Not everyone has the foresight to pack two modems and a cell phone with a double SIM card when embarking on international travel. Nduka Otiono prepared for all possible scenarios when he left for a university classroom in a Nigerian university this past summer.

Otiono, an assistant professor at Carleton University’s Institute for African Studies, returned to Nigeria in the summer as a Carnegie African Diaspora Fellow at Delta State University (DELSU). The competitive fellowship was the result of a tripartite agreement between DELSU, Carleton University and the Carnegie African Diaspora Scholar program. The program is funded by a grant from Carnegie Corporation of New York through the Institute of International Education (IIE) and is in partnership with the United States International University-Africa (USIU-Africa).

Nduka Otiono

Nduka Otiono

This academic network will continue with nurturing the innovative graduate courses and the interdisciplinary research methodologies.

“My overarching strategy will be to utilize the African Diaspora Fellowship opportunity to cultivate an appropriate research cluster. In the long-term, this academic network will continue with nurturing the innovative graduate courses and the interdisciplinary research methodologies that I will promote at DELSU,” Otiono wrote in his proposal submission.

The fellowship allowed Otiono to collaborate with G.G. Darah, an English professor and president of the Nigeria Oral Literature Organization (NOLA), toward launching “The Niger Delta Literature and Environment Project”. He is also working with Darah to develop a DELSU group to research the rich but marginalized oral literature, folklore and folk life of the peoples of the Niger Delta region. Current DELSU graduate students under their supervision will form the society’s initial cluster.

Otiono developed weekly three-hour graduate seminars (scheduled around rolling blackouts) that focused on interdisciplinary research methods.

During a three-month period, Otiono developed weekly three-hour graduate seminars (scheduled around rolling blackouts) that focused on interdisciplinary research methods for graduate students and early-career faculty members. Topics included an overview of potential fellowships, awards and grants available to faculty and graduate students. Workshops provided attendees with an opportunity to practice interdisciplinary research methods, abstracts and proposal writing, CV development, and communicating the impact of research to lay audiences.

“This is an area where the department has a real and urgent need. There are about 30 MA and eight PhD students in the department. They will benefit from intensive training and mentoring on research methods and project writing,” wrote G.G. Darah in the Carnegie proposal.

Otiono announced a new prize for the best final-year thesis on globalization and popular culture in Africa.

As part of the ADF proposal, Otiono hoped to engage colleagues from DELSU’s departments of Mass Communications and English to launch an interdisciplinary graduate course, Globalization and Popular Culture in Africa. The nascent course relies on international video clips and films to introduce students to major themes within the myriad African cultures. Although the plan is still on course, Otiono gave a well-received lecture that addressed social media and youth culture at a colloquium in DELSU. To further encourage interest in the field, Otiono announced a new prize for the best final-year thesis on globalization and popular culture in Africa.

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The irony in studying African culture is two-fold. Carleton’s classrooms comprise both international and Canadian students from diverse backgrounds, many of whom have at least a passing familiarity with the diversity of African culture. They also benefit from the technology that brings African video and film into Canadian classrooms.

Conversely, Nigerian students’ knowledge of African culture is naturally rooted in their own local experience. They do not have the same level of exposure to international students and their view on the world is limited by technology.

Internet access in Nigerian classrooms is hampered by a lack of equipment and compounded by rolling blackouts. It was in anticipation of these types of challenges that Otiono packed his suitcases with technology. Even with foresight and preparation the equipment was only as helpful as the electricity supply was available.

To compensate for challenges like these Nigerian students rely on their cell phones for internet access which makes downloading and viewing the videos and films depicting major currents in African culture that much more difficult.

It forces one to be more creative and to reach deeper and deeper into yourself.

“It forces one to be more creative and to reach deeper and deeper into yourself,” said Otiono. In the interim, the course remains a work-in-progress due to technology challenges. Nevertheless, the collaboration with DELSU’s faculty and staff has resulted in Otiono’s inclusion as an honorary faculty member. He has been adopted as an advisor by some of the university’s PhD students who hope to benefit from his expertise and possibly have the opportunity of becoming Visiting Scholars to Carleton University.

Having committed time to nurturing a creative writing circle in DELSU’s department of English, Otiono is now planning a special edition of Nokoko, IAS’ open-access journal that would include contributions from DELSU’s scholars.

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The excitement generated by the fellowship and the feedback he received has galvanized Otiono to do more. One of the initiatives he is undertaking is a call to his colleagues at Carleton to donate books and materials to DELSU. The Chair of DELSU’s Department of English, Dr. Sunny Awhefeada, will underwrite the cost of shipping the collected works to the university.

A former journalist, Otiono left Nigeria in 2006 to pursue his PhD at the University of Alberta. After winning a Banting Postdoctoral Fellowship to Carleton University, he became, in 2013, the first tenure-track hire for the university’s Institute of African Studies. His research interests include “street stories”, a term he coined to describe popular urban narratives constructed by ordinary people to talk back to power elites. Street stories are expressed through urban legends, rumours, graffiti, and Hip Hop among others.

Otiono is a poet and writer whose work includes The Night Hides with a KnifeVoices in the Rainbow, and Love in a Time of Nightmares.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016 in ,
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