Africa Week: U-M brings together leaders to discuss future of continent in the next decades

February 11, 2021
Written By:
Fernanda Pires

Rehearsal of the play Ruined. By John R. Diehl.Two weeks before the curtains of the Ethiopian National Theatre in Addis Ababa were about to open, COVID-19 struck the world and suspended all collective activities, including the anticipated premiere of “Ruined,” a play about the plight of women in the civil war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Lynn Nottage would be performed in Amharic, the official language of Ethiopia, for the first time. Zerihun Birehanu, an assistant professor at Addis Ababa University, translated the play’s script from English to one of the main dialects of Amharic during his time in the University of Michigan African Presidential Scholars Program.

“‘Ruined’ is about a very important historical moment in Africa,” Birehanu said. “U-M supported the translation project and also the production of the play. At the verge of opening the play, COVID hit us.”

Birehanu will discuss the project, using the play as a case study, exploring cross-cultural theater as social and political action, and will share his experience as a UMAPS scholar in one of the panels of U-M Africa Week, a five-day virtual conference Feb. 15-19.

Zerihun Birehanu. Belle Isle in Detroit during a UMAPS outing. Image credit: ASC

Zerihun Birehanu. Belle Isle in Detroit during a UMAPS outing. Image credit: ASC

The conference will bring together leaders in higher education, industry and government for a series of discussions on the key issues and opportunities that aim to help shape Africa in the coming decades.

“Africa Week is a unique opportunity for the U-M community and its partners in Africa to hear from key African leaders, connect with each other, as well as envision and strengthen our collaborations with Africa for the next decade,” said Valeria Bertacco, U-M vice provost for engaged learning.

“We hope that this global virtual conference will provide many opportunities to think and plan for the future, engaging in ways that enable high-impact, long-term multidisciplinary and collaborative projects with partners across the globe.”

Anita Gonzalez, associate dean at the U-M School of Music, Theatre and Dance, has been working closely with Birehanu and other African scholars, and will join the conversation.

“It’s important for all of the Global Programs to make sure that we keep connecting with our collaborators,” Gonzalez said. “Having this conference demonstrates that we can maintain these connections, whether we travel or not. It’s to keep the interest going in what can be done in Africa.”UMAPS

In late February 2020, Gonzalez was part of a cohort of binational theater historians who went to Addis Ababa University to investigate how differing approaches to historiography might best illuminate an evolving theater culture in Ethiopia.

For Gonzalez, learning about Ethiopian performing arts offers an opportunity to see what emerges within a model democracy in a culture whose prime minister won the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to achieve peace and international cooperation.

“The very uniqueness of the country and its history has led to isolation from mainstream discussions about the relevance of its cultural heritage within East African histories,” she said. “And Ethiopia can be a case study for how cultural productions work within a multilingual, multicultural African society which has maintained its independence for 2,000 years.”

Exact sciences

UMAPS alum Fitsum Andargie, an assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering at Addis Ababa University, also will be part of the conference. He will talk about the role of computing in Africa’s economic future.

Fitsum Andargie. ASC's 10th annivesary symposium in Mar/18. Image credit: ASC.

Fitsum Andargie. ASC’s 10th annivesary symposium in Mar/18. Image credit: ASC.

During his time as a UMAPS scholar, Andargie worked on a project to help accelerate object detection on smartphones using already available computing resources, in particular the graphics processing unit. “We were able to show that using this approach we could reduce the energy consumption of the object detection application making battery charge last longer.”

Besides his work on computing and technology at the U-M, Andargie said he learned how to be a better mentor for his students.

“Research requires perseverance and when you keep at it you are bound to make a breakthrough.” he said. “Brainstorming with others regularly advances one’s work significantly. This realization has helped me understand why many of our students had struggled to finish their research project. I have seen the benefit of giving attention to them regularly firsthand by the progress my students are making in their research.”

Brand new lab in Ghana

In December, another UMAPS alum reached one of her most desired academic goals. Priscilla Kolibea Mante, senior lecturer at the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology in Ghana, opened her own lab. She will share her journey at one of the Zoom reunions for UMAPS alumni.

Priscila Mante. Image credit: Personal Archive.

Priscila Mante. Image credit: Personal Archive.

Currently, Mante investigates isolated medicinal compounds from the Ghanaian flora for activity against drug-resistant epilepsy types. She wants to establish definitive biological markers in human body fluids that guide diagnosis and a pharmacological management of drug-resistant epilepsy in Ghanaian patients.

“Everything started when I was a visiting scholar at U-M,” she said. “I was interested in learning the ability to prevent seizures. I used cell biology and Ephys to investigate the potential of blocking sodium channels with this molecule.”

As a UMAPS scholar, Mante applied for and received her first research grant, in collaboration with Lori Isom, professor of pharmacology and molecular and integrative physiology.

Mante's lab. Image credit: Personal Archive

Mante’s lab. Image credit: Personal Archive.

“I not only learned how to apply for grants by working with Professor Isom, but the success of that grant boosted my confidence towards trying out for other grants,” she said. “After that first fund, I have gone on to win 10 more grants. Being at the U-M opened up my world to various possibilities and to the realization of the heights I could possibly build my career to.”

Isom said Mante is considered a life-long member of her lab and they look forward to continuing to collaborate with her and members of her new research group in Ghana.

“Simply stated, she is a superstar. She is beautiful—inside and out—and brilliant,” Isom said. “Priscilla (Mante) is so smart, but is not afraid to laugh, to have fun, to be joyful. She brought a unique perspective to our research program in terms of identifying novel, natural product small molecules to solve the intractability of epilepsy.”

Mante wants to keep advancing her research and also inspiring her students.

“The skills I picked up from the UMAPS’ program have helped to refine my research as well as my mentorship skills,” she said. “Now, I try to provide similar opportunities for younger people. It is my hope that I can help expose them to the possibilities in the research space at an early point in their education and help guide their paths.”


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