Jasmine Shirey '18 takes a critical look at common narratives about Africa

At a party a few weeks after Jasmine Shirey ’18 arrived in Zimbabwe, someone asked if she had come to Africa to save it or exploit it. The question hit on a topic of primary interest to Shirey: the common narratives around the relationship between the United States and Africa.

Shirey, who studied literature and neuroscience at CMC, began working with the Forum for African Women Educationalists (FAWEZI) as an intern in 2016. She continued her work with help from the Napier Fellowship, Davis Projects for Peace, and as the first recipient of the Mgrublian Center’s Elbaz Family Post-Graduate Fellowship.

Founded in 1992 by five women who were former ministers of education in African countries, FAWEZI is a non-profit that promotes girls’ and women’s education. Shirey, a member of its team in Zimbabwe, has worked on a wide range of projects: among them, helping students build a weather station and bringing students back to school who had left because their families couldn’t afford the fees.

As part of the Elbaz Fellowship—endowed by the family of Elyssa Elbaz ’94, a member of the Board of Trustees—Shirey returned to campus to speak at the Marian Miner Cook Athenaeum. Noting that the Ath’s programming was “a major reason” she had attended CMC, Shirey reported on her work with FAWEZI and explored the overarching topic of “Working Abroad vs Working in Africa: Countering Narratives of Employment as Aid.”

The stories Americans hear about Africa tend to focus on generosity to a continent in need, said Shirey. It is also common for the media to refer to Africa as a single, uniform entity rather than a complex continent of 54 countries, about 2,000 languages, and widely varying climates, Shirey said. Some of the more limited narratives for Shirey are those surrounding U.S. citizens working in Africa.

Shirey said it was crucial for Americans to recognize that much of what they hear about African countries lacks context. “We need to constantly question why we are hearing some stories and not others,” said Shirey, who hopes to continue her work with FAWEZI.

- By Susan Price

Photo by Nezihe Atun '20