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University Gazette

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

A journey from Kenya to Canada to Carolina

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Few people can point to the exact moment that changed their life, but Eunice Sahle can.

She was in fifth grade and had just raced home to show off the A she received on her English composition. That A, she told her mother, made her believe she just might be smart enough to become a teacher or a writer.

“It has already been done,” said her mother, who proceeded to tell her about a brilliant girl from a respected Anglican family who had become the first African girl from Kenya to be admitted to the renowned Limuru Girls National School. The school was modeled after the elite public schools of Great Britain and for years had been a white-only institution.

“If you want to continue showing us how smart you are, you have to become like her,” Sahle’s mother said.

For years, the other girl, Micere Githae Mugo, came to live in Sahle’s imagination – until 1991 when they finally met in Canada where Sahle was a student at the University of Toronto.

By then, Mugo was a renowned author, poet and university professor who was in Toronto to give a public lecture and to be a guest on a community call-in radio show. Sahle called in with a question, and later that day attended Mugo’s lecture, then walked up afterward to meet her.

But it was as if they had already met, Sahle said. “She reached out to hug me and said, ‘You are Eunice and you called in this morning.’”

Since that day 22 years ago, the two women have continued to reach out to each other. “I haven’t made a major decision without first talking to her,” Sahle said. “She is my inspiration and big sister.”

Now associate professor and chair of Carolina’s Department of African, African American and Diaspora Studies, Sahle did eventually become a teacher and a writer.

“In one of my books, I thank her for showing me the power of ideas and getting me to imagine – to actually dream – of a life of the mind,” she said.

A passion for free inquiry

Sahle and Mugo had many things in common. They both came from similar traditions in central Kenya and had families who were passionate about education.

Sahle was born during a period of turmoil and transition in Kenya, near the end of what became known as the Mau Mau Rebellion, a bloody military conflict from 1952 to 1960 that effectively ended British rule (Kenya had been a British colonial protectorate from the 1800s and a British Crown colony from the 1920s).

Sahle’s father worked for the government in the capital of Nairobi both before and after independence. While not wealthy, he and his wife had property and therefore had the means to send their six children to boarding schools.

Some of her most powerful childhood memories were the discussions her parents, grandparents and family friends had about what Kenya was like in the 1940s and 1950s and the country’s struggle to win independence, which it finally gained in 1963.

As a teacher, Sahle tells her students that colonialism left an indelible mark and its effects continue to shape political and economic processes in Africa. The legacy of colonialism, which was complex and contradictory, still is debated around the world.

Following independence, Jomo Kenyatta became Kenya’s first elected president, but within a few years he assumed dictatorial powers by exploiting a colonial constitution that had changed little during the transition to independence. After his death in 1978, Kenyatta was replaced by Daniel arap Moi, who ruled the same way until he was finally ousted in 2002.

For anyone who loved ideas, Kenya became a bleak landscape during those years, Sahle said. Leaders banned books they considered subversive. Some writers, professors and students were detained without trial and killed. Others, such as Mugo, were forced into exile.

“As they consolidated their power in the global context of the geopolitics of the Cold War, these dictators did whatever they could to control the flow of information and what could be taught in schools,” Sahle said. “They tried to control what Kenyans were permitted to think. They tried to control even what we dreamt about.”

Nonetheless, Kenyans did not give up on their dreams for democracy, Sahle said, and in 2010 Kenya ratified its first democratic constitution.

Coming from such a history, she said, “shaped my passion for free inquiry and my love of the university.”

No simple truths

Sahle graduated with honors with a bachelor of arts in political science and international development, and stayed at the University of Toronto to earn her master’s degree in political science. She went to Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, for her doctoral degree, with concentrations in comparative politics, international relations, political economy and women in politics.

She would go on to become a recognized expert on the political and economic development of Africa, but in her early years at Carolina, she felt lost and out of place – until a walk down Franklin Street made all the difference.

“I’m walking down the street and I see this church with windows of stained glass, and I realized it was an Anglican church. The chapel’s architecture was so familiar and so immediate. From that moment on, Chapel Hill started feeling like home,” she said.

Since that day, she has gone to the Chapel of the Cross almost daily to sit and meditate.

“The Anglican tradition, with its emphasis on reason and its architecture, means a great deal to me,” Sahle said. “Maybe that is why on the days I miss, I feel as if something is not quite right.”

At Carolina, she teaches about political-economic processes and human rights in Africa in the context of a globalizing world. Her students’ endless curiosity and idealism keep her on her toes and are a major reason she has chosen to stay at Carolina, she said.

Sahle feels obligated to teach them to question and to distrust easy answers.

“Anyone who has come of age under an authoritarian regime learns to be very skeptical of any sort of simple truth out there,” she said. “So if somebody comes to me and says that any dominant modern political ‘ism,’ as we call them in political science (liberalism, conservatism and Marxism being the dominant ones), is the only truth to solving world problems, I challenge them.

“Overall, I am wary of any ideology that represents itself as the only truth and that is not open to analytical interrogation. At heart, I am a social scientist. I deal with facts and I am interested in critical inquiry.

“If new facts and approaches emerge, I reevaluate my own thinking, and I want my students to be open enough and rigorous enough to do the same.”

Giving back

In fall 2011, when Sahle was first asked to serve as department chair, her impulse, she readily admits, was to run for the door.

After hesitating for weeks, she finally took the job beginning Jan. 1, 2012, because of her respect for her colleagues. “I admire them a lot – their sense of commitment to the institution and their commitment to the students,” she said.

She also has been reluctant to accept credit for her steady leadership, which was noted in the citation for her 2013 C. Knox Massey Distinguished Service Award.

“One of the many lessons my colleagues and I have learned during this period is how strong we are,” Sahle said. “Our goal has been to focus on our mission. No matter what is going on in a given day, our focus has been on showing up and doing our work.

“We have obligations to the students, and we have obligations to the University, and we have obligations to the citizens of this state who foot the bill. We have to be the best teachers we can. We have to conduct the best research we can and provide service to this state and other parts of the world, given the transnational nature of our teaching and research interests.”

The faculty also have fulfilled another obligation: to take care of and support each other.

“I will always look at this period as, yes, a very tough time, but also a period of renewal and excitement because we are getting to re-imagine our department in a way that we have always wanted to do,” Sahle said (see go.unc.edu/r4W7H).

“If I can be a part of that, that’s enough for me.”