September 08, 2011 | Phil de Haan

Since she came to Calvin a decade ago, Amy Patterson has researched extensively in Africa. Last year she researched HIV support groups in Zambia as a Fulbright Scholar.

Calvin political science professor Amy Patterson, who has taught at Calvin since 2001, has spent a sizeable part of her Calvin career in Africa. In 2007, Patterson researched with a student in Zambia through the McGregor Summer Research program. In 2008, she led Calvin’s Semester in Ghana. And from February through July, 2011, she was again in Zambia studying on a Fulbright Scholarship. Patterson’s current research focuses on how HIV support groups in that country empower their members emotionally, socially and politically. In a recent interview, she shared about her work and reflected on how her off-campus experiences have benefited her teaching and scholarship.

What was your experience as a Fulbright Scholar in Zambia this year?

After my research in Zambia in 2007 and my work in Ghana in 2008, I knew that I wanted to spend a longer period of time in Africa. The Fulbright allowed me to conduct research for six months and provided a generous allowance for travel, living and research expenses. It also provided these benefits for my family, and it paid for my daughters to attend an international school where, as Americans, they were a small minority, and they made friends from around the world. My entire family benefited from the experience.

My research examined support groups for people living with HIV. I compared three types of groups: those affiliated with the Network of Zambian People Living with HIV; those linked to churches; and those which had been established by AIDS treatment clinics. I conducted focus group interviews with support groups for people living with HIV and AIDS, and I interviewed group leaders, NGO officials, AIDS clinic staff members, HIV-positive individuals, pastors and donor officials.

What did you learn?

First, support groups provide crucial health information to their members, as well as needed social, spiritual and psychological support. But few are involved in community advocacy on HIV/AIDS or other poverty-related issues. Second, one of the biggest challenges of support groups is income-generation; members (who are predominantly poor) join groups in the hopes of gaining materially (through group loans, group projects, sometimes even employment). When this expectation is not met, some group members leave. Third, support groups face typical “collective action” problems: members don't always participate, and leaders aren't always accountable. These problems are compounded by the fact that the poor urban citizens in these groups often are very transient. Finally, I never studied a support group composed of HIV-positive professionals and highly educated people—although there are HIV-positive individuals in those sectors of society. Stigma against AIDS remains quite high, most particularly among educated Zambians.

How is U.S. aid making a difference in Zambia?

Primarily because of U.S. aid, roughly 70 percent of HIV-positive Zambians who need anti-retroviral treatment (ARVs) can access those medicines for free. This medication has meant that millions of Zambians can now work, take care of their children, marry and go on about their lives. I heard numerous stories (more than I can count) of people who were thin, bedridden and about to die who became healthy once they acquired the drugs. They would always say: “Now look at me! I am fit, and I am looking fine!”  This accomplishment should never be discounted. On the other hand, U.S. aid programs now face the challenge of how to provide real development to the country so that those healthy individuals can no longer live in poverty.

What will some of the outcomes of your work in Zambia be?

I wrote a summary report of my findings for the Zambian organizations that I worked with while there. I currently am working on academic articles for a special issue of Canadian Journal of African Studies and Contemporary Politics. I plan to participate in a U.N. AIDS-sponsored panel on politics and HIV/AIDS at the 2012 International AIDS conference.

What keeps drawing you to Africa, and do you plan to go back?

Africa is very special to me. My first exposure to the continent was after college, when I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Senegal. My husband, Neil, was too, and that is where we met. Africans have taught me about dignity, respect, humanity, patience and compassion. I am continuously amazed that Africans remain eternally hopeful, upbeat and proud, even though the continent faces large problems. I am inspired by the people I interview, who care for sick children, demand that governments provide better health care and live and work while HIV-positive. I think Africa has much to teach us about kindness, generosity and humility. Because these are lessons I want my children to learn, I also take them to Africa when I can. I do plan to return at some point, though I have no definitive plans at this point. My children are already scheming about how “Mom should get another Fulbright” so they can return to Zambia!

What are the benefits of teaching and researching off-campus?

As a scholar, my research agenda focuses on African politics and society, specifically HIV and AIDS and the political questions that surround the disease. My field work has led to numerous academic publications and it has opened scholarly opportunities to me.

How does your off-campus research benefit your students at Calvin?

I believe my time away benefits my students in three ways. First, I teach classes at Calvin that directly pertain to the subjects I research: international development, African politics and international relations. I am able to incorporate my research into these courses, and my ability to share “real life” stories from my fieldwork makes the topics of health, governance and poverty come alive. Second, I have directly incorporated students into my research agenda, including taking research assistants to Zambia and Uganda. Third, I want to model to Calvin students that as Christians, we are called to engage the world and its very pertinent issues, including underdevelopment, inequality and HIV/AIDS.

What do you like about mentoring Calvin students, and why is it important that they have a global perspective?

I enjoy mentoring students immensely because they help me learn! They raise new questions, and they bring fresh perspectives to issues that might be “stale” to me. Through mentoring endeavors, like the Model U.N., semesters abroad or the McGregor Program, I see gifts and talents in my students that aren't always evident in the classroom: their cleverness, their public speaking ability, their talents in negotiations and their fortitude when they might be tired. Plus their energy keeps me young!

It is imperative that our students have a global perspective on life. As we currently see with the economic problems in Europe and the U.S., events in one country affect what happens in another country. Through greater understanding of the political, economic and cultural systems of other places, we can better comprehend such issues. Plus, I believe that God calls us to learn about his rich, diverse world, and that includes poor, HIV-positive people in the landlocked African country of Zambia!

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