Women’s & Gender Studies prof Philomina Okeke-Ihejirika believes gender informs everything we do. But in Africa, where she was born, gender inequality remains a complex, all-encompassing issue.
“In Africa,” she says, “women produce 60% of the food, they manage the household, they do cultural education. There are so many things that have an impact on how your gender mediates your everyday life. You can’t axe them out of issues.”
Earlier this year, she was thrilled to receive the 2015 Carnegie African Diaspora Fellowship (CADFP), which funds projects that facilitate transformations within the African higher education system. She knew she wanted to use it to help produce curricular materials and research networks, but she also knew she had a golden opportunity help influence gender roles.
As so, she spent six weeks this last summer in Akure, Nigeria working on a project at the Federal University of Technology (FUTA). Okeke-Ihejirika used her fellowship as an opportunity to share her experiences as a Nigeria-born, Canadian scholar with international colleagues and students at FUTA – a research university where cross-disciplinary collaboration between the arts, sciences and technology is common.
“FUTA works with the public and private sector, so you’ll find many businesses buying into, and funding, their initiatives,” says Okeke-Ihejirika. The Centre for Gender Issues in Science and Technology, where I was stationed, runs programs like educating the youth on HIV and AIDS, but they also have professional groups like the Association of Women Bankers introducing microfinance to women and students. It all leads to the empowerment of human beings, particularly women.”
“The 21st century will be a very exciting time in Africa, and I want to be a part of it.”
As part of her project, Okeke-Ihejirika examined the materials used in General Studies programs – the basic liberal studies curriculum taken by most students at African universities. “In pre-colonial Africa, the period of colonization and capitalist expansion, the era of globalization and transnationalism: all of these eras in African history have very serious questions about gender,” she says. “I looked at curriculum materials that could be placed in General Studies to enable students to discuss these issues, wrestle with them and raise questions.”
According to Okeke-Ihejirika, students also need to know that research is becoming a communal endeavour, moving away from individual efforts towards cross-continental, transnational teams. “The diaspora has a huge role to play because you’re basically straddling two cultures – you have one foot in the west, and one foot, well … I have a lot of feet in Africa!” she laughs. “You can see from both sides. You can share knowledge. There’s so much to do. For a scholar, to do something you know very well, to find meaning in it, it’s exhilarating. The 21st century will be a very exciting time in Africa, and I want to be a part of it.”