The popular culture shock

Three graduate students from Africa are making BGSU home

By Jen Sobolewski

Amira Hassnaoui prepared for the final exams for her bachelor’s degree while listening to the sounds of gunshots. Her country, Tunisia, was the in the midst of a revolution that would lead to the ousting of its longtime president and the democratization of its government.

“Witnessing the revolution, being through it and overcoming it and participating in it, that was history, and there’s nothing else I can’t do,” she said. “The revolution hit me in the face and started to put things into perspective. I put our educational system into question along with our socio-economic system. There is a lot of corruption there. I felt the urge and need to be involved and be active. Maybe one way to serve Tunisia outside Tunisia is by promoting its culture and heritage.”

Hassnaoui is hoping her work at Bowling Green State University will help her with that goal. She’s studying for her second master’s degree—this time in popular culture. And in a strange twist of fate, she is one of three graduate students in the program from Africa. Joyce Okango and Martin Muthee are from Kenya. 

“It’s such a (sense of) pride to be the first wave of Africans in popular culture and I hope we make a good impression,” Hassnaoui said. “Hopefully we will do well and we will be a good motivation for other African students. I am already promoting it. One of my best friends, after seeing how I talk about our education program, is applying here.”

All three came to BGSU for the unique opportunities that the Department of Popular Culture offers them—primarily a chance to combine all their research interests into one department. 

Okango is interested in the representation of gender and body image in the media and how the assimilation of western culture has changed how the female body is presented on Kenyan television. 

“You cannot be on TV in Kenya unless you have a particular body type and before anyone could be on TV,” she explained. “The appropriation of Western culture has changed African culture. We now have ‘The Real House Helps of Kawangware,’ which is similar to the ‘Real Housewives’ shows, and ‘Slimpossible,’ which is like ‘The Biggest Loser.’ We did not have these shows before.” 

Muthee is studying how proverbs are used to influence the Kenyan public. 

“Proverbs, or variations of them, are often used in language and even more so in Swahili, but in Swahili the more you use proverbs, the better you look or appear in the eyes of other people. It affects the choice of leaders,” he said.

Hassnaoui is studying a music tradition in Tunisia called Stambeli. After the Tunisian revolution, the genre was no longer identified as the healing music of its past, but as a source of pride for the younger generation, particularly socially, politically involved ones.  

“When I came here, driving through the cornfields reminded me of my hometown...I did not expect it to be located deep in the country, but it showed me a different view of the U.S. I never saw this view when I was back home, and if you ask me, I say I like it here better.” “There are a few people still playing Stambeli, but to preserve that heritage we need to work on the generation gap and the older generation needs to teach the new generation about this music and what it means,” she said. “It involves a lot of history, from slavery to folklore, and it involves rituals, identity and gender. We now have the floor after the revolution to stand up for what we believe is right.”

Okango and Hassnaoui had studied in the United States before coming to BGSU, but this is Muthee’s first time in America. Still, all three experienced a bit of culture shock when they arrived on campus. 

Okango, who studied and taught Swahili at Brown University in Providence, R.I., as a Fulbright scholar, said the lack of public transportation and access to shopping malls has taken some getting used to, but that the landscape instantly seemed familiar.

“When I came here, driving through the cornfields reminded me of my hometown,” she explained. “I did not expect it to be located deep in the country, but it showed me a different view of the U.S. I never saw this view when I was back home, and if you ask me, I say I like it here better.” 

Muthee is still trying to adjust to an American diet. 

“I still consume things that I don’t know what they are,” he said laughing. “When I go to cafes and buy food I point and say give me that. I didn’t think I’d eat raw vegetables—we cook everything in Kenya.”

“When I talk about this school, I refer to it as ‘my school’ and ‘our department.’ There’s a feeling of belonging, and the sense of belonging is really important to me in an academic or professional space.”Hassnaoui also came to the U.S. as a Fulbright scholar. She taught Arabic at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. 

