"You enter a different world, when you visit Zambia"

Prof. Dr. Maria Anna Kreienbaum and the Zambia Research Project

International contacts are a hallmark of Maria Anna Kreienbaum's academic engagement. She has often set off with students on fact-finding trips to other countries, initially to explore the school systems of neighbouring European countries. This was also the focus of the EU-funded projects LinE (2004-2007) and Eule (2007-2009). The partnership with MidSweden University (since 2010) is close to her heart, and not least the cooperation with Zambia in southern Africa. She has travelled several times there with groups of students to get to know the country and its people and especially the education system.

"When you think of Africa, the first thing that comes to mind is animals: And in Zambia you actually see elephants, giraffes and monkeys just walking across the road. Then you notice the vastness of the sky. But you also see misery and poverty. This presents you with quite a few challenges," Maria Anna Kreienbaum says, Professor of School Theory and General Didactics in the Faculty of Human and Social Sciences in Wuppertal. She has been travelling to the landlocked country in southern Africa since 1999, first privately and since 2001 with students, and is largely responsible for the cooperation between the University of Wuppertal and the University of Zambia, or UNZA for short.

University of Zambia, an experiment with cultural pitfalls

In the course of taking over the acedemic chair in Wuppertal, the scientist brought her contacts to the South African country to Wuppertal which evolved during her university activities in Gießen and Paderborn. She repeatedly invited guest lecturers from Zambia to Germany, and travelled to Zambia with a Wuppertal student group in 2010 and 2014. The programme also included a visit to the University of Zambia, or UNZA for short, in the capital Lusaka. Through this, the cooperation was initiated. However, the desire for long-term cooperation has its cultural pitfalls. "It is not easy to maintain reliable contacts with colleagues from the School of Education there," Kreienbaum says cautiously. "Communication is not as binding," she regrets. Emails are often not answered. Then it helps to contact the International Office. The Memorandum of Understanding was finally signed in 2016 and the Agreement in 2018 through a close contact with the director, who personally visits the people involved on site. In the same year, the first group of Zambian students came to Wuppertal. Maria Anna Kreienbaum and her colleague Ronja Hahmann organised a programme that not only included academic exchanges but also political and cultural institutions, making it possible to experience life in Germany.

Of development aid, new colonial powers and committed initiatives

The Wuppertal educator knows about the ambivalent aspects of development cooperation. In the past, people spoke of "aid" and it is clear who can give and who can take. The declared goal for her programmes are encounters that take place at eye level. At the official political level, Germany coordinates with about 20 states. These include several EU countries and Japan. "Germany, on the one hand, is responsible for good water (drinking water, sewage) and for democratisation in communities, i.e. for such a decentralised democratisation programme. Norway and Finland support in educational issues, the Netherlands in special education, Japan builds schools and roads. That is how they split it up. Only China makes its own policy and invests in projects that benefit itself, is active in copper and coal mining," explains Kreienbaum. China is acting like a new colonial power. "The Chinese invest and they do not even ask what the political system is like, but of course they do not want to be asked themselves."

There are numerous Christian and other minded organisations in Germany that reliably support individual projects or regions in addition to the state development cooperation. The association "Beruf und Zukunft in Zambia" has a counterpart on the Zambian side and builds school buildings in rural regions. "This ensures that, e.g. in an area where there were no schools before, now a sophisticated school is established. Currently, a hostel is being built because the children from the countryside cannot commute per foot every day. They have a safe place there where they can stay during the week," Kreienbaum reports, who herself cooperates with the Gossner Mission. This foundation, founded 180 years ago by Johann Evangelista Gossner (German theologian and social reformer) as a missionary society in Berlin. It also runs a guesthouse in Lusaka, which the scientist chooses as the starting point for her trips. "The guest house belongs to the Liaison Office of the Gossner Mission in Lusaka. It is a wonderful place to arrive, to acclimatise and to start from there, when you come from Europe," the researcher says happily. The Gossner Mission has been providing development aid in Zambia since the 1960s.

The long road to economy

"You enter a different world, when you visit Zambia," Kreienbaum says, and you have to learn to understand this world. That is why her students face the realities on the ground, visit projects in the traditional villages that are, for example, supported by microcredits. "Zambia is a country where only 10 or 15 per cent of the land that could be used for agriculture is actually cultivated, and only 30 per cent of the people work with social insurance. The others work from hand to mouth, grow something, sell it on the local market and get a little money, for example for shoes. Microcredits help there." She reports on a project aimed at single women. They receive a pair of goats, initially on loan. When the goats have kids, they are returned to the project. From then on, the borrowed goats become their property. Further offspring then ensure a small profit, which can be used, for example, to pay the children's school fees," she explains. The travellers develop a kind of humility and learn to appreciate how privileged they have grown up.

Those who want to study in Zambia usually need a scholarship. These are often only paid after a delay, sometimes resulting in long waiting periods. "This waste of life time and resources is terribly hard to bear," the scientist regrets. Yet, the situation for working women is actually good. Kreienbaum knows that many positions at the university are occupied by women and that women are also employed in the police and in the teaching profession.

Research context Zambia, first congress in Wuppertal

"It is not uncommon for someone to go to Africa and have a direct solution to the most pressing problems on the first visit," she says. Such quick fixes often do not take the social conditions into account. "Using our standards to assess the problems there is usually very truncated. Even in research projects, it is not easy to find valid explanations for observable phenomena and processes."

Professor Kreienbaum is planning the first nationwide congress with the working title "Research Context Zambia" for 3 and 4 February 2020. Academics researching in the context of Zambia will present their projects and discuss their findings.
"Some time ago, I started looking for people with Zambian connections on the homepages of German universities. And the list had 60-80 names. I wrote to all of them," she explains, "and the reactions were consistently positive. She expects scientists from a wide range of disciplines to attend this conference. "There are medical, geographical, social science, political science and historical projects at this congress," she enthusiastically reports. The scientist hopes that this first German university meeting will lead to the establishment of a network with regular exchanges. The experiences of this congress could help with the interdisciplinary transfer of knowledge. It could also strengthen the university partnership between Wuppertal and Lusaka.

Uwe Blass (Interview on November 15, 2019)

Maria Anna Kreienbaum studied English and German to become a teacher and habilitated in Dortmund in 2000. She taught at the Justus Liebig University in Gießen and at the University of Paderborn. In 2006, she took over the Chair of School Theory/General Didactics at the University of Wuppertal.

More information about #UniWuppertal: