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. M. Yunus Rafiq graduated with an MA in AFST in 2010. He is currently an Assistant Professor of Anthropology at NYU Shanghai.
Could you tell us a little about yourself?
I was born and raised in Arusha, a northern Tanzanian town, but I attended all my university education in the United States. I am an assistant professor of Anthropology at New York University Shanghai. I am married with two kids. Bagamoyo, Tanzania, and Shanghai, China are two places in the world that I call home for now.
Before accepting my appointment with NYU Shanghai, I worked as an ethnographer for two large US-funded development projects in rural Tanzania. From 2013 to 2015, I worked for Ifakara Health Institute and Population and Family Health at Columbia University on a project that used community health workers and religious leaders to improve the use and knowledge of family planning services in rural Kilombero district, Tanzania. Thereafter, in 2015-2016, I worked as an ethnographer for Transparency for Development (T4D), a project from Ash Center at Harvard Kennedy School. In both projects, I examined how villagers experienced and interpreted the introduction of health projects in their areas. I use my experiences and the stories from my fieldwork to complement introductory and middle-level anthropological courses that I currently teach at NYU Shanghai.
How was your time at Yale? Can you share a few memories that you think might encapsulate your experience?
I have some pleasant memories of my time at Yale. First, I had great and influential mentors that I still consider as part of my intellectual family. Professor Ann Biersteker was a key influence on my thinking related to African studies. She impressed on me the gravity of language and artistic corpus such as poetry as archives to examine issues related to ethnic identity, hybridity, and communicative practices. I took classes with her while at Yale and we have stayed in contact since. It was at Yale where my journey to anthropology began; I took classes with Bernard Bates and Mike McGovern on the African state and linguistic anthropology. They both instilled in me the love of language as the texture of life but also the importance of understanding social realities from multiple explanations. My mentors at Yale encouraged and supported my earlier foray into social and cultural dimensions of public health through research, publications, and personal exchanges.
They not only made the readings interesting by explaining what it means in the contemporary settings, but they elaborated the discussions with countless stories and experiences to reinforce but also to sometimes bring tension to the readings. I have adopted some of these teaching styles in my classes at NYU. Almost fifty percent of the class readings are authored from mentors, both Yale and Brown, and their various affiliates; this is my way to smuggle some of my Yale memories into my class. I continue to assign Mike McGovern’s Making War in Cote D’Ivoire in my classes. Other mentors that shaped my intellectual and professional trajectories are Professor Kamari Clarke, Bernard Bates, Zareena Aggrawal, Robert Harms, Kaveh Khoshnood and John wa Njogu.
If my mentors continue to be part of my memories and present kinship relations, the same is true of my former classmates. I have maintained close connections with friends I met during classes and the spectacular events organized by Yale African Students Associations to this day. Over the years, with my former Yale colleagues, we published papers, created joint community programs, and plan research projects. In retrospect, I believe the reason these ties have endured is because of the type of people that Yale attracted, not just book-smarts but individuals with passion and genuine desire to make the world better. While taking classes, I never felt I was in a rivalry but in a company of scholars and world visionaries, striving together in class and far beyond. Even as I live my life in Shanghai and Bagamoyo, I am proud to say that I have intellectual kin spread all over the globe in India, Kenya, Ethiopia, the USA, Israel, and Nigeria. I think this is the reason I am attracted to NYU; it sees itself as an institution cultivating global connections and identity in a world increasingly polarized by narrow nationalism.
How did you end up at Yale focusing on African Studies?
I ended up focusing on African Studies at Yale because I already knew the expertise and intellectual contributions several Yale faculty members made on topics that I was interested in such as African History, public health, and the literary traditions in East Africa.
Professor Ann Biersteker is a prime example. She is not only fluent in different dialects of Kiswahili and a trained linguist, but she approached poetry and other African literary traditions as an “archive” to investigate several issues such as memory, medicine, ethnicity, and resistance. As someone interested in public health through the socio-cultural lens, the issue of language and local forms of knowledge was indispensable for me. Biersteker pushed me to think of Swahili poetry, for example, beyond historical facts or channels of communication, but something more generative–as theories and meaning frameworks. I took classes and frequently consulted Professor Biersteker, one of the foremost experts in Swahili poetry, and its social and political effects.
