January 1, 2023
When Dr. Christine Saidi was an undergraduate student at UCLA, she took a course in African history.
It would, though she scarcely realized it, change the direction of her life.
"I got hooked on Africa," said Saidi, who teaches African history at Kutztown University.
On 10 trips to Africa in the last 20 or so years, she's amassed an extensive collection of artifacts that offer insight into African culture.
Part of her collection is on display in Rohrbach Library on the Kutztown campus.
During a recent tour, Saidi said she hopes the collection will whet the intellectual appetite of Kutztown students, as the history course did hers.
"I want to get students interested in Africa," she confided.
Saidi's studies of Africa were enhanced by a Fulbright research fellowship that enabled her to spend a year in Zambia in 1998.
The result was a book, "Women's Authority and Society in Early East Central Africa," published by University of Rochester Press in 2010.
Surveying 2,000 years of African social history, Saidi concluded women played key roles in technological and economic developments in precolonial Africa.
"Female political leaders were as common as male rulers," she said. "And women, especially mothers, were central to religious ceremonies and beliefs."
Woven into baskets crafted by Tonga women in southern Zambia, Saidi found patterns of lightning that have religious significance.
"Seeing a flash of lightning, people would say 'God has spoken,'" she explained.
The Kutztown library exhibit includes baskets woven by Tonga women, considered masters of the art.
Also on display are mats made from raffia, dried palm fronds from the Lubumbashi region of the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Sturdy tote bags made of sisal, a cactus-like plant that yields a stiff fiber, and Swahili prayer rugs offer insight into the skill of African craftsmen.
While baskets, rugs and totes harken to centuries-old skills, Saidi has also collected handcrafted toys that demonstrate the ingenuity of modern African artists and craftsmen.
From wire, discarded tin cans and old shower clogs, craftsmen have fashioned toy cars, airplanes and dolls.
Using a technique reminiscent of Pennsylvania Dutch craftsmen, artisans created a mobile of dancing women from corn husks.
In the toys, Saidi sees a creativity and resourcefulness that is deeply rooted in African history and culture.
"The African people," Saidi said, "use whatever they have to create art and useful items."