Institute offers promise of partnership

NAIROBI, Kenya – The official launch of The Africa Institute at The University of Western Ontario in Nairobi, Kenya on May 3 spoke not only to existing research strengths, but offered a promise for the future.

“We will create the pre-eminent organization of its kind globally,” says Ted Hewitt, Western’s vice-president (research and international relations). “With the Africa Institute, we break with tradition and look to develop a new model for collaborative research and training with partners across this great continent.”

As an additional promise, Hewitt announced Western will allocate one of its seven prestigious Trillium scholarships to a Kenyan graduate student working with an Africa Institute project.

To further support the initiative, the university will provide hands-on assistance for researchers applying for funding for training and research in the region, and will offer internal start-up funds for new institute projects.

Hewitt says this is already happening, citing an initiative led by kinesiology professor Darwin Semotiuk who has partnered with researchers at the University of Nairobi to study demographics at the recently held Pan-African games.

Semotiuk is not alone. There are currently more than 150 researchers, graduate students and postdoctoral fellows at Western working with partners across the continent. The university also holds collaborative agreements with nearly 20 institutions in Africa and has nine research centres working in the region.

“We see the institute as a space for dialogue and research between, with and for Africans,” says institute director Joanna Quinn, a political science professor at Western. “This work and focus enables us to offer our students an expanded array of educational experiences that prepare them for life as global citizens.”

Several African and Canadian partners spoke briefly about three ongoing research initiatives in East Africa.

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More than 50 guests heard about Quinn’s research, which furthers transitional justice efforts in Uganda, from biology professor Irena Creed about the ecosystem health program in Lake Naivasha, and from anatomy and cell biology professor David Cechetto about ongoing efforts to rebuild the health-care system in Rwanda.

Echoing the themes of collaboration and providing benefits for, with and by Africans that ran throughout the morning’s events, Creed described the initiative’s approach to work in the region, which encourages a culture of responsibility to the environment.

“To understand our vision of ecosystem health, one needs to stand on the edge of a community in crisis and listen to the voices of the community because they know first-hand the environmental issues and concerns they face,” she says.

“The academic community cannot solve these problems in isolation. Research doesn’t solve problems – people solve problems.”

Held at the University of Nairobi, the Africa Institute launch welcomed several representatives of Kenya’s Ministries of Foreign Affairs and Education, Canadian Sen. Mobina Jaffer and Canadian High Commissioner to Kenya, David Collins.

“Today, we witness the birth of a Canadian initiative that will play an important role in the internationalization of education in Kenya,” Collins says.

The promise Hewitt offered extends to Africa more broadly.

“We are committed to working together on issues and challenges facing both Africa and Canada,” he says. “That is the nature of our partnership: with Africans, for Africans, for the betterment of the planet.”