“So, how was your summer?”
This is the question faculty and students will be asking one another this week. For faculty and increasingly for students, the answer isn’t expected to be about where you spent your vacation and what you did, but about what you learned and produced. Faculty, especially in a university with a global reach and international orientation, it’s about where you did your research.
I know some of the answers already — living with nomadic peoples in Siberia, investigating the epidemiology of HIV/AIDS in China, embedded with U.S. troops in Iraq, digging into history in Finland, researching in Zambia and attending conferences in every imaginable place. Increasingly our students are coming back with the same experiences – working in an orphanage in Rwanda, working for an NGO in Bolivia, enjoying internships in Bhutan. For me, who has always considered everything written in books and articles hypotheses until I have actually seen them (unless, of course, I wrote them), summer experiences have long been an essential part of my learning experience.
So what did I do this summer? I took two interesting trips and worked on a book in between. The first trip was to China with a small delegation led by University President John J. DeGioia. The visit was part of a broader effort to deepen ties between the university and a variety of educational institutions there. We had lots of meetings in Beijing and in Yunnan province. I had some very interesting interviews for my own research on the Chinese aid system (even more fragmented and chaotic than the U.S. aid system) and published an essay on it with the Center for Global Development. And yes, we were invited to one of those incredibly boozy banquets in which our Chinese host went around continuously with his little glass filled with Maotai, a very alcoholic drink which tastes like saki on steroids, and demanded “campai” — meaning “bottoms up.” A few toasts, and foreigners are typically under the table.
No, no one from Georgetown ended up under the table (though one of our delegation not from GU held up our end by going one-to-one with the host — I think he’s still alive). We were all very restrained. I found one way of toasting — I got the waitress to fill my glass with water. When I showed our Chinese host the water bottle, he broke out laughing.
My other trip was to one of the world’s poorest countries — Sierra Leone — as part of an election-observation delegation organized by the National Democratic Institute. (Two of the Washington-based NDI staff who were out there for the election were my former students – Hoyas are everywhere!).
Sierra Leone is a small, beautiful country on the west coast of Africa, but it has recently emerged from one of the most brutal of wars – really a massive looting effort by a small guerilla group, resisted at times and joined at times by the army itself. Large numbers of child soldiers, often drugged, were involved. (See Ismael Beah’s book, “A Long Way Gone,” a stunning account of his time as one of the child soldiers.)
The country is still devastated: almost no electricity (even in the capital) unless you have a generator; sporadic water (except from the heavens in downpours), vanishing roads, only 30 percent literacy, a child mortality rate of 20 percent before the age of five, a life expectancy of 40 years (NOT from HIV/AIDS — just from no medicine in the tropics) and an 80 percent unemployment rate among the youth. And there has not been much progress since the war ended five years ago. This is a man-made disaster. It is a direct result of decades of corrupt and repressive governance that weakened the state and created the opportunity for war — now there is far less repression but plenty of corruption — plus arms provided by Charles Taylor, the former president of Liberia, Sierra Leone’s neighbor.
Given all these terrible problems, the elections — organized by the Sierra Leone citizens — went off nearly flawlessly. We saw no fraud or intimidation. (With no electricity, the votes had to be publicly counted with little lanterns and flashlights, but it was done, as far as we saw, with transparency and commitment.) And there was 75 percent turnout. (There still needs to be a run-off for the presidency but the ruling party was turned out of parliament and may lose the presidency because of incompetence, corruption and its failure to support faster recovery and growth.) Democratic elections won’t save Sierra Leone, but they represent an extraordinary statement by the people of their dissatisfaction with the government, the economy and their hopes as well as their faith in the future.
I know about all these things that I observed in Sierra Leone, as well as the poverty so prevalent there. I have read about them and seen them before. But, while the squalor and suffering was hard to focus on, it was important to witness it yet again. An encounter with reality can not only fire learning, but also passion. And maybe I made a small contribution to the success of the election as well.
So what did you do this summer?
Carol Lancaster is an associate professor of politics and the director of the Mortara Center for International Studies. Behind The Podium runs every other Friday.