Alumni Spotlight Series: Elizabeth Ashamu Deng

The following interview is part of the Council on African Studies’ Alumni Spotlight series featuring graduates from both the Master’s and Bachelor’s Degrees in African Studies. Elizabeth Ashamu Deng is currently the Rights in Crisis Advocacy Advisor with Oxfam International’s Horn, East and Central Africa regional office. She’s just co-edited a book entitled No Time to Mourn: An Anthology by South Sudanese Women. She graduated with her African Studies BA/MA in 2006.

Would you introduce yourself for us and tell us a little bit about the passions that drive you and your career?

Sure. I’m Elizabeth. Nigerian-American is how I usually introduce myself. My mom is black American, my father was Nigerian, they met in college and then lived in Nigeria, in Lagos. I moved to the US when I was seven years old. I was educated in the US and came to Yale as a BA. I did the joint BA/MA in African Studies.

Human rights is my passion and has been the focus of my career. I’ve worked for Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International with a focus on South Sudan. Just a couple months before I started as South Sudan researcher with Amnesty, the 2013 conflict in South Sudan broke out. I was there with my oldest daughter who was six months at the time and we had to be evacuated by the US embassy. Documenting conflict related human rights violations and pushing for criminal accountability dominated my research and advocacy while with Amnesty. This is one of the professional contributions that I’m most proud of, though there has still been little accountability.

Could you maybe share with us one or two memories that encapsulate your experience at Yale?

There are two particular aspects of my time at Yale that I link to my career trajectory.

One is the multidisciplinary nature of the African Studies program. When I came to Yale, I hadn’t lived on the continent since I was seven. So, I had a pretty low level of understanding about Africa, but a lot of passion and just a general love, I suppose. I chose the classes that seemed exciting to me. I was lucky not have anyone prodding me towards a particular major. I really just took what I enjoyed and that naturally coalesced around African Studies. I really appreciated the multi-disciplinary aspect of it. I took classes in art history, literature, history, political science. In my work, both as a human rights researcher and advocate and now with Oxfam doing humanitarian advocacy, I feel like that background is a source of a lot of my creativity. It helps me think more historically, or in a more literary, artistic, or more sociological, anthropological kind of way. That helps me bring critical thinking and innovative approaches to do what I’m doing.

The second is the consciousness of voice that I developed while at Yale. In many of the African Studies classes I took, especially the literature and history classes, we were constantly analyzing who’s speaking and for who? Who’s telling the story? What are the power dynamics between the story-teller and the subject? And how should this influence how we read the story? I learned to look for the alternative voice, the African voice, in a literature that’s dominated by non-Africans. In one class on East African history, I remember finding in the library the diary of a South Sudanese slave and using that for my final essay. I now realize what a luxury it was to be able to find that alternative voice in the library and appreciate being encouraged to use it as a window into history.  

I also remember, especially in research methods and anthropology courses, considering what our position as scholars/researchers/activist is in creating a narrative about Africa. I regularly find myself thinking about the concept of ‘insider/outsider’ in my work, because I’m always at some point along the spectrum of ‘insider/outsider.’

So my time at Yale laid a foundation for me to think critically about myself—as a Western-educated, African-American woman, working at  an international organization—and to reflect on the role of my voice in change and advocacy. As a result, elevating the voices of others such as women, refugees, and survivors, who aren’t always heard, has been a constant theme in my work.

Could you fill us in on some of the steps you took immediately after graduating from Yale?

Sure. One of the great luxuries of being a Yale student was the funding available for research and travel both while at Yale and even after. I won multiple fellowships when I graduated. First I spent three months in Togo working with a children’s rights organization. Then I went to Rwanda where I spent a year working with a human rights organization focused on documentation of the genocide. I did interviews with survivors and perpetrators to reconstruct the histories of some of the large events during the genocide. In particular, I helped write a book on Murambi, a school where 40,000 people were killed. I worked very closely with survivors, attended genocide memorials, and saw the horror of that history and its impact.

That led me to law. The importance of justice and the demand for justice was clear. I attended several Gacaca court sessions, and at that point the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) trials were still underway, but there was obviously a very large, unmet demand for justice.

Was it just happenstance that led you to settle in East Africa?

After I graduated from NYU Law School, I was a research fellow with Human Rights Watch and based in South Sudan. My husband is South Sudanese-American, so we were there together. But after the 2013 conflict broke out, we decided to make Nairobi our home. We spent a year and a half in Kampala, but otherwise have been in Nairobi since 2013.  

I love Nairobi. I love living on the continent and raising my four children here. Nairobi is beautiful and it’s cosmopolitan and things move quickly. I did a year of Kiswahili at Yale and wish I had done more. I know the 20-something-year-old me would be completely ashamed for not being fluent by now, but I recently connected with Mwalimu Kiarie’s brother (who also studied linguistics) and he introduced me to a great Kiswahili teacher. So I’m getting there!

What advice would you give to a student that’s considering African Studies, or a career in human rights and humanitarianism, or just your general advice to a young version of yourself maybe?

Definitely go for the African Studies major and enjoy it. Take advantage of the multi-disciplinary opportunities because it’s unlikely that you’ll have that in the future, whatever direction you go in. Take advantage of the way African Studies is at the crossroads of a lot of what’s happening in the university. Take advantage of everything that the university has to offer. I remember going to the Law School quite often, interacting with the World Fellows, going to the other professional schools for lectures. I think Yale is pretty unique in the way the university is really at your disposal, not just the African Studies department.

And focus on languages, you know, pick a language and try to put a lot of time into it because finding the time and focus to learn a new language is harder as you become a professional and have kids. And the language instruction at Yale is really incredible. Oh, and more generally, not necessarily specific to African Studies, but make sure you learn how to write. I’ve found that that skill of just being able to write well, to write beautifully, is something that a lot of people don’t have and gives you a big professional advantage.

What have you been working on lately?

I recently edited and published a book, called No Time to Mourn. It’s an anthology of writing and artwork by South Sudanese women. As I reflect, particularly on that question of voice, I think that this project traces its origins to my time at Yale in some ways, because its objective is to address the absence of South Sudanese women’s voices from literature, from debate about the politics and history of the country. It’s about giving them a platform to make that contribution. I also think my exposure to African literature—in the multidisciplinary set up—is what allowed me to even have the idea of using creative writing as an avenue for advocacy in my role at Oxfam.