The people of the Azawak region of Niger often say “Amman imman, ar issudarr” — Tamachek for “Water is life, milk is hope” — in the hopes that sustenance may one day come to the drought-ridden region. Starting this week, students partaking in Yale’s first-ever Africa Week will be helping in this effort, while also learning about African culture and examining the University’s relationship with the continent.

Africa Week, coordinated by Yale Undergraduate Students for UNICEF and the Yale African Students Association, or YASA, kicked off Saturday with a benefit concert and fashion show. The rest of the week will feature an all-day film festival, a cafe session with Nigerian author Chimamanda Adichie GRD ’08, a faculty roundtable discussion on Africa’s role in various academic disciplines and an open forum discussion on Africa’s presence on Yale’s campus. Yale students can also partake in a benefit dinner and a “Safari” dance party, whose proceeds will benefit the Amman Imman program, established by Ariane Kirtley ’01 MPH ’04 in February 2005.

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The Amman Imman program aims to fund the construction of wells in a Nigerien region about the size of Florida that is lacking any sort of irrigation system or health service infrastructure. The area in Niger, which is the world’s poorest country, also lacks humanitarian assistance and help from non-governmental organizations because agencies are afraid of endangering their workers in such an arid climate.

According to Alice Lin ’09, the vice president of education for Yale Undergraduate Students for UNICEF, the idea for Africa Week was formed when Kirtley told them about Amman Imman.

“[Kirtley] took it upon herself after visiting the Azawak region on a Fulbright scholarship to create the program, and we were brainstorming for ways to help Ariane because none of the major NGOs will fund her because she’s not yet credible,” Lin said. “This week only happened after we talked to Ariane.”

Kirtley’s photos from her Fulbright trip will be displayed this week in the MacMillan Center for International and Area Studies. She said her bright pictures of smiling children and placid adults do not reflect the acuity of the region’s suffering because she wanted to emphasize the Azawak valley’s vibrant culture.

Kristine Berzins ’08, president of Yale Undergraduate Students for UNICEF, said Africa Week’s message is similarly culture-affirming.

“Even though we’re benefiting a cause that is a problem in Africa, in an area that really needs attention, so much attention is already put on the sort of sad, ill, problematic parts of Africa,” she said. “We want the benefit concert and the dance also on Saturday just to be a time to embrace African culture.”

For YASA public relations coordinator Ruth Botsio ’09, the week serves as an opportunity for students to recognize the value of African culture, understand its presence in Yale academia and student life and from there use the week as a launching pad to improve African studies and culture at Yale.

“I think everybody knows Africa has issues, Africa needs this, Africa needs that,” she said. “But now we want to shift the focus a little bit to asking, ‘How is Africa important, and what is Africa’s potential? How can we tap into that potential in a positive way?’”

According to YASA members, much can be done to improve the University’s engagement with Africa. The week seeks to bring together and provide networking opportunities for graduate students interested in African causes.

Botsio said she hopes the discussion panels and examinations of Yale’s relationships with Africa will inspire the University to provide more native African professors, as well as more travel opportunities and language study resources.

“Perhaps we should look to attracting professors who are actually from Africa,” Botsio said. “We have wonderful professors here who have lived and studied in Africa for a long time, but it gives a different twist to it when people come from the areas they are talking about.”

William Foltz GRD ’63, emeritus professor of African studies and political science, said the University has come a long way since the early days of interest in Africa in the 1950s. He attributes the improvements in the African studies and language programs to the admissions office, which he said has admitted a larger number of students of immediate African descent, whether intentionally or not.

Foltz said that while Yale’s emphasis on African studies is strong, he hopes that initiatives like Africa Week will allow the program at Yale to expand.

“By and large, we do African pretty well,” Foltz said. “We’d like to get some recognition of that and to get a student interest that pushes the faculty to do more and provide more courses.”

Though this week’s activities are nominally coordinated by Yale Undergraduate Students for UNICEF and YASA, students from both organizations hope to involve other student groups in the future. Berzins explained that because of Kirtley’s urgent deadline for building two wells by December, planning for Africa Week occurred quickly, making it difficult to involve other organizations and to solicit celebrity speakers.

“We’d like to expand in the future, to get [Students Taking Action Now: Darfur] involved, and the African-American associations as well,” Berzins said. “There are so many organizations that we could tap into, if we had had more time.”

High on Berzins’ list of desired celebrity speakers is Mia Farrow, a UNICEF goodwill ambassador who spoke at Yale a few weeks ago about the Darfur genocide.