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Luther Professor Feels at Home Leading the Botswana Program

Luther Professor Feels at Home Leading the Botswana Program July 3, 2014
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The first time Richard Mtisi boarded an airplane, he was embarking on his first trip outside of his native Zimbabwe. Several stops and many, many hours later he arrived, late at night and exhausted, at his destination in the middle of Iowa.

The next day, Iowa City did not look like the large American city he had imagined it would be. “Is this it? Is this the U.S.?” Mtisi recalled thinking. “But I really enjoyed my time at the University of Iowa.”

Richard MtisiRichard Mtisi

Twelve years later, Mtisi is still in Iowa, enjoying the beauty of the town of Decorah – even smaller than Iowa City – where he is Associate Professor of Africana Studies and History at Luther College.

He will return to Southern Africa for the 2015 spring semester, when he will share his lifelong experience and deep knowledge of the region with students from across the ACM as Visiting Faculty Director of the Botswana Program.

A few months ago, Mtisi traveled to the program’s site in Gaborone, the country’s capital city, to learn more about the program and to meet ACM’s partners at the University of Botswana (UB), where the students take classes. “I just felt like I was at home,” Mtisi said. “I have a lot of connections in Botswana – people I went to school with at the University of Iowa, for example, and a lot of people from Zimbabwe who work and live in Botswana.”

Visit to MochudiRichard Mtisi (second from right) with other faculty from ACM colleges and ACM staff visiting the village of Mochudi in Botswana.

Botswana borders on Zimbabwe, where Mtisi received both his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Zimbabwe. He stayed on as an instructor there and met professors from the University of Iowa at a conference the university sponsored. Mtisi’s advisors encouraged him to apply to graduate schools in the U.S., including Iowa.

“They told me at the time that one or two of the professors [from the University of Iowa] had read my work and were very interested in the work that I was doing, which was focused on environmental issues,” said Mtisi. “I ended up applying to the University of Iowa and was fortunate enough to be accepted.”

In 2004, he went to Zimbabwe and Mozambique to conduct fieldwork for his dissertation on wildlife reserves. On his return to Iowa, one of his professors suggested that he apply for a one-year position that was open at Luther. He got the job and joined the faculty in 2005. The position was made permanent and he’s been teaching at Luther ever since, completing his Ph.D. in 2008.

Botswana Program field tripA Botswana Program field trip to the Three Dikgosi Monument in Gaborone.

Photo courtesy of Elena Lahti

As the Botswana Program Director, Mtisi will lead the student orientation, field trips throughout country, and two of the program’s four academic components – guiding the students’ independent study projects and teaching a course as part of the UB curriculum. The students also take a class in Setswana language, choose an elective course from among the offerings at UB, and have opportunities for community engagement activities.

The program attracts participants from a wide range of majors, so Mtisi will draw on his experiences guiding students’ research projects and papers for an interdisciplinary first-year course he teaches in Luther’s Paideia program, as well as for junior and senior seminars in his own department.

In Paideia, he takes students through all the steps of a project – developing a proposal, coming up with a research question to help narrow the focus, gathering primary and secondary source materials, compiling an annotated bibliography, and writing the paper.

Mtisi also plans to encourage the students to take advantage of the program site and activities as they conduct their projects. “My own background, my own training, is largely rooted in doing interviews,” he said, pointing out that he conducted more than 200 interviews for his dissertation.

“One of the good things about the Botswana Program is that part of the work is this opportunity for volunteering,” he added. “So it’s quite possible that some of the students will interview people they are working with while they are volunteering, and they might be able to use some of that information in their papers.”

At Robben IslandProfessor Mtisi with Luther College students at Robben Island, South Africa, in January 2014.

The course Mtisi will teach at UB, titled Victim or Villain: Contemporary Crises in Africa, is one he developed at Luther three years ago. It was a departure from the historical topics he usually covers.

“A lot of my students, even in a class that was focused on the colonial period, were asking what was going on in Zimbabwe now,” he said, “so I thought there was a need for me to [teach something on contemporary issues]. I designed a course that I called Victim or Villain, in part because I thought giving it that title would really capture students’ interest.”

Indeed, the course proved to be very popular, with 50 students signing up for it, and he taught it again the following year. At UB, Victim or Villain will be open to any student enrolled at the university, in addition to the ACM program participants.

“The course is rooted in this debate that’s been raging over the last few decades,” said Mtisi. “How would we explain some of the contemporary problems that we see in Africa? What factors are responsible? How do we explain? There are different explanations that people can come up with, and that knowledge will generate a lot of debate.”

“To have students from different backgrounds, from different countries, being in the same room and talking about these issues is going to be great,” he said. “I can’t wait to go there.”


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