Yale Daily News

The Yale Divinity School is a part of the University’s recent efforts to expand involvement and research in Africa, as the Africa Initiative is seen as one of the main efforts of the University’s global strategy plan developed in 2017.

The University’s Africa Initiative, founded in 2013, has expanded to include research from numerous schools across the University and increased ties across the continent with countries such as Nigeria, Ghana, Sudan, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Uganda and South Africa. Most recently, the Divinity School has joined in this effort to continue strengthening ties with Africa, in the midst of its search for a faculty member to focus on African Christianity. 

“The theology coming out of the global South is the center of world Christianity and therefore central Christianity full stop,” said Chloe Starr, professor of Asian Christianity and theology and faculty coordinator for the World Christianity program. “Our courses in the Western world in general haven’t caught up with the new centers of Christianity in the global South, whether that’s Southeast Asia, East Asia, Latin America or African Christianity.” 

Yale Divinity School Dean Gregory Sterling told the News that the school is “keenly interested” in Africa due to the rise of Christianity throughout the entire continent. He added that estimates project that by 2060, four out of every ten Christians in the world will live in Sub-Saharan Africa. 

“Christianity is simply booming in Africa,” Sterling said. “It’s almost unbelievable.” 

Starr told the News that Christianity in Africa pre-dated colonialism, but the introduction of the Protestant mission in sub-Saharan Africa in the late 19th century was tied to the Western colonial presence in the continent in various ways. She told the News that in 2015, 26 percent of all Christians lived in Sub-Saharan Africa, so she believes it is “imperative” to take greater account of the history and contemporary perspectives of the African church in modifying courses and syllabuses. 

Sterling added that the Divinity School already has ties with the University of Ghana, recently helping to fund the Sanneh Institute at the University of Ghana. 

According to Sterling, the institute’s namesake, the late professor of missions and world Christianity Lamin Sanneh, grew up Muslim in Gambia but converted to Christianity later in life after living in England. The institute is designed to bring Christian and Muslim scholars together. It is led by John Azumah, a presidential visiting fellow at Yale and a visiting professor at the Divinity School, and the institute’s interfaith efforts relate to the Divinity Schools’ strategic plan focused on “bridging faith traditions.” 

Sterling said he has offered to give scholarships to top master’s students at the University of Ghana so they can attend the Yale Divinity School. He explained that many of these efforts were put on hold due to the pandemic, including the search for a faculty member to replace Sanneh. 

The Divinity School is still searching for Sanneh’s replacement to focus on African Christianity in the World Christianity program. The program is a concentration option at the Divinity School, where students can focus on Latin American, African, East Asian and Southeast Asian religious studies. 

Starr told the News the new faculty member does not have to be African, though the three shortlisted candidates are all from Sub-Saharan Africa. She said that part of the new role will be to increase the links and integration with Africa in order to increase knowledge about the global South more broadly. Starr added that she is excited for an expanded focus on African Christianity since it overlaps with her interests in Chinese Christianity due to China “investing heavily” in Africa with the One Belt One Road initiative that some have called “neo-colonialism.” 

“We don’t just need an Africanist, we need all of our courses in pastoral care and thinking in church history to be thinking more globally about other areas of the world and having a good Africanist colleague will obviously enable us to do more in that,” Starr said. 

In addition to the search for a faculty member, Sterling said that the Divinity School is looking to add exchange programs between Yale and African universities. According to Sterling, previous programs in Africa have been “a bit ad hoc,” and the development of new ones has been put on hold due to the pandemic. Starr said these programs could help enable African theological scholars to spend time in Yale’s libraries and build up the Divinity School community’s understanding of African Christianity. 

In addition, Sterling said the Divinity School is specifically looking to expand ties in Ghana, Kenya and South Africa, as well as to increase the number of African students at the Divinity School.

As the Divinity School looks to strengthen its ties in Africa, University leaders said the Africa Initiative, the University’s initiative to expand involvement in Africa that began in 2013, has seen broad success in the past few years. Since its founding, the Africa Initiative has involved faculty research across schools at the University and numerous faculty and administrator exchanges with African universities. The University continued expanding the initiative throughout the pandemic. 

With the current global strategy plan ending this year, both Vice President of Global Strategy Pericles Lewis and Dean of the Yale School of Public Health Sten Vermund said that the success of the Africa Initiative is one of the main strengths of the University’s current global strategy plan, published in 2019. 

Michael Cappello, professor of pediatrics, epidemiology and microbial pathogenesis at the Yale School of Medicine, clarified that there had been active partnerships between African universities and the School of Medicine since well before the Africa Initiative. He added that the Africa Initiative has so far consisted of University-wide encouragement and not financial support or direct advice, which did not impact the existing partnerships significantly. 

“The University made clear they were not looking to direct faculty to do particular things, but what they strongly encouraged faculty to do when they engaged in projects in Africa, that they engage in an equitable partnership model,” Cappello said. “Frankly, that was already happening. I don’t think it took a presidential or University-wide initiative to do that.” 

Cappello said that most relationships with the School of Medicine in Africa have stemmed out of individual faculty partnerships with other universities including the University of Ghana, University of Capetown and Makerere University in Uganda. 

Still, associate professor of English and member of the Council on African Studies Cajetan Iheka agreed with Vermund and Lewis that the Africa Initiative has been successful in supporting many new faculty-led initiatives across Africa. 

According to Iheka, there have been problems in the past within the field of African Studies in terms of how African people’s voices were not included in research and their research and work did not receive the same reception as white Americans’ work. He said the Africa Initiative at Yale is part of a broad effort to address this problem and is “at the forefront” of recruiting Africans to faculty positions and encouraging faculty members to collaborate with colleagues in Africa. 

“More and more, you find that in the past few decades, African scholars at Yale and elsewhere are doing more,” Iheka said. “They are appreciating the importance, the value, of having Africans — and not just having Africans, but listening to Africans telling their stories.” 

Looking to the future of the Africa Initiative, Iheka said he hopes to see more African presence on campus.

“Our colleagues across departments are doing fascinating work across the continent involving African collaborators,” Iheka said. “ I want to see more African presence and presence of African research at the University in the next phase of the Africa Initiative.”  

The Yale Africa Initiative was announced by University President Peter Salovey in 2013. 

Sarah Cook is one of the University editors. She previously covered student policy and affairs, along with President Salovey's cabinet. From Nashville, Tennessee, she is a junior in Grace Hopper majoring in Neuroscience.
William Porayouw covered Woodbridge Hall for the News and previously reported on international strategy at Yale. Originally from Redlands, California, he is an economics and global affairs major in Davenport College.