Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Seeing Africa: An Interview with Dan Forti

Thus far, Never Seen Snow has presented interviews with people who have moved from various African countries to the United States in pursuit of a college education.  Today's entry offers a reversed perspective. This is a conversation with a young man who's first job out of university has taken him from the US to South Africa.

Dan Forti was my student at the United Nations International School (UNIS) from 2004 - 2008.  He is a "proud native" of Queens, New York who is now living and working in Durban, South Africa.  

People who attend UNIS for the entirety of their K-12 education refer to themselves as "survivors".  Because many families in the international school system move frequently, it is quite unusual for kids to stay at one school for thirteen consecutive years. Dan belongs to that rare group.

He's also one of the most enthusiastic people I know. Whether he's painting himself blue in support of the Duke Blue Devils or traveling across the world to work for conflict resolution, Dan is a passionate activist.

This will be the first of a two-part interview with Dan.

Can you explain where you work and what organization you are with? 

I work for the African Centre for the Constructive Resolution of Disputes (ACCORD), a South African-based civil society organization involved in conflict analysis, conflict management, and conflict resolution practices across the continent. ACCORD specializes in mediation, negotiation, training, research and conflict analysis, and has worked in a number of countries over the past twenty-one years, including Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Somalia, Sudan, South Sudan, Liberia, and Sierra Leone. I am a Junior Researcher in the organisation and provide analytical support to all of its operations.

Was this job something you expected to get just out of college, or was it a surprise?

I have to admit that I had the very good fortune of entering my senior year at Duke with a job offer in hand. I spent the fall of my junior year studying abroad in Durban, South Africa, where ACCORD is based. I had been briefly exposed to the field of conflict resolution through my classes at Duke, but after learning about the organization, I immediately envisioned myself working for them. I was lucky to secure a summer internship with ACCORD in their research department, and was offered a full-time opportunity at the end of that brief stay. I went back to North Carolina to finish my studies, and then returned to Durban upon graduation.

You’ve been there a full year now; do you intend to stay much longer? 
I am thrilled with my experiences during this first year at ACCORD, and only have vague thoughts about what comes next and when. I know that I want to go to graduate school, but as to where, when or in which studies, I don't have the answers to those questions. Right now, I’m just enjoying all the unique opportunities that ACCORD affords me. 

Why Africa?
I think the answer to this question has a number of different dimensions. First, my thirteen years at the UN School developed an insatiable desire to constantly learn about the world and its diverse people. Constant exposure to a global community always kept me thinking about what was beyond my immediate borders. During high school, I really enjoyed politics and history but never really found my passion in American or European studies. One of my favorite teachers (Mr. Siefring) would constantly reflect on his experiences teaching throughout Africa and how it was among his favorite periods in his life, which may have left some sort of mark on me. At the time I had a very limited knowledge of the continent’s complex and diverse political histories, and unfortunately did not receive much exposure to it in the IB system.

After my first year in Duke, I spent a few weeks on a volunteer programme teaching English in Bagamoyo, Tanzania. Although this experience affirmed that teaching wasn’t my ideal profession, it also piqued my interest in learning as much as I could about the continent and its diversity. Following that summer, I began heavily concentrating my Duke course work on international affairs, African histories, and current affairs. My semester abroad in South Africa affirmed these passions.

How prepared did you feel for life and work in South Africa?  What helped you in terms of education, personal contacts, etc. in preparation for your move?

Given that I had spent both a semester abroad and a summer internship living in Durban, the transition to South Africa was a breeze. But a lot of different components helped me get to that point Growing up in the UN culture was instrumental in shaping my worldviews and interests in international affairs. Although I would never have admitted this upon graduating from UNIS, the IB system provided an excellent foundation to help me get to where I am. All those exercises drilling writing and analytical skills into our skulls actually paid off! Duke created an environment that not only allowed me to refine these skills but also gave me unconditional support in allowing me to pursue my passions. The transition into Durban, first through a structured exchange programme, and then through my internship, made the social aspects of moving to South Africa a very known quantity by the time I was actually ready to start this job. I’ve been incredibly fortunate to have some amazing mentors and teachers who have believed in me and helped me work towards my dreams, from the 6th grade through today. And perhaps most importantly, my parents’ and family’s unconditional love and support gave me the confidence to chase these dreams and find my way in this world.

I remember you as a passionate high school student who was always eager to organize events and volunteer in your community and beyond.  You clearly have retained these interests, but now your work is global.  What initially motivated your desire to participate in civic outreach and why do you believe it remains so strong?

Once again, I think the roots to these passions can ultimately be found in the UNIS experience. From kindergarten, the school was explicit in framing the world as one giant community. And we were also taught that a community, whether it's a classroom or the entire world, thrives when everyone makes a positive contribution, not matter how large or small. As you alluded, I’ve always had a personal desire to make some contribution to whatever community I found myself in, whether a large or small contribution. As I progressed from UNIS to Duke and now ACCORD, I’ve always tried my best to combine my personal interests and passions with some way to contribute to the communities in which I located myself. At ACCORD, I’ve been very fortunate to be positioned at an organization that can make tangible contributions to the global community. I’m also keenly aware of how much more work needs to be done in order to make this world a better place for us all. I’m motivated by this reality and the fact that I believe that I can actually make a tiny but positive contribution.

What misrepresentations of Africa do you feel are most troubling or surprising?
The most troubling misrepresentation I’ve uncovered is that many outside of Africa tend to simplify the continent’s diverse people, issues, and countries into the singular terms of ‘Africa’ and ‘Africans’. In reality, the continent is comprised of fifty-four different countries, each with their own unique balance of populations, resources, histories, complexities, successes, challenges, and perspectives. Sure, countries throughout Africa share similar narratives and confront similar realities, especially given the continent’s colonial legacies and current standings vis a vis the world at large. Having said this, it is impossible to gain an accurate understanding of life in any of the African countries without interrogating their unique contexts, thus robbing Africans of their agencies as individuals.

Do you feel the media, the movie industry, educational institutions, etc are responsible for misrepresenting the people and/or the culture of Africa?
Absolutely, and this is an especially relevant question in my field of work. Most of what those outside the continent learn about Africa is disseminated through news reports about conflicts and violence. While it is naturally important to discuss these issues, my personal belief is that the media largely provides a superficial understanding of the conflicts and political challenges, intentionally choosing to highlight images of despair instead of engaging in substantive discussions on the issues at hand. This media engagement with the various people and countries of Africa only perpetuate and reinforce commonly held stereotypes about the continent. One of my favorite examples of this relates to the media narratives of ‘Africa Rising’ and ‘Africa’s Decline’, a flaw that many esteemed publications (cough The Economist cough). These narrative archs attempt to succinctly gauge and summarize the current events climate and then extrapolate these superficial readings into long-term trends about an entire continent with a landmass larger than the USA, China, India, and Europe combined! I just don't see how this can be an accurate representation of the continent and its countries, their challenges, and most importantly, their successes. Further, these narrative fail to accurately portray and describe the perspectives of the peoples of Africa themselves, by and large instead relying exclusively on the perspectives of outsiders.  

Come back tomorrow for the second part of the interview.  As Juy 18, 2013 will be Nelson Mandela's 95th(!) birthday, we will focus on Dan's thoughts about living in South Africa and some of his ideas about Mandela's life and legacy.

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