“When I was at Wisconsin, I never went to a football game,” she said. “I didn’t feel the connection. But here, I always find it fun and emotional to hug Freddie and Frieda. I have my ‘Always a Falcon’ T-shirt. I love our Falcon symbol because in Tunisia our national soccer team is referred to as the Eagles, so I definitely feel the connection there. I went to my first football game here at Bowling Green and I enjoyed every moment of it. 

“When I talk about this school, I refer to it as ‘my school’ and ‘our department.’ There’s a feeling of belonging, and the sense of belonging is really important to me in an academic or professional space.” 

Having a support system while being so far from home has been a great source of comfort. 

“My experience in Providence, the Kenyans there were undergraduates and their schedule was very different. I felt homesick a lot of the time,” said Okango. “It was not such a happy experience, but here I’m more relaxed and comfortable because he (Martin) understands my way of life. I can talk to him about my problems. It makes you feel at home.”

“The people that I’ve met here are so supportive and willing to help,” Muthee said. “One time I was lost and I asked a lady that I didn’t know and she took me to the very place. I don’t think that can happen in Nairobi. It’s something that really touched my heart. I’m learning something that I didn’t think I would here. When I go back to Nairobi I think I’ll be more polite and courteous.”

All three carry with them the hopes and dreams of the family and friends they left behind, which can be emotional.

“My mom was never given a chance to go to school,” said Hassnaoui. “I couldn’t be more grateful and thankful to her that she made sure to give me that chance, which was impossible for her. Both my brother and I went to school. I’m the first in my family to graduate and further my education outside of Tunisia. To come here and be part of this program and be exposed to all the opportunities here is phenomenal. 

“My mom, dad and I have this discussion about how we don’t have this graduation cap and gown custom back home, the graduation culture is different. So, we made a promise that one day she will come here and see me wearing my cap and gown for my master’s degree graduation. But it won’t only be for me, but also for her, for the sacrifices she made to make me who I am and for every woman who wasn’t given a chance to further her education in Africa, or in any other continent.”

“My family is ambivalent about it. Of course they are happy, but a little skeptical as well,” said Muthee. “My parents are just high school graduates. Seeing me pursue higher education, not just locally, but overseas as well, and especially in a coveted world superpower, makes them really proud.”

They also feel the weight of serving as “cultural ambassadors” to the rest of campus.

“You shouldn’t just come here, study, then leave,” said Hassnaoui. “You should bring who you are and where you come from and make students aware of your culture and rituals. You’ll discover you share more than you think you did. People focus on differences, but we have a lot in common as humans.” 

Their work is also just beginning. All of them plan to continue their studies in the U.S. and get doctorates. They also plan to go back home to give back to their communities.

“You shouldn’t just come here and study and leave...You should bring where you are and where you come from and make students aware of your culture and rituals. You’ll discover you share more than you think you do."“I feel they have much to learn from me and I have a lot to offer,” said Okango. “I’d be glad to go back and help other girls have success in education. Popular culture has helped me learn a lot of things I took for granted before. I now watch, read and listen to things around me with a deeper perception. I intend to use this knowledge to create a better Kenya and the world.”

Muthee would like to put popular culture to work in improving the Kenyan culture. “In the time I’ve been studying it, I’ve found there are a lot of positive values someone can instill in society through popular culture, through film, through script writing, through any kind of writing. So, I would like to work on that as well in a private practice, so I can impart positivity back into the culture in Kenya.”

“Through popular culture I am planning to do research and eventually publish about my own culture,” said Hassnaoui “One way to promote Tunisia is through scholarly developed material. I am also planning to travel and discover how other people live, because there is another world out there, but people don’t recognize it exists and it is worth exploring. There are multiple ways to contribute to a better place, and I can definitely see myself doing that through research and publishing.

“I want to reassure people who want to apply to study popular culture that it depends on how you shape it, and what you bring to it, because it’s such a wide field. That’s why I’m really glad that my journey started here. That’s what I’m really fascinated about in my department. It brought me more than I was expecting, and I am learning something new every day.”