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Sweet Briar College professor to study in Botswana

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Posted: Monday, June 23, 2014 11:44 pm

Only 8 percent of those who apply for a summer stipend from the National Endowment for the Humanities get one.

This summer, Sweet Briar College professor of anthropology Deborah Durham, is one of those select few.

The grant affords her the opportunity to return to Botswana to further her research on cultural identity and youth. She will pair it with a Fulbright Scholar research grant — which she was awarded in May — to increase the amount of time she spends on the ground in Botswana.

For her project “The elusive idea of adulthood in Botswana,” Durham will return to the country which she first visited during a summer internship in 1986.

“I got off the plane and was greeted by a beautiful spicy smell, probably from the burning acacia trees,” and a red sandy dust, Durham said. “It’s just a lovely country.”

Since then, she has returned more than a half-dozen times learning about the people and culture.

In August, she will reconnect with the people she met in the 1990s and use those connections to meet new others and the next generation. By talking to citizens, hanging out in the capital city’s open air barber shops and the new upscale malls, she hopes “to build a comparative understanding” of the idea of adulthood in Botswana.

“In Botswana, it’s very different,” she said, explaining the language has no word for ‘adulthood’ and that one person can be labeled an adult, elder and child across various situations.

“People often, very successfully positioned themselves as youth, well into their 40’s” in Botswana, Durham said.

“Youth means something very different there than it does to us in the U.S.”

What she learns will provide fodder for two books she plans to complete while on sabbatical during the 2014-2015 school term. Durham will write an edited volume on the anthropology of adulthood as well as a monograph on Botswana.

“This is what scholarship is, it’s always developing an ever more complex and rich understanding of a real world” Durham said.

She hopes her anthropology book ignites in readers a desire “to think more about perhaps why it is these life stages are important to them and how our experience of youth or adulthood is connected in very complicated ways with those in other places of the world.”

Her second book, an ethnography, she said, will help peak readers’ curious about what life is like for those raised with different values and expectations.

“I’m so looking forward to going back to Botswana; I deeply love the people that I knew there. I am just looking forward to reconnecting,” she said, calling the people of Botswana, marvelous, generous and fun.

Although this is one of many accolades for Durham, she admits there still is a rush of excitement from winning such a grant.

It confirms “people out there thought that my project was a project worth doing and they thought that my ideas were worth seeing through.”

Read more about the NEH summer stipend projects at: www.neh.gov. Learn more about Durham at: sbc.edu.

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