate.
Children are also masters of nonverbal communication, which is an instinctual way
we enhance our verbal communication, whether we are conscious of it or not. Scholars
who study the physiology of emotion, language, and the brain have identified at least
six facial expressions that correspond to emotions all humans share: sadness, happiness,
fear, anger, disgust, and surprise. Facial expressions such as happiness and anger
produce distinct changes in our brain activity. For example, a smile produces feel-good
neurotransmitters such as dopamine, endorphins, and serotonin, both in us and also
in the people we smile for.
A Different Perspective
A smile can also mean different things to different people, and appearing to be too
happy has certainly gotten me into trouble on more than one occasion. The first time
this happened was when I went out East to Mount Holyoke College, where my big Minnesota
smile was received with quite a bit of suspicion.
Interacting with students who were more cosmopolitan and better educated than I was,
and who considered my Scandinavian heritage exotic, was part of learning to navigate
the terrain of a new place and new people, some of whom were from parts of the world
I had never even heard of before.
My first roommate, Loyce, for example, was from the West African country of Ghana.
And though she hailed from the vibrant city of Accra and I from the sleepy town of
Anoka, we helped each other get over homesickness and culture shock by listening to
each other’s stories about our families and the friends we left behind, what our neighborhoods
looked like, and how the food we missed tasted.
Loyce (along with my African history professor, Fi Herbert; my Senegalese French professor,
Samba Gadjigo; and Girma Kebede, my Ethiopian geography professor) nurtured my fascination
with the magnificent peoples of Africa, whose histories and cultures led me on a journey
of inquiry and discovery that included traveling to East Africa as a junior. That
was a big leap for me. But my parents assured me as I boarded the plane that all adventurers
have a basecamp to return to, and mine was my family, who would be there for me when
I came home. That simple message gave me the confidence to travel halfway across the
globe to try out life in a completely different society.
I describe that first trip to East Africa as being bombarded with extreme opposites:
People who were faced with economic challenges beyond my comprehension while being
more generous with what they did have than I could fathom; landscapes filled with
plants, birds, fish, and other wildlife more beautiful than I could have imagined;
and some of the largest, unhealthiest settlements in the world, where no one should
have to live.
What I learned on that trip was that the strength of the human spirit is intricately
tied to the strength of the bonds people have with their families and communities,
and that deep happiness and contentment is found playing gin rummy with friends, especially
by kerosene lantern, which was how I spent many evenings with my host family, Zainab
and Saidi, on Lamu Island, Kenya.
Zainab went far beyond her role as my Swahili language tutor. She decorated me with
henna, taught me how to make samosas from scratch, and explained interesting Swahili
cultural practices such as the seclusion of mothers and their newborns during the
first 40 days of the infant’s life. Zainab also had questions for me. She wondered
how American parents allowed young, unmarried women, like me, to travel to unknown
and potentially dangerous places where any number of things could go wrong.
And Zainab’s husband, Saidi, tested this hypothesis by taking me on an all-night fishing
expedition in a traditional Swahili sailboat made out of wood, as well as teaching
me how to ride a donkey and how to use very sharp chisels to carve Swahili designs
into wood. Saidi introduced me to African reggae, and I shared my Van Morrison music
with him. When I answered Saidi’s questions about American life, he was very skeptical
about the durability of our wooden houses, the sustainability of our massive cornfields,
and the suggestion that fish stay alive under frozen lakes in the winter; he did not
believe a single one of my ice-fishing stories.
Zainab and Saidi taught me that explaining ordinary things to people who live very
differently is a chance to see oneself from another perspective. These kinds of interactions,
when people from different backgrounds listen and ask, are openings for understanding
— both about others and about ourselves. This give-and-take, cross-cultural exchange
forms the basis of how we cultural anthropologists do our work. But you don’t have
to be an anthropologist to let your curiosity about different ways of being in the
world take you on little journeys of discovery.
Moving Past the Comfort Zone
Nurturing our curiosity about how other people see the world and live in it can begin
simply by getting up the courage to initiate a conversation with someone you don’t
know. This could be someone who seems a bit out of place, a member of a different
ethnic group, someone from a different part of the country, or from abroad.
I help my students get a taste for this by assigning projects that take them across
campus and into the community to integrate into a group to which they do not already
belong. This can be an RSO, a faith-based group, an athletic team, or it can be working
with one person who represents a group, such as the women community leaders with whom
my visual anthropology students worked last semester.
These interactions with people the students might not naturally gravitate toward help
them get used to the initial discomfort of being around people with whom they are
unfamiliar and build up their confidence integrating into a new group.
Success in these endeavors encourages students to take their skills to the next level
and venture into the world on a May Term travel course, an international summer internship,
or on a semester abroad program. These experiences help students replace stereotypes
with meaningful personal interactions that often lead to friendships like those that
set me on my path to becoming an Africanist scholar 30 years ago.
One of the distinct pleasures I have as an anthropology professor is introducing my
students to a host of extraordinarily talented and passionate local cultural experts
whom I regularly invite into my classrooms or to lead campus workshops. These experts
expose students to new cosmologies, or ways of understanding the world and our relationship
to it. They include Carol and Eliida Lakota, sisters of Native American heritage who
I met soon after joining IWU’s faculty. At least once a year, I invite one or both
of these inspiring women to campus to share Lakota Medicine Wheel teachings, which
in this time of human-induced climate change remind us that the four-legged, the winged,
the creepy crawlers, the swimmers, the plant people, and we two-leggeds are all members
of one family and need to care for one another and our beautiful Mother Earth.
One concept Carol and Eliida discuss is seven generations stewardship. Codified by
the Iroquois, this principle holds that decisions should be considered in how they
will affect our descendants seven generations into the future. Carol and Eliida imaginatively
communicate these concepts through powerful creation myths, humorous stories, and
personalized craft projects that deeply resonate with students.
Peter Magai Bul is another person whom I am honored to introduce to my students. Peter
was born in Southern Sudan, and is among the thousands of Lost Boys who fled bomb
raids and military kidnappings in the late 1980s. Peter traveled hundreds of miles
on foot without food or water to refugee camps in Ethiopia and then Kenya, where he
lived for a decade before obtaining refugee status to come to the United States in
Peter’s willingness to tell of the near-death experiences as a child, and how he took
on the adult role of parenting hundreds of orphaned children barely younger than himself,
helps students grasp the horror we are capable of unleashing and enduring and the
long-lasting impact of war and its destruction.
Like many of the Lost Boys of Sudan who now live in the U.S., each of Peter’s accomplishments
in the States — learning to speak fluent English, to drive a car, to become economically
self-sufficient, to integrate into American society while maintaining his Dinka sensibility
— is motivated by his commitment to helping his relatives and friends still living
in refugee camps in East Africa or in the war-torn villages of South Sudan.
The same combination of fear and hatred that forced Peter and the Lost Boys from their
homes 30 years ago is now fueling civil war in the new country of South Sudan. In
his ongoing effort to resist surrendering to frustration and despair, Peter focuses
on maintaining the school he built in his hometown, where an equal number of girls
and boys are being educated. Peter’s hope is that knowledge and understanding will
ultimately win over ignorance and fear and that the neighbors who fought so long and
hard together to win their independence will again unite as one.
Tapping into our innate curiosity about one another, with which we come into the world
but unlearn as we get older, leads us to this collective wisdom:
We are mutually intelligible
We are mutually vulnerable
We are all related
Recognizing that the Warlpiri, the Swahili, the Lakota, the Dinka — in fact, each
society on earth — has unique and creative answers to our common human problems, and
insights into the great mysteries that elude us all, is the key to how we will survive
as a species.
Like biodiversity, cultural diversity is essential to our success on this planet.
The quote by American author Jacqueline Woodson that appeared on t-shirts worn by
some first-year students this past fall is worth contemplating here: “Diversity is
about all of us, and about us having to figure out how to walk through this world
In a campus mural she designed, Lucy Sanchez ’17 shared her artistic talents to encourage
minority students at IWU to stick together and support one another along the path
to graduation. But her mural also reminds faculty, staff, and administrators that
we are responsible for creating an environment in which all students thrive. And it
serves as a message to students whose skin color, sexual orientation, or religion
makes them part of the majority that everyone’s experience here is diminished if there
are minority students who feel like they don’t belong at IWU or that this campus is
not their home.
When my husband, Munib, came to the U.S. from Kenya, he faced many of the cultural
obstacles all newcomers face, and those first years were a roller coaster of exhilarating high points and terrifying low points. I was very proud of
my family members and friends who unconditionally welcomed Munib and disappointed by others who were too busy or set in their ways to take time to
get to know him. Yes, meeting someone new can be uncomfortable because such situations
are fraught with social awkwardness and the possibility of miscommunication. But it
is just these moments of mutual vulnerability that create openings for building trust
and making meaningful connections.
Such a moment was when my Great Grannie Irene first met Munib. My grannie — who raised
10 children in a tiny, northwestern Minnesota farmhouse without running water or electricity
— did not have many opportunities to meet people from different parts of the world.
When I introduced her to Munib, she swung open her arms and gave him a big hug and,
while doing so, gently touched his hair. “It feels like wool,” she said in awe. And
though I gasped at what I thought was a terrible misstep, Munib did not miss a beat,
and gently returned the gesture by reaching out to touch my grannie’s hair. “It feels
like cotton,” he said, a little sheepishly.
And in that moment, when Munib and Grannie let down their guard to reveal their curiosity
about one another and allowed themselves to be vulnerable in the same way, they created
a space to build a lasting friendship.
We owe it to ourselves and to each other to go out on a limb every now and then and
build bridges of understanding over the walls of fear and ignorance that separate
us. Following our human instinct to reach out instead of close off, and letting our
innate curiosity lead us to the courage and creativity necessary for true compassion,
will enable us to create a campus, a community, and a country where no one is an outsider,
and everyone is at home.
About the author: Professor Rebecca Gearhart Mafazy received a Ph.D. in anthropology from the University
of Florida in 1998 and joined the Illinois Wesleyan faculty in 1999. She takes an
interdisciplinary approach (visual anthropology, history, and performance studies)
to her research on non-Western music and dance performance traditions. Her area of
interest is East Africa, where she has frequently lived over the past 20 years, primarily
among the Swahili people of the Kenya coast. She is co-editor of the book Contesting Identities: The Mijikenda and Their Neighbors in Kenyan Coastal Society (Africa World Press, 2013) and has authored numerous scholarly papers.