Study Abroad Alum Returning to Troubled Country

Jenny Browne is excited about traveling to Sierra Leone this month to teach creative writing, but admits feeling a tinge of anxiety.

This isn’t her first trip to Africa. In June, Browne, an assistant professor of English at Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas, went to Kenya, where she taught Somali children in a refugee camp to write poetry through a program funded by the U.S. State Department.

But, even though she’s heading back to Africa under the same program, going to Sierra Leone is different. Browne has been there before—as a UW–Madison student 20 years ago—but had to leave the West African country early and abruptly.

As a student, an African literature class sparked her interest in studying there. She found her ticket through a UW–Madison program that sent students to Fourah Bay College in Freetown, the capital, where she planned to spend her junior year.

“I had pretty grand notions of all the ways I was going to save the world in Africa, but it really was a complete up-turning of my worldview,” she says. “And I still believe being a student is a really ideal way, literally and philosophically, to get to know a place. Regardless, none of things I knew about the world after growing up in Wisconsin and Indiana made a lot of sense in West Africa.”

She adds, “I thought I might be a journalist and write important political and health-related stories, but I spent a lot of my time just trying to describe the details of the place.  These were, in retrospect, the first poems I wrote—pretty bad ones.”

But then came April 29, 1992.

“We woke up on the hill where Fourah Bay College is located to the sound of gunshots,” she recalls.  “Tanks carrying soldiers were rolling into town.  The military overthrew the government, and we were evacuated (by U.S. military aircraft) the next day.”

Coincidentally, that was the same day that the Los Angeles police officers charged with beating Rodney King were acquitted, igniting riots in south-central Los Angeles.

“I have vivid memories of listening to the shortwave, trying to get word about what was happening outside, and instead hearing that Los Angeles was on fire,” she says. “While the coup was, on the surface, an internal, military struggle, it was connected to the on-going war in Liberia and blood diamonds, and was the start of what became a horribly violent civil war that lasted 10 years.”

Looking back, Browne (B.A. ’93 in sociology, with concentrations in women’s studies and African studies) reflects: “The coup was a difficult thing personally, as this was really my first exposure to another culture, and I made many dear friends. Like many young idealist UW kids, I really wanted to live there ‘authentically,’ and the reality of status as an American getting whooshed out while all my friends stayed behind was something I grappled with for a long time.”

Despite the abrupt ending, Browne’s experience in Sierra Leone hooked her on travel.

“I spent the better part of a decade bouncing around—Alaska, Central America and Asia, before landing, somewhat by accident, in Texas.  I’d written poems all along the way and in 2004-06 received a James Michener Fellowship in Creative Writing at the University of Texas in Austin.”

Five years ago, she joined the faculty at Trinity University.  Last year, the University of Iowa’s International Writers Program invited her to go to Africa to teach poetry on a grant funded by the U.S. State Department.  Now, her path is taking her back to Sierra Leone, where she had grown fond of the people, their customs and language.

“Of course I’m excited about teaching and just being back there, but also a bit anxious,” she says. “The war really destroyed much of what was already a troubled, but beautiful place. I lost touch with most friends.”

Thinking about her trip, she says, “One of the things that I’m interested in talking and writing about is poetry of witness.  Sierra Leoneans are a remarkably resilient people.  I’m not sure if/how to describe a country where thousands of people had their arms chopped off. But maybe I can do something to help them write about the past, and about the future.  We’ll see.”

– by Kerry G. Hill