In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

  • The Ginger Option and Oppositional Agriculture in Postcolonial Sierra Leone
  • Zachary Poppel (bio)

In the early 1960s the Sierra Leonean government partnered with the US Agency for International Development (aid) and the University of Illinois to build a new rural university. Such partnerships were common in this era of rural development in the wake of empire. Around the postcolonial world, newly independent nations frequently advanced their educational and agricultural agendas by recruiting and repurposing resources that were concentrated in particular institutions, like the University of Illinois and the American land-grant university system more generally. In independent India, for instance, government ministers recruited Illinois professors to expand a colonial-era plantation into a new research institute.1 Officials in southern Vietnam forged similar relations with Illinois professors in the late 1960s, though this particular partnership focused more narrowly on the project of building more-efficient slaughterhouses for pigs.2

While each site in this wider world of rural-university partnerships surely deserves specific examination, as each site and partnership can just as surely provide for new translocal histories of uneven relations and competing possibilities, the focus here is the social world around one particular campus in Sierra Leone. In 1963, Sierra Leonean government officials and Illinois professors took over an existing campus built during the British colonial era, which they intended to rebuild in the image of an American land-grant university. After selecting the Njala [End Page 384] Training College in the southern part of the country as the site for this new university and forcing the teachers, students, and staff residing on the campus to vacate, the aid-Illinois team and Sierra Leonean officials oversaw a rapid expansion in the amount of land and labor under their control. Though the new Njala University College would continue to educate teachers and farmers as it had in the past, the depopulation of the old campus symbolized a type of foundational aggression in an effort to break with the past through the building of a larger and, oddly enough, more populated campus.3

Though they resided outside the university, village residents were essential to configuring postcolonial higher education at Njala. Around the edges of Njala University are seven off -campus communities. For most of the twentieth century, and to this day, the villages of Makonde, Old Mosongo, Kania, Bonjeima, Bonganema, Gbesibu, and Pelewahun have been the home of hundreds of families, farmers, students, laborers, and traders. Though each village varies in size and status, with Makonde historically the largest and most influential, the seven villages have much in common. Over the years, residents of each village built homes and communal buildings from mud pulled from the banks and tributaries of a river that encompasses the Njala area. The Taia River also provides local residents water for farming and muddy banks for planting.4

In their fields during the 1960s, farmers grew fruits, vegetables, tubers, and rice for sustenance. What was not consumed in a particular village was either traded with another village or sold for a small amount to cooks working in the kitchens of the university. The cooks, along with the other domestic and maintenance workers of the campus, lived in one of the seven villages. By the mid-1960s some villages had half of their adult population working for wages on the campus. As the size and workforce of the university increased during the rest of the decade, some villages saw more than half their adult population building, maintaining, and cleaning a new rural university that without them would not exist.5

The presence of village residents on campus was not accidental. After opening in 1964, professors and administrators at the university initiated a wide range of projects to expand the size of the campus and expand relations with village residents. In addition to changing the local division of labor, these projects attempted to alter the organization of local agriculture. As the university expanded and pulled in more workers, a radius of noncommercial, subsistence-food farming formed around [End Page 385]

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Fig. 1.

Superimposition of Illinois and Sierra Leone, 1963, Urbana, Illinois.

Courtesy of University of Illinois Archives, Njala University College Subject...


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pp. 384-402
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