Africanist Andrea Arrington wouldn’t be who she is today without the soul-stirring experiences study abroad created for her.
Study abroad changed Andrea Arrington’s life. And she’s on a mission to create the same experience for as many Sycamores as possible.
“I know most students can’t go away for five months like I did for my first study abroad, so I try to find a way to have a high-impact experience for students who can go for two weeks,” she said. “I don’t expect everyone to want to become an Africanist and to follow the academic path like I did, but I just want to change … something. Maybe it’ll change the way they look at life, maybe the way they look at themselves, maybe the way they look at their studies.”
The assistant professor of African and African American history took 14 students and seven faculty and staff to Ghana for 18 days in May as part of a seminar class and a collaboration with the Bayh College of Education’s student affairs and higher education program.
Oh, and did we mention Arrington started planning the trip days after joining the faculty at Indiana State?
Her co-faculty for the class and trip, history Professor Isaac Land wasn’t surprised at her initiative. After all, when he was on the committee to hire Arrington, he noticed she had eight students at one time doing honors projects with her at her previous institution, the University of Arkansas.
“When you think about the size of departments, how does that happen?” Land wondered at the time. Then he determined, “You’re a magnet. You’re charismatic. So I had never met her, but I knew this is a person who students will gravitate toward and want to work with closely.”
And boy, was he right.
“One of the students remarked before we left that she wanted to come on this trip because Dr. Arrington reminded her of her own mother,” Land said. “So she has this deep reservoir of affection with the students, and she has really been magnificent. She inspires students as whole people and not just as students.”
Arrington was a 20-year-old, hot-headed budding feminist when she chose to study abroad in Zimbabwe after a compelling African politics class during her undergraduate studies at Knox College, a small liberal arts college in Galesburg, Ill.
While abroad, she extended her stay to work on an honors project, and when she returned, Arrington wished she’d done some additional research and interviews. She mentioned that fact in passing during a conversation with a dean, and the next thing she knew, he had secured the funding for her to return.
“That experience really set me on the path to be successful in graduate school, and I think it’s that trip that probably made the graduate schools I applied to look at me differently,” she said. “I wasn’t coming from a school that was particularly strong in African studies, but they read in my letter that I went to Zimbabwe not once, but twice, and that I went to Zimbabwe by myself, and so I think that really stood out to them.”
Arrington, who has written and collaborated on numerous articles and books about Africa, could write a book on her study abroad adventures. There was the time when she and a couple of friends made it three days subsisting only on a jar of jam, half a watermelon, a loaf of bread and negligible drinking water traveling from Mopti to Timbuktu.
“We learned about out these cargo boats that are very large, hollowed-out canoes ship a lot of the grains up north. The boat operators would rent out space for people to sit on those bags of rice, and so we said, ‘We’ll do it.’ We thought there would be small meals and water provided. I look back and think, ‘Why did we think that would be the case?’”
Certainly a little worse for the wear, but Arrington wouldn’t trade the experience. “It was really cool, because you do these stops along the river where there’s villages, people selling fish and things like that, and sort of seeing the cycle of life in economy through this kind of lens was really interesting — probably more interesting if I had enough food to not start having visions,” she said with a laugh.
And then there was the time when she couldn’t get any interviews with women she approached at a beach in Gambia. “All the strategies I’d used in other places in west Africa were not working. The women just would not talk to me,” she said.
She eventually figured out she was trolling a beach frequented by white European women looking for African boyfriends.
“The women assumed I really wasn’t there for them,” she said. “Once I figured that out and shifted my focus to another location, I got the interviews I needed — and fewer proposals from men thinking I was there to partake in that other industry.”
And then there was the time she was nearly sold into marriage for 10 camels. (Those who know and love Arrington would argue she’s definitely worth twice that number, but we digress.)
“I think it’s my dad’s favorite story because of the happy ending — me ending up in Timbuktu and being sold for camels by a travel companion who was not clear on the cultural ramifications of what he thought was a joke,” she said. “I had to explain my case first to the guest house owner, and then he got the local law enforcement involved because, culturally, me protesting the marriage may not have been that different from maybe other people protesting a marriage.”
