October 24 , 2005
Seminar puts contemporary African violence on agenda
BY Chanmi Kim
Pamela Scully often begins her “Violence and Memory in Contemporary Africa” class with a few Xhosa words. Xhosa, a Bantu language spoken by many South Africans (including Nelson Mandela), is one of Scully’s native languages.
Indeed, she often draws on her own memory of violence to teach the course. Scully has shared a story from her college years about visiting a black neighborhood with her history professor and classmates. Her professor was hit by a car, but the students were unable to find immediate assistance due to the racial dynamics of the situation: a white-serving ambulance could not enter into a black neighborhood, and a black-serving ambulance could not assist the professor because she was white. Scully recalled spending more than an hour trying to get an ambulance to pick up the professor, who eventually died of her injuries.
Such stories add intensity, depth and a nuanced perspective to what the students are learning about Africa. Scully recalled one class period in which she asked her students how many remembered the
O. J. Simpson trial, to which almost everyone raised their hands. But when she asked if anyone remembered the Rwandan genocide of 1994—in which 800,000 people were killed in three months—only one student raised a hand.
“These two events were happening at the same time,” said Scully, visiting associate professor in the Institute for Comparative and International Studies. “How is it that certain forms of violence get picked up, while others that are even more appalling don’t? The level of evil [in Rwanda] was truly appalling, and yet few people cared or even knew about it.”
Scully confronts this problem by beginning each class with a discussion of current events, especially African news. Students are expected to keep a journal to reflect on what they are learning, as the required readings are often startling and graphic. Those readings include Philip Gourevitch’s We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families, a collection of stories of genocide victims in Rwanda; and Truth and Lies: Stories from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa by Jillian Edelstein, Michael Ignatieff and Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela, which give vivid accounts of torture and violence.
According to Scully, the freshman seminar is an attempt to learn how to explore evil and violence, and ultimately to decide if “justice is possible, and what does it look like,” she said.
After completing her undergraduate education at the University of Cape Town, Scully got her doctorate from the University of Michigan. She is serving as visiting associate professor in both women’s studies and African studies. Prior to coming at Emory, she taught at Denison University (Granville, Ohio) and Kenyon College (Gambier, Ohio).
Her research focuses on comparative women’s and gender history, particularly slavery, emancipation and the making of the Atlantic world. She and Emory’s Clifton Crais, professor of history, are currently finishing up the last chapter of The Worlds of Sara Baartman and the Hottentot Venus, a historical narrative about a South Africa native taken to Europe in the 19th century to be exhibited as a sideshow attraction. Scully’s co-edited collection with Diana Paton of the University of Newcastle (UK), Gender and Slave Emancipation in the Atlantic World (Duke University Press, 2005), was released two weeks ago.
Listed under African studies, Scully’s seminar covers political and social violence in modern Africa, particularly on the effects of apartheid on South Africa, the civil war in Somalia, the Rwandan genocide of the 1990s and the ongoing violence in Sudan. Class periods are a mix of film viewings (such as of a South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission trial), student discussion, and Scully’s personal stories of growing up in apartheid South Africa.
Scully’s own decision to teach “came out of a feeling of guilt ... that I benefited from apartheid because I received a good education,” she said. As a student at the University of Cape Town, she was involved in anti-apartheid movements, particularly through a campus organization called the United Democratic Front (she still keeps a T-shirt in her office).
Scully will conclude the course with the situation in Darfur, Sudan, in which an estimated 3.5 million are starving, 2.5 million are displaced due to violence, and 400,000 have died. She hopes to facilitate a better understanding of what’s going on in Sudan, and “why no one is doing anything about it.”
“If we can understand the situation better,” Scully said, “maybe we can intervene and do something about it.”
“I encourage my students to read the news every day, and especially international news,” Scully said. “In a way, I feel called to put Africa on the agenda.”