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Home > News > International Research > Documenting Cultural Changes in Africa

Documenting Cultural Changes in Africa

May 1, 2012

UW-Madison education professor Amy Stambach is fascinated by the many ways that education and religion intersect. "Schools of faith" exist in many forms, she argues, including secular, liberal democratic, and theological.

Stambach's anthropological fieldwork examines American missionaries' educational activities in East Africa. Her main finding is that the first decade of the twenty-first century marks not the end of but a renewed phase of missionary involvement in international development work, particularly in education. The small role of governments, and the larger role of non-governmental organizations in providing social services in Africa, she illustrates, has created new spaces for religious groups to act.

Based on more than ten years' intermittent research to field sites and schools located in Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania, Stambach argues that the kinds of religious groups that have moved into the underfunded spaces of African schooling are different from the kinds of ecumenical groups that served as missionaries in the nineteenth and twentieth-centuries. Yesterday's groups were pluralistic and open to working with many different kinds of religions in schools. Today's groups are characterized by a highly literalist or singular interpretation of religion.

Former director of the UW-Madison Global Studies Program, Stambach holds appointments in Education and Anthropology. She is the author of Lessons from Mount Kilimanjaro: Schooling, Community, and Gender in East Africa (2000) and, more recently, Faith In Schools (2010), which she hopes will help chart a new course for understanding faith in schools, not only in Africa but also in the U.S.

Faith in Schools tells many stories. One recounts the experience of a Tanzanian headmistress whose school faced competition from private schools, which were attracting some of her best and wealthiest students. In response, this headmistress contracted with evangelical Christian missionaries from the U.S. to teach a free English course during midyear break. During their work, the missionaries established an unstated but particular orientation to learning in which religious value was embedded, Stambach says. For example, they presented biblical texts as ordinary readings from which ordinary lessons might be drawn. They argued that they were not teaching Christianity per se, but that their lessons were universal. They operated through a Protestant belief in the power of the Bible to transform diverse peoples and save the world. Stambach examines this experience and others to illustrate competing visions of secularism in public life and how religion crafts new moral geographies that politically secure and link distant lands.

Her previous book, Lessons from Mount Kilimanjaro, provides an ethnographic study of a school and community in East Africa. It focuses on the role school plays in the development of the children's identity, their relationships to their parents and community, and in regional development. It examines the influences of Western modernity and the cultural traditions of East Africa-ideas about gender roles, sexuality, identity, and family and communal obligations.