Campus & community, People, Politics & society, Profiles, Research

How Berkeley is helping to shape modern Africa (and how we know)

Two-year study tracks the remarkable impact of a half-century of African scholars at Berkeley

It’s not surprising, given their long colonial history, that most Africans hoping to study abroad look to Europe — East Africans to Britain, West Africans to France. Those who think of the U.S. at all typically have the Ivy League in mind.

Robin Marsh

Robin Marsh, the campus’s lead researcher for the project, made two trips to Africa to meet with Berkeley alums. (UC Berkeley photo by Barry Bergman)

There are exceptions, however. Over the past half-century, it turns out, 1,000 or so exceptional African scholars have opted to break with convention, pursuing better lives — for themselves, their families and their native countries — by enrolling at UC Berkeley.

Along with their degrees, they carry away a measure of Berkeley’s spirit and culture, including its activist bent. Many go on to become public-health specialists, engineers, economists and social-justice leaders, working to roll back poverty, gender-based violence and scourges like Ebola and HIV/AIDS.

One, Ruhakana Rugunda, is the sitting prime minister of Uganda.

Rugunda, a physician who earned his master’s in public health here in 1978, is among three generations of African alums who have shared their stories with the African Alumni Project, a two-year study that aims to chronicle the life and career trajectories of sub-Saharan African scholars who have earned degrees at six universities in the U.S., Canada and Central America. Also participating in the ambitious project are Michigan State, McGill, the University of Toronto, Simon Fraser and Costa Rica’s EARTH University.

Berkeley’s lead researcher for the project is Robin Marsh, whose work as an agricultural economist has taken her to Africa a number of times before. Over the past year she’s made two trips to meet with alumni living there, and has also interviewed a number who have settled, at least for now, in the U.S. and Canada. It’s been a “hugely challenging” undertaking, she says, but an illuminating one.

“The first full year was spent finding the alums,” says Marsh, seated at the small round table that dominates her campus office at the Institute for the Study of Societal Issues. Due to a paucity of data for the 1960s through the ’80s, it took plenty of shoe-leather reporting — making inquiries of “the Graduate Division, various schools and departments, alumni relations, International House, you name it” — just to compile a database, much less begin to arrange one-on-ones with Old Blues scattered from Guinea to Ethiopia to South Africa.

Sketchy record-keeping wasn’t unique to Berkeley. “Every single one of our partner universities,” Marsh says, “found it arduous to try and bring all of the records together into one database, and then find current contact information.”

The Berkeley team — which also included grad students Ben Gebre-Medhin, Sidee Dlamini, Tessa Emmer and Rami Arafah and undergrads Shelley Zhang and David Sung — identified 800 of the estimated 1,000-plus African alumni who received degrees here over the past 50 years, contacted 500 with survey invitations and heard back from 125. Marsh and Dlamini, a native of Swaziland, and Michigan State researcher Amy Jamison eventually met with 60 alums from 15 African countries for face-to-face (and a few Skype) interview sessions, most lasting 90 minutes or more.

Paying it forward

In addition to Rugunda — who had to bide his time until Ugandan dictator Idi Amin was deposed in 1979, and the new government invited him to return as deputy minister of health — Marsh met world leaders like K.Y. Amoako, of Ghana, and Liberian Thelma Awori. Amoako, who received his Ph.D. in economics here in 1974, went on to a successful career as director for education and social policy at the World Bank and executive director of the U.N. Economic Commission for Africa. Awori, who earned her master’s in education and humanistic psychology in 1973, eventually returned to Liberia, working closely with Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Africa’s first democratically elected woman president.

Itago Kang’ashi with Thelma Awori

Kenyan student Itago Kang’ashi gives the thumbs-up during a meeting in Kampala, Uganda, with alum Thelma Awori.

Awori is now in Uganda, her husband‘s native country, as head of the Institute for Social Transformation, which trains and empowers community workers throughout East Africa. This past summer she mentored one of Berkeley’s current African scholars, Itago Kang’ashi, of Kenya. (Amoako , too, has had a busy “retirement,” founding the African Center for Economic Transformation, a Pan-African institute based in Ghana.)

More recent alums included Daniel Kwaro, a 2010 graduate of the School of Public Health, raised in a rural Kenyan village where children were deemed to be school age when they could touch an ear by reaching an arm over their heads. Kwaro, like Rugunda a medical doctor, enrolled at Berkeley with the aim of developing more systemic approaches to combating core health issues for impoverished Kenyan communities, such as malnutrition, high infant mortality and lack of awareness about how to prevent gender violence and HIV/AIDS.

