Dr. Boakari Helps Bring The World To Students
Dr. Francis Boakari's winding route through life illustrates the global mission of the University of the Incarnate Word - he’s lived in several countries, learned new languages and studied different customs. His many experiences have led him to a simple yet insightful observation about people, whether they’re from Africa, South America or the United States.
“One thing (is) very evident - that we all are very different, but we are the same,” says Boakari, who is from Sierra Leone. “The things that happen in my village in Africa, the same things happen here, the same things happen in Brazil.
“And the experiences … when I talk about them here with my students, we laugh because they identify with those things.”
Boakari, who teaches in the Dreeben School of Education, began his circuitous international journey when he attended two Catholic seminaries after finishing high school in Sierra Leone.
At a seminary in Ghana, Boakari reflected on becoming a priest. At a seminary in Nigeria, he studied philosophy, Catholic theology and traditional African religions. But after five years, Boakari opted out of following the priesthood, concluding that he could better serve the people of his country in another role.
Upon returning home, his father, a Muslim farmer, found out that Boakari had left the seminary. Boakari said his father told him, “What I continue to want from you is to be honest with yourself, because only that way can you ever be a good human being, whether as a Christian or Muslim.”
Opposite Page: Dr. Boakari in Lusaka, Zambia, where he attended a conference in the spring. Boakari along with other UIW professors spent one week in Lusaka in intense dialogue with Zambian men and women committed to the health and safety of the Children Under Seven.
Drawing from the elementary school teaching experiences that he had acquired during his yearly pastoral work assignments, Boakari began teaching at a Catholic high school. After about a year, Boakari was offered two scholarships: one to study social work at a university in Saskatchewan, Canada, and the other to pursue sociology/religious studies at the University of Iowa.
“I chose Iowa thinking it (would) be a little warmer,” he remembers. “I got to Iowa on the first day of August and made the comment, ‘It feels just like back home.’ And my friend who picked me up at the airport said, ‘Well, I hope you tell me the same in five months.’”
After surviving several frigid Iowa winters en route to a Ph.D., Boakari intended to return to Sierra Leone. “But then we had one of those military takeovers,” he says. “So it was impossible to go home because I had the wrong name and I came from the wrong area of the country.”
He'd married in the meantime, so Boakari moved to his wife's home country of Brazil. There, he learned Portuguese, raised a family, and became a tenured professor at the Federal University of Piaui in Teresina, where he taught undergraduate and graduate courses in sociology and education. It was an experience that had a profound impact on his life.
“They had over 200 instructors and I was only one of two blacks, and that I found very strange,” he says of a country whose population of nearly 187 million people could, by some estimates, be as much as 45 percent black. “And I could count the black students on my fingers.”
“So I joined some friends working both within and outside the university and with the Secretariat of Education for the state, and we formed the research group IFARADA, which means ‘Strength from Knowledge,’ with the idea that you can fight racism and racial discrimination through education.”
That led Boakari on another journey, this one through Brazil's complex and tumultuous history of race relations. Brazil, for instance, was the last place in the Western Hemisphere to abolish slavery, doing so in 1888. And the prevailing ideology of a “racial democracy,” he observes, continues to present immense barriers to forming realistic steps in the fight against racial discrimination.
“What we decided to do was basically work in the schools telling them about the history of the state because we had evidence of the contributions of slaves,” Boakari says.
“We even discovered that there were a lot of former slave colonies, slave havens you might call them, and we used to take the students to these places and listen to the children of slaves talk about their own experiences in the community.”
He also founded a program called Citizenship Education that involved taking students, especially those from upper middle-class backgrounds, to poor urban areas.
“The idea was to make the students aware of the fact that the poverty they read about in their textbooks, that they read about in history, was not something (abstract), it was something that was right next to them,” Boakari explains. “So that was the project I continued working on until I came here (to Incarnate Word).”
And therein is another journey. Boakari was a Fulbright Scholar-in-Residence at Auburn University in Alabama during the 1995-1996 school year. His responsibilities included delivering lectures on his Brazilian research. That prompted a speaking invitation from Incarnate Word, which was just beginning to expand its international programs in several countries, including Brazil.
“I spent two days on campus and I just loved the place,” Boakari says of his first visit to Incarnate Word. “Something just struck me as being different. Now I realize that the unseen hands of the CCVI Sisters were very present. And not far away were the effects of my seminary training, and the call to engage in something new with my family.”
So when Boakari read about an opening at Incarnate Word a few years later, he applied, was accepted, and arrived in San Antonio in 2002.
“In Brazil I was more involved in social movements because I was a professor of sociology,” he says. “In Brazil, as in most of Latin America, to be a sociologist you have to be an activist, you have to be radical, you have to be a revolutionary, which I didn't learn at the University of Iowa.”
Working mostly with international graduate students at Incarnate Word, Boakari uses his journeys as a point of reference in helping them appreciate the opportunities they've had in coming to the United States, and also the responsibilities they have when they leave, whether it’s to go back home or somewhere else.
Boakari also tells his students that in order for them to understand themselves as individuals, they must first try to understand each other as human beings who are members of the global village. He feels that Incarnate Word is the ideal place for a journey of self-discovery.
“One of the things about Incarnate Word that's fantastic is that you don't need to leave the university in order to get in touch with somebody from India, somebody from Pakistan, somebody from Africa,” Boakari says. “You have international reality right beside you.”
“There aren't too many places in the world where you can have such a diversity in one setting, and you have these guys with you for the whole semester,” he continues. “Students don't really appreciate or they don't recognize how valuable this learning experience would be, so I provoke them to think about these opportunities.”
Amid the lectures, seminars, and research papers, it's just as important to Boakari that the students study and learn about themselves.
“I ask the student to read, read, read, but no matter how much you read, without making comparisons with your own experiences, those readings are not going to make much sense,” he says. “Because you yourself have lived 10 or 20 books but in most cases we don't think about what we have done. We don't value what we've done.
“If we don't value what we've done by (the ages of) 15, 18, 22, it's going to be very difficult to appreciate the knowledge we are gaining from others simply because we can't appreciate what we have if we don't know what we have,” Boakari says. “Before you can learn what I'm saying, you have to learn what you already know. Maybe it's a different way of making them become more reflective.”
Boakari’s activities at Incarnate Word have included linguistic and cultural diversity workshops among faculty, and the citywide forum on Under-Represented Groups and Education (URGE) that he started last year with Dr. Renee Moore, Dean of Campus Life.
“Dr. Boakari is an inspiring leader and colleague,” Moore says. “The vision for the first URGE forum that took place in 2004 was his. He encouraged others to share his dream of providing an opportunity for discussion of serious and controversial issues related to underrepresented groups in education.”
Regardless of country or language, Boakari’s goal has remained constant through his many journeys: to help others uncover knowledge and use it as an instrument to become better human beings.
“I think everybody is able to learn. I don't think there's anybody who cannot learn,” he says. “My role as professor is to make the person like himself or herself so much that he or she wants to discover more about himself or herself.
“And in order to do that, you have to look at the ‘other,’ you have to see what other people have done, and that gets them to read and reflect.”
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