Chiké Frankie Edozien became director of NYU Accra in January 2020. Edozien is a journalist who honed his skills writing about government, health and cultural issues for a variety of publications, and is the author of the 2017 book Lives of Great Men, a Lambda Literary Award winner. He is also a clinical professor at NYU’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute, and directed the CAS Reporting Africa Summer Study Away program from 2008 to 2019.
Prof. Edozien met with us virtually to share his motivations for taking on the NYU Accra director role, the site’s recent initiatives, and what NYU Accra has to offer Gallatin students. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Conor Brady: Could you share a little bit about what motivated you to take on the NYU Accra Site Director role?
Chiké Frankie Edozien: I’ve always felt that the global academic center in Accra, is a bit of a hidden gem. People discover it when they come here and they have an amazing time, but I’ve always felt that not enough of our students and even not enough of our departments realize how much they could get done here, and how enriching a semester in Ghana could be to the work that they’re doing. This is the only site that we have in Sub-Saharan Africa, and there is a lot that this continent has to offer to researchers and scholars.
I remember as an undergraduate student going to study abroad in Paris and, for me, that was a turning point in my career, because it made me so interested in all things African because when I was in Paris, of course I studied French literature and French history, but I was fascinated with the immigrant communities in Paris, that were sort of missed by most people, and so you had to go to the further away arrondissements to find people that were black or arab, and you know they weren’t in the Paris, that is being sold to you when you get there. And I found those communities so very interesting that then I have had an interest in writing and reporting about immigrant communities in other places ever since.
And so for me, the driving force for being the director here in Ghana, is how can I get NYU students, to not just do what’s expected of them but to really take a chance and come to Ghana and study here and maybe that will be a turning point in their career. And of course,the nice thing with NYU, is that it isn’t that big of a chance, because the academic center is here. We curate experiences; we have connections; we help students get internships; we stay on top of things. And this is really a great opportunity if you’re an undergrad to make what might seem like a big leap, but maybe could be a real turning point in how they see their careers going forward.
CB: Of course then, shortly after you assumed the directorship, the pandemic hit. What has the experience of being site director and living in Accra been like for you thus far?
CFE: Sure, so shortly after spring break, there was the first case in Ghana and very soon we had to close and send the students back. Of course helping the students leave was a challenge, both emotionally, and logistically, and then the next challenge came after they were home.
Okay fine everyone got home but classes have to go on. So we pivoted to zoom, not just to offer classes, but to try to maintain the community that they had built. We wanted to offer them experiences. We couldn’t do trips, we certainly couldn’t do anything because they were at home, but we were able to send them videos of things, we were able to continue with our newsletters, we were able to provide the ability for them to know that they are still part of NYU Accra this semester.
We have a film class here called Documenting the African City. We were able to get all the students in that class and all the other students who weren’t in the class to come together in a big virtual group and watch all of the things that the students had produced. It was part of my mission to continue to give them community, even though they weren’t here anymore. And I think we succeeded with that.
CB: And what have the last few semesters been like?
CFE: Sure, so over the summer and into the fall of 2020 the borders were shut and the government in Ghana had a mandatory lockdown so you really couldn’t leave your house, unless you were going grocery shopping. Outside of providing training for our faculty on how to offer classes on zoom we had to provide them the ability to do that from home and so we got them temporary modems so that they would not be an Internet issue. And we were able to do that and make sure that there was at least for the Accra site there’s no interruption in classes while there was a lockdown.
Once the lockdown was over, borders were still closed, but we could go back to work, it became a job of making sure that everyone among us was safe. We instituted masking, sanitization, disinfection and social distancing policies, and we found different ways to be able to make sure that we were able to keep the site running, even though there were no students here. And what that did for us was it allowed us to be confident that when students returned this past August, we would be able to take care of them and take care of them well.
CB: So obviously you’re very busy as site director. Are you still finding time to write at all?
CFE: Yes, I am. I’m one of those people that has to multitask because I always have. So I am in the middle of new work, there’s going to be a new book, there’s going to be new chapters in other people’s anthologies. I’m very hopeful that people will see that new work in 2022 at some point. That is my hope anyway. But yes, there are new books coming.
CB: I know that NYU Accra does some great public programming. Could you talk a little bit about Labone Dialogues?
CFE: I wanted to engage the Accra community in different ways that allows our students to learn better, but also allows the community to know what we’re doing behind our walls. So one of the first things I did as director was to start Labone Dialogues. (Labone is the community where NYU Accra is based.)
There was a very famous Ghanaian musician called Kofi Ghanaba. He was a huge presence in his life and then all of a sudden, he died, and it was almost as if no one had talked about him. Right before I moved to Accra, I was talking with colleagues at the Center for the Study of Africa and the African Diaspora (CSAAD) at NYU, and I found out that, oh, by the way, one of their professors has this man’s archives, and I said, “Well, could I please have it?” Not for me, but I wanted it in Ghana, where it belongs.
So for the first Labone Dialogues, we invited Dean Awam Amkpa to come to Ghana, because he knew Kofi Ghanaba personally, and then we invited some of the other people that worked with Kofi Ghanaba in Ghana, and we had this sort of masterclass about local production of knowledge, and about how we can help people in Ghana collect and preserve material that belongs to them. We also made copies of the archives, and we sent them to the University of Ghana music department, and we kept a copy here for anyone who wants to study his work.
That was our first Labone Dialogues, and we got such a positive response from the community around us, that we decided to build on that with more events. For example, we had the great Ghanian writer, Ama Ata Aidoo, who was no longer doing public events, come to an event at NYU Accra that was open to the public. Then the pandemic happened and we weren’t able to do the same kinds of events, but we continued, and realized that we could reach a whole new audience through the live stream.
And so, we continue to have these master classes, we continue to bring people in to have conversations as a service to our community, and every time it gets a little bit better than the last time. It’s become quite a wonderful thing that we’re doing here and we’re very proud of it.
We have an amazing Ethiopian-American writer, Maaza Mengiste, coming from New York on December 9, to talk about women and archiving, and the loss of stories. So please join us on the live stream.
CB: As study away becomes more possible again, why should Gallatin students consider spending a semester at NYU Accra?
CFE: Here in Ghana, we have a lot for Gallatin students. Almost every student that we have here does an internship. And the internship program has been life changing for many students because they’re doing real work, they’re having substantial conversations and doing substantial work, so for Gallatin students who are eager to make a difference, just by being here, they would be able to have real time results in the work they’re doing.
So that’s one of the reasons why I think a Gallatin student would enjoy their time here. The other is the research component. People here want to talk to you, and they’re happy when you go and ask them questions. You can engage them in the ministries, you can engage them in the private sector. Sometimes in New York it’s a little bit difficult to get a certain level of person to answer your questions. Even if you’re in the media, you may get a spokesperson to answer your questions, but you don’t always have access to people. In Ghana, people are very, very happy to talk to students, journalists, researchers from the outside world and so there is little barrier to actually getting to the meat of the matter. So it’s an excellent place to have work experience, and it’s also an excellent place to do research.
But we also have a plethora of courses here. Right now is the fall season and so at this time of year it’s culture season in this area so there’s lots of things to do with theater and music and fashion. As a result of that we have an arts and media cluster of courses that are quite wonderful. We have a recorded music course that is just incredible, we have a film course, we have creative writing, and in our arts course there’s a bit of journalism.
Global Public Health is a big thing for us as well, we have access to clinics and hospitals and pharmacies and people who are interested in that stuff. We also have very good business courses and anthropology courses. So there is a lot that’s going on here for any kind of student but Gallatin students, in particular, whose interests run the gamut, they will find something that works for them here in Accra.
CB: If a student is interested in Accra and is excited to study away there in the future. Is there anything you’d recommend that they do in advance? Any courses they should take, or books they should read?
CFE: I would ask them to read a couple of books because that is always a window to a society. I always say that if you really want to know a society, read its writers, you know read some of the things that people are producing and not necessarily the classic stuff. Read the contemporary stuff.
One book that I’d recommend is The Hundred Wells of Salaga by Ayesha Harruna Attah. It is an incredible book about the history of Ghana’s internal slavery. We have a thing here at the site called book cafe, and this semester we’re talking about that book and it has been very helpful for students to understand a lot of the cultural context of what’s going on around them.
There is another book that’s coming out November 11, called the Teller of Secrets by Bisi Adjapon. It’s a novel about girls growing up here and the challenges of women in this society. Lastly, there is a nonfiction book called Black Gold of the Sun. It’s a memoir about somebody who left Ghana at a very young age, and then returns as an adult and the collision of the country he remembers as a kid and what he finds when he gets here. It’s an interesting read, and I think it helps students who are coming here for the first time and understanding the Ghana, they had in their mind or the Africa they had in their mind and getting culture shock by the reality of what they find here, so those kinds of contemporary works are the things that I would recommend people read before coming.
CB: Is there anything else you wanted to share with the Gallatin community?
CFE: Just that Accra is open and ready for Gallatin to come and plant their flag here. We are ready for the Gallatin community to really stake their claim in Accra. To realize that this place is one of our global centers that is well suited for them so that people can come consistently and include Accra in their plans, because it’s a wonderful place for Gallatin students. I would like for Gallatin to really come and claim their share of NYU Accra and your professors and your students to come and do their research here, and come and do their studies here, year in, year out.
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