Kwaro was one of a large number of African students who came through the School of Public Health with an assist from Arthur Reingold, an SPH epidemiology professor. Few Africans could have attended Berkeley without scholarships, and Reingold, says Marsh, worked tirelessly over 25 years, beginning in 1988, to help public health students obtain coveted Fogarty scholarships, financed through the National Institutes of Health.

Daniel Kwaro, Robin Marsh

Daniel Kwaro, of Kenya, with Marsh at the Free Speech Movement Café (UC Berkeley photo by Barry Bergman)

“Art would team with UCSF faculty to write those grants, again and again, and he would get them,” Marsh says. “So he’s not only a memorable professor for a lot of these alumni, but he made it possible for them to come financially.”

The largest contingent of Berkeley’s African alums, some 200 or so, came from South Africa. Due to the apartheid laws in place from 1948 until 1991, most were white, the only racial category then permitted to attend universities beyond South Africa’s borders. Most were engineers, encouraged to come to Berkeley by their employers, who were familiar with its outstanding engineering program.

They were less familiar, perhaps, with its role as a hub of anti-apartheid activism.

In exchange for the backing of their employers, these students, many of whom found apartheid repugnant even as they benefited from it, were expected to return to South Africa and, often, apply what they’d learned to defense research. Marsh was especially struck by one such Berkeley grad.

“He could have stayed in California and led a very successful life,” she says. “But he said, ‘Berkeley gave me the courage to go home, because I knew I had to fight. I had to be part of the change.’”

Once Nelson Mandela assumed the country’s leadership, and its racist system officially ended, “those who had a record of not collaborating with the government had a leg up,” she adds. “So our alums have done great in the new society.”

A foundation for Africa’s future

Like Awori, Kwaro, too, mentored a current student over the summer. He first met James Tayali, a Berkeley junior, on a trip to the U.S. sponsored by the MasterCard Foundation, which provides scholarships for students from sub-Saharan Africa to attend select U.S. universities, including Berkeley.

Their meeting was arranged by Marsh, who was part of the team that convinced the foundation to award the campus an eight-year, $30 million grant to educate more than 100 African undergrads and graduate students through the year 2020. The alumni project is supported by the foundation.

“The reason we proposed a research project to go along with the scholarship program had to do with the foundation’s goals, and its theory of change,” she explains. “They’re essentially saying, ‘We are willing to invest in these young people — large investments, international tuitions — because we believe they will be agents of change, transformative leaders. They will take their knowledge and skills and contacts from Berkeley, go home to their countries of origin and spread that knowledge and transform society in positive ways.’

“The foundation called it ‘Go back, give back,’” says Marsh. “And we thought it would be worthwhile to know whether past African scholars at UC Berkeley did, in fact, go back and give back.”

And now we know. Alums who return are clearly making significant contributions to their countries’ economies, educational and healthcare systems and physical infrastructures, Marsh found. But so are many who remain in the diaspora, via international organizations like the World Bank and the United Nations, or through academic and artistic exchanges and business investments.

“People who studied political science, development studies, sociology, public policy — they’ve gone back to chair their own departments, to become leaders in their fields,” she says. “When they think back to their Berkeley experience it’s not just the academic rigor — the headaches of writing a dissertation and all that — it’s the social activism, the demonstrations. Those early ones that dovetailed with the Black Panther movement and Vietnam, then in the ’80s the anti-apartheid movement, and right through to the present.”

“We were impressed by how, for nearly all the people we interviewed, their careers are giving-back careers,” she says. “Their professions, their everyday lives. To some degree, it was almost an afterthought to ask about their volunteer activities because every day, every year, is spent serving in one capacity or another.”

As Rugunda, Uganda’s top Cabinet official, recalled to Marsh: “From Berkeley, I went straightaway to D.C. General Hospital for a residence in pediatrics. I was also a political activist, and when Idi Amin was thrown out, immediately I was called back to Uganda to be the deputy minister of health.”

By then, his country’s public health infrastructure was in “very, very bad shape,” said Rugunda, noting that his campus experience made him not just better equipped to help with Uganda’s recovery, but a stronger candidate for a crucial leadership role.

“I was not only a doctor,” declared the prime minister, “but a doctor who had done public health at UC Berkeley.”