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Jana Frey | 14.09.2018 | 507 Aufrufe | Interviews

Maureen Amimo: "Politics and Poetics of Space in Contemporary African Travelogues"

Lisa Maskell Fellowships at Stellenbosch University, South Africa

In 2014, the Gerda Henkel Foundation initiated a scholarship programme supporting young humanities scholars from Africa and Southeast Asia in honour of the foundation's founder, Lisa Maskell. It is the largest international support programme for PhD students in the history of the Foundation. The Lisa Maskell Fellowships aim to strengthen universities in the partner countries, to counter the outflow of qualified young scholars and to ensure the doctoral students enjoy excellent academic training.

In the following months, L.I.S.A. will publish interviews with the Lisa Maskell Fellows from Stellenbosch University in South Africa, in which they will talk about their research projects as well as their experiences during their academic career and the Lisa Maskell fellowship.

This week, we welcome Maureen Amimo from Kenya. After graduating from the University of Nairobi, she started her PhD in English with the thesis Politics and Poetics of Space in Contemporary African Travelogues at Stellenbosch University in 2017.

Maureen Amimo

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"Re-thinking of the humanities and their role in society"

L.I.S.A.: What is the status of the humanities in Kenya, your home country?

Maureen Amimo: The status of the humanities in Kenya currently is, from the best of my knowledge, complicated. This is due to curriculum changes introduced by the government in 2017. The idea behind the competence-based approach (CBA) enacted in 2017 is a paradigm shift for the humanities concerning practicability. This is an important shift. However, within the mindscape of the current curriculum’s developers and researchers, it is unachievable because the roadmap of the transformative thinking behind the CBA is not set out clearly. The fact that constant hypervisibility of funding options being largely centred on the sciences also makes the reality of the humanities dire. Thus, the humanities may suffer due to the prescriptions for the sciences that is deeply ingrained in the Kenyan social psyche and the educational foundations that the country is based on.

Granted, there has been a resurgence of the revolutionary spirit that is pushing for the re-thinking of the humanities and their role in society. This change is experienced in both academia and the art scene in Kenya where people are learning the value of the humanities. The emergence of talent schools, local and international NGO’s and initiatives in different cultural and socio-economic fields is enhancing the humanities’ space with a collective realisation of the benefits to society. In academia, a lot is being done by the different stakeholders to push for the shift in thought. More vertical debates across the different sectors need to be pushed for the humanities to receive the push needed.

L.I.S.A.: Have you ever encountered problems in the realization of your academic career?

Maureen Amimo: I have not encountered any major problems. However, the constant thought that this may not be enough is always with me.

"Travel writing and travelling is seen as outside the scope of what to be African"

L.I.S.A.: What is your PhD project about and what got you interested in the chosen topic to begin with?

Maureen Amimo: My PhD project is concerned with the politics and poetics in contemporary African travel writing. My dissertation invites a re-reading of travel that positions African travellers in the contemporary period at the centre of the practice. I interrogate how selected non-fiction texts grapple with the burden of the travel genre and its histories in their re-construction of spaces.

This is an extension of my master’s thesis in which I focussed on the oeuvre of Tony Mochama’s writing. In my master’s thesis I realised that he belongs to the new generation of African writers that is attempting to defy and push generic boundaries in exploring the condition of Africa in the 21st century. One of his texts opened my interest into travel writing as it troubles the neat generic identities of travel writing. The constant reiteration of the debate that ‘Africans do not travel/ Africans do not engage in travel writing’ both within and beyond the continent also pushed my conviction towards engaging with this form of writing.Travel writing and travellingthat is seen as outside the scope of what to be African, apparently, in some circles means. 

"Stellenbosch opened my eyes to a different look at the concept of race and politics"

L.I.S.A.: What has your experience at Stellenbosch been like? Have there been any differences to the University of Nairobi and possibly other institutions you have previously attended?

Maureen Amimo: My experience at Stellenbosch has been amazing and strange. The difference in culture and way of life was miles apart. It was something that I had to learn to accept. The reality of South Africa and its Apartheid past is something else that - though I had encountered in literary texts and history classes in school - was still beyond my understanding. Stellenbosch, and South Africa by extension, opened my eyes to a different look at the concept of race and politics. Now, I can engage with race differently, from a point of awareness and not just detached reading.

The Stellenbosch space is a vibrant space of open engagement that has allowed me to grow and bridge my introversion a little bit.

There are differences between Stellenbosch University and the other institutions of higher learning that I have been through. I still feel that for each of the universities I have attended, there is something unique about them. My undergrad alma mater, Moi University, has a lot of similarities with Stellenbosch as it is set in a university town just like Stellenbosch. The enclosed university life in both spaces is an everyday, every-time encounter that keeps one always thinking in academic terms (if it is possible). The calm of the environment is also conducive for learning. Moi University was unique in that it grounded me in literature by opening options for a variety of courses and mentors. The open options are responsible for my decision to pursue literature.

The University of Nairobi, where I did my MA, on the other hand, provides a different space as it is in the capital city in Kenya. Coming from a university town, to a university in a city was difficult. However, the space had its own vibrancy in the sense that the city-space was alive with artistic performances and events all year round. This provided a practical engagement with the arts for me. The constant debates with writers and lecturers in the field at the university also extended by engagement with literature.

Stellenbosch University on the other hand has unique opportunities for engaging with critics, writers and peers in academia. This boosts my confidence in the field. The well-stocked library and e-sources is also a plus for any postgrad.

L.I.S.A.: What are the opportunities in Kenya to pursue different degree options (BA/MA/PhD)?

Maureen Amimo: Currently, the options are varied as there are more than 50 universities with more than half of them having the capacity for postgrad studies.

L.I.S.A.: What are your plans concerning your future career once you have obtained your PhD?

Maureen Amimo: I plan to go back to Kenya and do my part in training and encouraging young minds to think critically and engage with literature from a variety of dimensions. I also plan to participate in mentorship programmes for teenagers as I believe mentorship is at the core of nurturing a better tomorrow.

Maureen Amimo has answered the questions in written form.

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