Our Stories

Amadou Fofana: It's a Small World, After All

When Amadou Fofana interviewed for a position with Willamette's French Department, he realized, again, how small the world really is. Faculty members took the Senegal native to the Cascade Festival of Africa Films in Portland, where he ran into four friends, all returned Peace Corps volunteers who learned French or an African language from Fofana.

"Amadou was beloved as a teacher," said Joyce Millen, an anthropology professor at Willamette. He was so effective that he was selected to train the trainers, and his knowledge of African languages, picked up on the streets, was extensive--Pulaar, Bamanankan, Mandinka, Wolof, Jaaxanke.

Fofana grew up in a rich mosaic of savannah and desert, on a continent where 2,500 ethnic groups speak 1,200 mutually unintelligible languages. His life began in a town so small it contained no school, and so the pattern of his life was set at an early age. If educational opportunities couldn't come to him, he would go to them--and excel. Fofana, the son of a school teacher, went to live with his uncles to continue his schooling, moved again for high school, and earned a master's in English at the very competitive University of Dakar. He was headed for a career as a translator until the Peace Corps came calling and a lifelong interest in languages derailed him. From 1993-97, he trained hundreds of Peace Corps volunteers to speak African languages, in three months.

Fofana came to America, and into a career in higher education, through the back door. In Africa, he had dreamed of going abroad, but his savings never added up; much of his money went to support his siblings and parents. Two visiting Rotary members were so impressed with Fofana's dedication they offered him an assistantship at Michigan State University. Coming from a land of sun, "August in Michigan felt like winter," he says. "I missed the sun. It took some training." He completed his schooling at the University of Wisconsin in Madison on invitation from the National African Language Resource Center. The "how to" of language instruction fascinates him, inspiring him to write two grammar reference books for learners of Bamanankan and Pulaar. In the Peace Corps, volunteers learned on the fast track. "At Willamette," he says, "I'll be trying to see how far students can go in a semester!"

But Fofana's classes won't be all work and no fun. He believes in the power of film to provide social context. His passion for African films was sparked by Guelwaar, a film by Ousmane Sembene that weaves a complex tapestry of themes into a single story. "I fell in love with the man's work," he says.

Fofana and Millen hope to plant the seeds for a future African studies program at Willamette. In the meantime, they intend to host events that will make the world a little smaller, giving campus and the community a taste of Africa.

The African film "Guelwaar" is available for checkout in the Hatfield Library.