In the end, she proved her travel companion was not a proxy for her father, who would normally arrange such transactions, and won her freedom.
Even recently, Arrington’s and Land’s trip to Ghana has become a chapter in the adventure book (the one her fans are demanding she write). Days before they were set to depart, Arrington was suffering from acute pain in her abdomen and ended up in the hospital. Doctors determined a benign mass on her kidney had burst and didn’t recommend she travel.
(They clearly lack her sense of adventure.)
Land, who had never led a study abroad experience, much less led one by himself, pulled up the slack and got the crew to Ghana. Arrington joined them a week late and the rest of the trip went off without a hitch.
In designing the class and study abroad experience, Arrington and Land were inspired by a book on Gambia, “The World and a Very Small Place in Africa.” They set out to flip the world and look at it through the lens of Ghana — instead of the other way around.
“We can assume that at some point in our lives, Ghanaian chocolate has passed our mouths,” she said. “Before Ghana was even Ghana, there was the gold trade out of gold mines that linked the Mediterranean and western Europe. And then you’ve got the slave trade with the Atlantic world and now you’ve got cocoa all over the place.”
There’s a lot we can learn from Ghana, Land and Arrington say. The country’s government was able to move away from cycles of military coups, is working to curb brain drain, is tackling technological challenges and is on the front line of climate change.
“They’re doing that with limited resources in a way that kind of puts us to shame. In a continent full of a lot of ethnic divisions, resource wars, political struggles, economic struggles, Ghana seems to be making the most of it,” Arrington said. “When I was teaching the Ghana class with Dr. Land, I put together a quick presentation about contemporary Ghanaian politics, and I remember thinking ‘Man, they shouldn’t be as stable as they are.’
“If we stop thinking about what Ghana means to us as sort of this non-entity and start thinking about Ghana’s role in the rest of the world, it really kind of changes the way we think about Africa,” Arrington added.
Land certainly took a few lessons away from Ghana — and Arrington.
“She really sits down and talks to people about their lives,” he said. “I remember thinking that I had never seen a professor do this with any student. I certainly never had a professor do that with me.”
Land, who is an expert in coastal histories, came up among British and European professors and is now colleagues with the same crowd.
“The sort of culture they have here in Ghana is a handshake can last five minutes. You learn the first name of the person who sweeps the floor or the person who serves you at the restaurant,” Land said. “You treat someone you’ve just met as if you’ve known them for 10 years and you know their extended family, their spouse and their children.
“I don’t know how to do that, and I don’t think I would ever exactly learn,” Land added. “But in a sense, Dr. Arrington has spent so much time in Africa that she’s brought a little bit of that warmth home with her.”
Arrington appreciates the comparison to a region of Africa, where she spent her formative years, and made her who she is.
As a college student, Arrington — a self-described introvert — also lacked any sense of direction when it came to wayfinding. So much so, her father just knew she was going to get lost, wander off into the bush and die.
“But the truth is, I don’t think you can get lost in Africa as long as you are ready to engage with someone, because I’ve never met an African who wouldn’t answer my questions or try and help me,” she said.
“It’s almost trained the introvert out of me, and I can engage with people, and I like to think that I’m engaging on a genuine level and not like, ‘Oh, I should do this’ but it just comes naturally to me now. I’ve been the recipient of so much warmth and love from Ghanaians and Zimbabweans and Zambians in my time in the field that if I were a cold personality, then I wouldn’t deserve that.”
So whether she’s sitting in a kitchen observing a group of women work or helping a farmer pick cotton, the genuine hospitality of Africa fed the curiosity of a young researcher.
“I love that I learned to ask every question I have, because that’s how you learn. I could sit and scribble in a notebook, but until I go straight to the source, my observations are kind of stupid until they’re cleared up, that is,” she said with a laugh.