I also knew of the interdisciplinary collaboration between the African Studies Program and other department such as Anthropology and History. I took advantage of these collaborations to further think and refine my research agenda, which aimed at drawing together public health and anthropology with an Africanist angle. During my visit at Yale, speaking with students and faculty, I learned that the AFST program encouraged students to be multi-disciplinary through classes we took, the research we designed and conducted but also through exposure to several renowned scholars such as Abdul Sheriff, Jacob Olupona, Benjamin Soares, and Ousmane Kane to mention a few. Even though we recognized AFST as our main intellectual locus, we felt the pulse of important debates and changes within the African studies at large through meeting some key interlocutors in this field. All these venues and possibilities made African studies quite appealing.
How did your time at Yale and the AFST degree influence your life professionally and or personally?
The foundations for my Ph.D. work, research at the intersection of health and media, and ultimately as a professor of anthropology began seriously at Yale. Under encouragement from my mentors, Ann Biersteker and Mike McGovern, I took classes at the School of Public Health and Department of Anthropology. Taking these interdisciplinary classes and engaging in discussion with my mentors, I began gravitating towards using ethnographic approaches to investigate contemporary public health issues. Through various research fellowships such as Lindsay and others, I began gaining practical experiences on public health issues on the ground. For example, I did summer research in Tanzania and Kenya, which exposed me to the emerging roles of religious leaders, especially Muslims, as health actors. I took these interests with me to Brown, when I applied for my doctoral work. At Brown, I worked with two leading medical anthropologists, Daniel Smith and Sherine El-Hamdy, developing the same topic of religious leaders and public health, which I wrote my dissertation on. My teaching, research, and current book project revolves around the topics of religion and public health in African contexts like Tanzania but through ethnographic approaches. If I look back, I can trace the kernel of this research and intellectual interest in the classes and the various conversations I had with my mentors and friends during my time at Yale.
Can you tell us about your career after Yale and where you are now?
After Yale, I earned a Ph.D. at Brown University in 2017. While pursuing my Ph.D. I researched two major randomized controlled trial projects on family planning and maternal and child health in rural Tanzania. My research in the two researches spanned from 2013 to 2016. In 2018, I accepted a position as an associate professor of anthropology at New York University in Shanghai. I continue to teach introductory and intermediate classes in anthropology and conducting research on public health, particularly information communication technology (ICT) platforms for health and ethnographic studies of cancers. I am also an ethnographic film-maker working with a Tanzanian art collective called BAFIMA based in Bagamoyo, Tanzania.
What advice would you give either to a current graduate student in AFST or an undergraduate student who is considering focusing on Africa as an undergrad or for graduate study?
There are great intellectual, material, and institutional resources available for an AFST graduate student at Yale. The libraries have a rich collection of African texts, which also includes primary resources such as diaries, letters, and manuscripts that are available nowhere else. AFST has attracted and kept some top African scholars working on the history, literary traditions, and music. If students thirst for more, they have options to take multi-disciplinary classes from various departments at Yale to complement their classes and craft their unique intellectual trajectory. I took advantage of these opportunities as a student by enrolling in classes at the School of Public Health and Department of Anthropology. AFST has one of the oldest and most experienced African languages programs, students can take a number of African languages like Kiswahili, which not only exposes one to the cultures of these language communities but also makes students more capable for research.
The AFST and other departments at Yale regularly invite top-notch intellectuals, scholars, and activists to speak on several pressing local and global issues. This is also an important part of the academic and intellectual atmosphere at Yale, that has implications both on the academic and research plans. The academic and cultural atmosphere within the AFST program helped me to expand my research and intellectual network. The AFST program encourages multi-disciplinary ethos through its diverse class offerings, research design, writing, and scholarly exchanges. These opportunities and much more make AFST program quite appealing.