Politics & society, Research

Berkeley’s African connection, through the generations

Working with an alum, says a Berkeley junior from Malawi, is "something almost every student should experience."

Itago Kang’ashi is all about getting to yes.

Itago Kang’ashi

Itago Kang’ashi

“I was more focused on getting into Stanford — you can stone me if you want,” she says, flashing a broad smile. In her native Kenya, as in many African countries, “it’s either Harvard or Stanford” for those with their eye on a U.S. education. “So my mother, when I told her, ‘Oh, I got accepted to university,’ she was like, ‘Harvard?’ ‘No.’ Yale?’ ‘No.’ Stanford?’ ‘No.’”

It was a MasterCard Foundation scholarship that brought her to Berkeley, where she’s majoring in environmental economics and policy with a minor in global poverty and practice. Now in her third year here, she’s grown increasingly aware that “what we define as development is not working for developing economies,” and had wanted to work in a place “where the community acts as a knowledge bank for their own problem-solving.”

“So when Robin reached out to me,” she says, “and said that Dr. Thelma, who works in Uganda, had an opportunity to be an executive director’s intern for the summer, I was like, ‘Yes!’”

James Tayali and Daniel Kwaro in Kenya

Berkeley junior James Tayali, right, with alum Daniel Kwaro in Kenya

“Robin” is Robin Marsh, who, in addition to serving as Berkeley’s lead researcher on the African Alumni Project, helped line up summer internships for several current MasterCard Foundation scholars with Berkeley alums in Africa. “Dr. Thelma” is Thelma Awori, head of the Institute for Social Transformation, with whom Kang’ashi worked in Kampala.

On a drive from Uganda to Kenya, Kang’ashi recalls,“I saw women on the farms, digging. And then there are collection points, where bags of maize are being sold, and it was all men. There’s such a huge disparity between who’s actually doing the work and who’s reaping the benefits.”

Among other things, she got to work on the nonprofit’s “market women” project, an effort to provide essential services and train rural women to understand their rights and have a voice in their own transformation.

“Working with Dr. Thelma was one of the best learning experiences I’ve had in my short life,” she says. “It was a small organization that allowed me to take part in every single activity that they were doing.”

James Tayali

James Tayali

James Tayali, of Malawi, spent his summer interning with Daniel Kwaro, a physician and Berkeley alum who is now a branch chief for the Kenya Medical Research Institute, a national research institution and local partner of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The junior, a double major in public health and environmental economics and policy and a MasterCard Foundation scholar, aims “to empower people economically, but also with the information that can help them to be healthy and have a better standard of living.”

“I was originally just interested in public health, especially in how we can come up with programs that can help communities to prevent diseases that can be prevented, especially in Africa,” says Tayali. “But then I also realized that the economy has an impact on our health, especially on how people in our society can utilize their resources to make sure that they’re eating healthy and also living in an environment that can help them prevent diseases.”

Under the tutelage of Kwaro, who shares his interest in program design, Tayali worked “hand-in-hand with health workers” as a project coordinator, applying his business skills to assess how doctors, technicians and other care providers interacted with the community to educate them about HIV and gender-based violence.

“Daniel is also a design thinker, very interested in business, in how business and technology can help in health care,” says Tayali. “He turned the project into public health, technology and business, so I had the chance to explore these three together.”

‘Work-related learning’

Zimbabwean Thabani Nyoni, now pursuing his master’s in the School of Social Welfare, came to Berkeley in 2013, after Robert Mugabe won a seventh term as Zimbabwe’s president in a controversial election and Nyoni, a longtime civil rights activist, decided to “step back, reflect and re-energize myself.” The MasterCard Foundation scholarship made it possible for him to do that at UC Berkeley.

Thabani Nyoni

Thabani Nyoni

“My program is designed in such a way that part of the week is for work-related learning,” says Nyoni, now in his second year with Alameda County’s adult protection services. “You go to work, supervised by faculty in terms of field education, but you go and learn some skills in a work setting. And then the other half of it, you’re in school, processing what you do, but also theorizing and conceptualizing it. “

He had a rare opportunity to field-test his theories during an internship with Sonke Gender Justice, a South African nonprofit co-founded in 2006 by Berkeley alum Dean Peacock, the group’s executive director. Peacock earned his bachelor’s in development studies here in 1990, and was active in the anti-apartheid movement. Sonke Gender Justice works across Africa on issues of gender equality, domestic and sexual violence and HIV/AIDS prevention.

Part of Sonke’s mission, Nyoni says, is to help the hundreds of thousands of immigrants and refugees from conflicts in places like Somalia and the Democratic Republic of Congo, or from economic turmoil elsewhere in Africa, including his native Zimbabwe. “What Sonke does is to provide a program to help these communities know where to access social services,” he says. “My research was to measure the extent of the impact of that project in terms of moving people from risky behaviors to health-seeking behaviors.”

Thanks to his own experience and his Berkeley connection with Peacock, he adds, Sonke treated him more like a consultant than an intern. Working so closely with top management— as well as having the freedom to visit townships and speak with South Africans beyond urban Cape Town — “was an eye-opener in terms of how can we best strengthen social services in this ever-increasing global phenomenon of migration, and the growth of diversity and the changing demographics in different communities,” he says. “That was very, very enlightening for me.”

Diana Quelhas, of Mozambique, had also worked for a decade in a rural clinic before coming to Berkeley for a master’s in pubic health. Already a Ph.D. and a specialist in malaria, she decided to pursue an MPH to broaden her skills, which were “very lab-based.” She’s particularly interested in improving screening and testing for diseases like Ebola, which has had a devastating impact on parts of West Africa.

Diana Quelhas

Diana Quelhas

It was a chance encounter this summer that led to her working with Dr. Alpha Diallo, of Washington, D.C.’s Public Health Laboratory, who had returned to Guinea to help fight the Ebola outbreak in his native country.

Quelhas was in northern Guinea, on a summer internship, when a group arrived from the capital, and she ended up chatting with Diallo over lunch. “And when I said I was doing my MPH at Berkeley,” she recalls, “he was like, ‘Oh! I also went to Berkeley.’”

Notwithstanding the 50-year gap in their Berkeley experiences, the connection led to a summer in which Quelhas worked with Diallo on a rapid diagnostic test for Ebola, a technological advance that could mean the difference between life or death for the disease’s victims.

For these four students, there’s no doubt that Berkeley’s African alums are giving back not just to Africa, but to Berkeley as well.

“Working with an alumnus is something I think almost every student, at some point, should experience,” says Tayali. “Because now you have someone working on what you desire to do, what you’ve been thinking about in your classes. It’s a great experience everyone should have.”

Adds Kang’ashi: “Working with Dr. Thelma, who is a phenomenal woman — she has worked for the U.N., she has worked to put the agenda of women on the table at the African Union — and just to see how one person can make so much change really inspired me.

“I believe this is just the beginning,” she says. “There is so much more that I am going to do in the environment in Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania — East Africa, basically. I’m really excited.”

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