Portraits

Eric Debrah Otchere

Happy research: Eric Debrah Otchere documents children singing and dancing at an elementary-school in Cape Coast as part of his research on the identity-forming function of West African music. In their songs many traditional elements are passed on. (Pictu
Happy research: Eric Debrah Otchere documents children singing and dancing at an elementary-school in Cape Coast as part of his research on the identity-forming function of West African music. In their songs many traditional elements are passed on. (Picture: Johannes Kühner for VolkswagenStiftung)

The fourth-grade pupils of an elementary school in the Ghanaian town of Cape Coast dance around in circles on their dusty playground, singing and clapping their hands. They know everything by heart, for there are no books; the lyrics and melodies are passed on by word of mouth. Eric Debrah Otchere and Florian Carl from the Department of Music at the University of Cape Coast are standing in the midst of the children, documenting their rhythmic chords with microphone and video camera.

Eric Debrah Otchere belongs to a group of twelve PhD and Master's students from Ghana and Nigeria who with funding from the Volkswagen Foundation are researching the different music genres in West Africa and their significance for African identity. "We are interested in how the traditional music lives on in society", says Florian Carl, coordinator of a project entitled "Formation and Transformation of Music Archives in West Africa".

The young researchers make tape and video recordings of singing children, of the music and dance rituals performed at funerals, and of the "Highlife Music" with its elements of jazz that originated in Ghana. They are also interested in the knowledge of music in the heads of the people and engage them in interviews, during which they ask musicians and their audiences about their impressions and what they know about gospel music, for instance. Florian Carl calls this knowledge the "the ideal archive", as opposed to the material stored in sound and film archives.

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Sylvanus Spencer

As silent observer at a political forum held at Fourah Bay College in Freetown: In the civil-war-torn country of Sierra Leone, Sylvanus Spencer is researching the role of freedom of expression for peace building and democratization. (Picture: Erik Zoellne
As silent observer at a political forum held at Fourah Bay College in Freetown: In the civil-war-torn country of Sierra Leone, Sylvanus Spencer is researching the role of freedom of expression for peace building and democratization. (Picture: Erik Zoellner for VolkswagenStiftung)

A single ventilator struggles against the heat in the lecture hall. Today, thankfully, the electricity is still working in Fourah Bay College, Freetown, Sierra Leone. Usually, though, there is a lack of almost everything. The university has no Internet connection, no landline telephones, and no academic library worth speaking of. "And when it's dark I have to work by the light of an oil lamp while my laptop already sleeps", relates Sylvanus Spencer. The country's miserable infrastructure is just one of the problems our postdoc history lecturer has to battle against. He also has to cope with the political and societal aftermath of the brutal civil war that ravaged the country not so long ago. Sylvanus Spencer is part of a project group working on "Travelling Models in Conflict Management", researching how concepts of democratization, especially the freedom of opinion and expression, can be disseminated in Sierra Leone and the opportunities they present for the resolution of conflict.

In the course of his work, Spencer often has to travel along dusty tracks to reach all corners of the land, taking stock of political life in all its different aspects. He interviews opinion makers, war veterans, civilians, and activists, asking what civil rights mean to them, why they work for freedom of opinion, and which strategies they adopt to reach their goals. The ambitious goal Spencer shares with his other African project partners is to develop proposals for coming to terms with diverse conflicts: the group comprises researchers from Ethiopia, Liberia, South Africa, Sudan and Chad.

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Lydia Olaka

What happens to the underground water flows from Lake Naivasha and how can they be utilized? Just two of the questions that environmental geologist Lydia Olaka and her colleagues have to discuss. Finding the right answers could lead to solving the water s
What happens to the underground water flows from Lake Naivasha and how can they be utilized? Just two of the questions that environmental geologist Lydia Olaka and her colleagues have to discuss. Finding the right answers could lead to solving the water supply problems in South West Kenya. (Picture: Philip Lisowski for VolkswagenStiftung)

It seldom rains in the region around Lake Naivasha in South West Kenya. But when it does, the rainfall transforms the otherwise arid region into swampland. "The local inhabitants have good reason to bemoan their lot", says Lydia Olaka. "When the rains come everything is flooded, but most of the time there is no rain at all, and then there is drought. That's why I decided to see if I could do something about it."

Lake Naivasha is the sole source of fresh water in the region. It is fed from the East by the rivers Malewa and Gigil, which run down from the Aberdare mountain range. The neighboring lakes, on the other hand, are strongly alkaline and their water is neither suitable for drinking nor irrigation.
The region around Lake Naivasha is home to the Massai; they live from farming and cattle breeding, and they need water for their animals and to irrigate the fertile fields. Until around 30 years ago, they had the whole area to themselves: now, though, there are just two open accesses to the water of the lake. The rest of the land area is taken up by the countless greenhouses that are dedicated to the cultivation of flowers for the European market. While the flower trade booms, the Massai have to take on a journey of an extra 50 kilometers to gain access to the precious resource.

In search of a solution, Lydia Olaka is carrying out research on subterranean sources of water. The water has no surface exit from the lake but there is reason to believe there must be a sizable flow of groundwater. "The question is: At what point does the water leave the lake and in which direction?" To find this out, our 33-year-old environmental geologist who was born in Kericho in West Kenya, is busy taking water samples.

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Ali Sié

Why is meningitis in the Sahel zone spreading faster than anywhere else in the world? Ali Sié is trying to find this out – also by analyzing the data stored in the archive of the research center. (Picture: Felix Schmitt for VolkswagenStiftung)
Why is meningitis in the Sahel zone spreading faster than anywhere else in the world? Ali Sié is trying to find this out – also by analyzing the data stored in the archive of the research center. (Picture: Felix Schmitt for VolkswagenStiftung)

Night falls in Nouna and the working day is finally over for Ali Sié. He pays a short visit to a popular restaurant, chats with some friends and relaxes a bit – before the start of the next long day's work in the "Centre de Recherche en Santé de Nouna", CRSN for short. Ali Sié is the center’s Director. Together with his colleagues he is fighting against the many infectious diseases that plague the poverty-stricken districts in Burkina Faso. Nouna is located right in the middle of the African meningitisbelt that runs along the border of the Sahel zone. There are more new infections from meningococci here than anywhere else in the world. Meningitis disease is sweeping across the whole region. The mechanisms behind its spread are still unknown: nor do scientists have an answer to the question why it should rage precisely here, or why recent years have seen a rise in the even deadlier meningitis caused by pneumococci.

Ali Sié, together with his team and partners from the University of Heidelberg, are working hard to find the answers. "We carry out research for our country's health – if you like, global health projects on a small scale." He draws a fine distinction between health research and research for health. The latter is his particular personal interest. "Health researchers like doctors or infection biologists are not able to solve this task alone. We have to work together with demographers, social scientists, and psychologists." Ali Sié is completely absorbed by his work. At 41 years of age he has been in office for five years already – he is a young director and one might mistake him for a careerist, if it were not for his warmth and sincerity, and his quick engaging humor.

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