Chissano accepting the Ibrahim Prize (source: http://www.moibrahimfoundation.org)

Chissano accepting the Ibrahim Prize (source: http://www.moibrahimfoundation.org)

In the spring of 2008, Joachim Chissano, former president of the Republic of Mozambique, won the Ibrahim Award in recognition of his commitment to democracy. I wanted to visit Chissano and invite him to speak at our university. At the time, I had only a vague idea of what I wanted to ask him to do.

While I was elated with the inaugural lecture for FOCIS by Vicente Fox, something had been missing. It bothered me that the students did not become involved with the project until the former president arrived in Detroit. I had only taken a doctoral student with me to visit Fox in Mexico, but it would have been great for a group of students to have traveled there to learn more about our southern neighbor from its former president and to explore the immigration issue in more detail outside of the U.S. I wanted students to be more involved with Chissano. I wanted them to see more, to own the project, to immerse themselves in some aspect of the former president’s life and country, and to have access to Chissano over a longer period of time.

So my thinking began to jell. What did American students know about Africa? Not very much. What is Africa’s image? Probably they thought only of war, pestilence, tribalism, autocracy, genocide, non-democracy, etc. I had heard Chissano’s acceptance speech as the first recipient of the Ibrahim Award, and decided to propose that a group of students come to visit the former president at the Chissano Foundation to learn about democracy firsthand. Then Chissano would come to Wayne State University as a speaker in the lecture series by former heads of state, spending about a week on campus in various venues with students, faculty, and others.

My assistant, Michael Hicks, contacted the Chissano Foundation in Maputo, the capital of Mozambique, extending my invitation. A reply came that very afternoon welcoming such a discussion. In November of 2008, I visited Chissano at his Foundation in Maputo. We were joined by the Foundation’s executive director, Dr. Leonardo Simao, in the library. I appreciated Chissano’s graciousness in seeing me, particularly since he had just arrived home from Europe in the early morning before the meeting.

With Joaquim Chissano in Maputo

With Joaquim Chissano in Maputo

When I told them about my desire to bring American students to Mozambique, both men gave me a rather curious look. I realized that Americans rarely go to Mozambique. I learned later that Chissano could only vaguely recall one other group of American students, and he was unsure of the purpose of their visit. Simao, who had served as foreign minister in the Chissano administration, suggested rather matter-of-factly that I consider bringing students during the 2009 presidential election. Wow! This was precisely the kind of involvement I wanted for a group of students from my university. Obviously I was very excited and anxiously asked the date of the election. They told me that the date had not yet been determined, but it definitely would be in 2009.

I was amazed because “first Tuesday in November every four years” stuck in my mind. I had the naïve idea that all presidential elections were held on fixed dates, and learned that the American democracy was an exception. Regardless of the date, I wanted the students to witness in person democracy in this part of the world, which was relatively unknown to most of us. It would be the opportunity of a lifetime – so different that they should have a way to document their experiences, to extend them beyond the length of the trip. If they made a documentary, it could be a part of Chissano’s visit when he arrived on campus in September 2010.

Joaquim Chissano in his office in Maputo

Joaquim Chissano in his office in Maputo

The former president’s face grew serious as he wondered what the previous group of visiting American university students had accomplished during their time in Mozambique. It was a sobering thought, and I vowed that my students would be different. This project would have substance and meaning for them. I could not bear the idea that given this great opportunity, we would waste the time of the former president of the republic.

Two faculty colleagues and I set out to design a yearlong course called African Democracy Project Mozambique (ADPM). We enrolled a diverse group of 12 students and inaugurated the course in late August of 2009. At the end of this month we will depart on a 12-day trip to Mozambique, preceded by two days in Johannesburg, South Africa, loaded with a broader knowledge of Mozambique than they could have imagined just a few months ago. Imagine what they will experience and learn about democracy, Africa, America, each other, and themselves.

We need to think long and hard about how our students learn about the rest of the world, and how that learning can affect their places in the world. For most of us, Africa is remote – but it is not irrelevant. We are better persons over time because we relate to each other: family, friends, neighbors, and fellow citizens of our country and of the world. This is the lesson about our own democracy that I want our students to learn from the democracies of others.

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