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Currents: a first fulbright-in-residence

Colby-Sawyer Welcomes Kenyan Scholar as its First Fulbright Scholar-in-Residence

In 2008-2009, Colby-Sawyer College is hosting its first Fulbright Scholar-in-Residence, Isaac Nyamongo, an associate professor and director of the Institute of Anthropology, Gender and African Studies at the University of Nairobi in Kenya. Dr. Nyamongo is a medical anthropologist with expertise in ethnology and research methods who focuses on public health issues in Africa. As part of Colby-Sawyer's Environmental Studies Department, he will teach and speak to classes, engage in campus events and activities, and address the larger community on a range of topics. Dr. Nyamongo is married and has three sons, all of whom will come to visit him on campus in December.

His Early Life and International Studies

Isaac Nyamongo grew up in Kisii, the commercial center of the Gusii Highlands in southwest Kenya, in a family of two brothers and seven sisters. His father was a medical officer at a health clinic, his mother a homemaker who cared for their family. After his early education in Kisii, Nyamongo went north to board at Kapsabet Boys High School, where he returned home only every three months.

“We were fairly middle class, but it's all relative,” he says with a laugh. “All my brothers and sisters went to school; my eldest brother is a medical doctor and the second one is a civil engineer. My sisters have gone to university.”

Nyamongo describes himself as an “ordinary boy” who began to become interested in health issues in high school, in part because his father was a doctor and his brother was in medical school and also because serious issues of disease and treatment are simply part of daily life in Africa. He was a promising young student who received partial scholarships from the government of Kenya and the India Council for Cultural Relations to study at Panjab University in Chandigarh, India.

“First I focused on biochemistry, zoology and anthropology, but my interests started shifting, and I thought about going to medical school in Sri Lanka,” he says. “When that didn't materialize, I continued with anthropology and then went home to Kenya to do the field work for my master's degree in anthropology. My thesis was on growth and nutritional status of school children.”

After he completed his studies in India, Nyamongo returned to Kenya and joined the University of Nairobi as a junior researcher in anthropology at the Institute of African Studies, as it was then called. He eventually received a scholarship from the Wenner Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research in New York to continue research in anthropology and pursue a Ph.D. at the University of Florida in Gainesville, Fla.

The field of anthropology has four main branches—biological, cultural, archaeology, and linguistic anthropology—Nyamongo explains, and in Florida he narrowed his focus to medical anthropology, combining both the biological and cultural aspects. For his doctoral thesis, he investigated lived-experiences of malaria patients in southwest Kenya to understand the effects of their attitudes and behaviors on their health and medical treatment.

Malaria is endemic around the Lake Victoria region and along the coastal areas of Kenya, where people who live there often develop a level of immunity to the disease, Nyamongo explains. The high altitudes and cooler climate of the Gusii Highlands had traditionally kept the incidence of malaria low, but in the last two decades, due to global warming and a host of other human-mediated changes, malaria has encroached on populations with little immunity to the disease. “Because of that lack of immunity, malaria's effect on these people is devastating; they are not protected,” he says.

“I wanted to understand how perceptions of the etiology of the disease influence the behavior of malaria patients in the course of seeking treatment. For example, if they use malaria drugs and don't get better, they start to think they don't have malaria, and this affects their next decisions. They might stop taking the drugs and make new decisions that affect their condition.”

Nyamongo's research findings were used by a non-governmental health organization, Medical Emergency Relief International (Merlin) of the United Kingdom, to design interventions that help people deal with illnesses and lessen the impact of diseases on their communities.

After completing his Ph.D. at the University of Florida in 1998, Nyamongo returned to the University of Nairobi. In the last decade he has continued to conduct research into public health issues in Africa such as malaria, HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and health systems, as well as teach and direct the university's Institute for Anthropology, Gender and African Studies.

It Was the Right Time

Last year Academic Vice President and Dean of Faculty Deb Taylor submitted a proposal to the Center of International Exchange of Scholars to bring a Fulbright scholar in residence from Africa to Colby-Sawyer College. The Fulbright program was targeting small colleges with a focus in the liberal arts, and it happened to be the right time for the college to apply for a scholar in residence, according to Vice President Taylor.

One of the goals of Colby-Sawyer's new Strategic Plan is to increase the college community's experience with diversity, she explains, through the curriculum, study abroad and exchange programs, and through visiting scholars. The college sought an African scholar in particular to “close a regional gap in the curriculum,” according to the college's proposal.

Around the same time, Dr. Nyamongo was applying for a Fulbright Scholarship from his office in Kenya, and he was open to a position in the Northeast. “I don't know exactly what happened after that, but I'm here,” he says with a laugh. “This is the first time I've been in the Northeast. I've always wanted to come to this area. When you look at a map of the United States, the states in the Northeast compared to the West are so small, and yet they have so many delegates and seem to have so much political influence. They always captured my imagination.”

He muses at the friendliness of people here and how everyone he encounters, whether he's on campus or at a dinner in a private home in Sunapee, seems to know one another. His experiences here stand in stark contrast to his time in Gainesville, Fla., at a university with 52,000 students, where he often felt lost in the crowd.

“The advantage of being in a small place like New London is that there are very few people," he muses. "You tend to stand out in a place like this.”

In his first couple of weeks, Dr. Nyamongo has been visiting classes, speaking on such subjects as HIV/AIDS and the environment, links between his homeland and the U.S. president-elect Barack Obama, his international travels, and environmental issues in Kenya. In the spring semester he will teach an Honors Pathway class, Health, Sickness and Healing in Africa, as well as address the larger college community and area residents on a wide range of issues. He will also focus on building the foundation for a student and faculty exchange program between Colby-Sawyer and the University of Nairobi, which he believes could be his most important accomplishment here.

With the historic election of Obama, Dr. Nyamongo will likely find more opportunities to speak about the president-elect's family connections to Kenya. In February, he has been asked to address a public forum about Obama's roots in Kenya.

"I'll talk about his family's village, Kogelo, where his grandmother still lives, how his father first came to the United States, and Obama's first impressions of Kenya that he wrote about in Dreams from My Father,” he said. Dr. Nyamongo saw Obama in 2006, when the senator spoke at the University of Nairobi, prior to his announcement of his candidacy for the presidency. The room was packed with at least 1,000 people, and loudspeakers had to be set up outside to accommodate the overflowing crowd.

“He was asked if he would run for president, but he wouldn't say,” the professor recalls.

Dr. Nyamongo's residency will also allow him opportunities to advance his own scholarship. He plans to complete papers for publication, engage in personal writing, and most critically for him, work with large data sets related to his research projects in recent years.

“Between teaching, research and the administration of the institute, I haven't been able to work with these data,” he says. The internet and electronic databases allows him to connect to and exchange papers with his network of colleagues in related fields of study across the United States, Africa, Europe and Japan.

Dr. Nyamongo knows that a successful collaboration with Colby-Sawyer will require that he, and the members of the college community, stretch themselves to relate to each others' cultures and experiences. Yet the distance between the people of Kisii, Kenya, and New London, N.H., is not as wide as it once was. Many people in both places are wildly excited about an Obama presidency, and all are worried about their families' welfare and how the issues of health care, education and climate change will affect them. This year the college's first Fulbright Scholar-in-Residence will do his best to build connections between our two cultures and give us his own perspectives on some of the elemental concerns that all people share.

“We need to recognize the fact that no culture ever survives in isolation—that as human beings, we are all interconnected,” he concludes. “That calls for accommodation and appreciation of each others' views of the world.”

-Kimberly Swick Slover