Nov. 21, 2002
Vol. 22 No. 5

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    From Tamatave, Madagascar, to Chicago–scholar’s arduous journey leads to safety at University

    By William Harms
    News Office


    After Solofo Randrianja was accepted into the University’s Scholars at Risk program as a visiting scholar, his journey to Chicago this fall was greatly hindered.

    During a time of civil unrest in his native Madagascar earlier this year, Randrianja, a professor of history at the University of Tamatave in Madagascar, became a potential target as an advocate of democracy. Through a friend, he learned of the Scholars at Risk Network in the University’s Human Rights Program, applied for a position and was accepted.

    “The militias had taken over the airport, so I could not fly to the capital. We also had just had a cyclone, so the roads were damaged,” he explained in his office on the third floor of Judd Hall. In addition, the military had established checkpoints along the route that discouraged travelers.

    “I decided to go anyway,” said Randrianja. He made most of the 250-mile trip in June by car and bus, but because about 50 kilometers of the road was impassable, “I had to walk for two days to get to the capital,” he said.

    Once he arrived in the capital, Antananarivo, Randrianja worked for a month on securing a visa and tried to find a way to get his wife, two sons, aged 11 and 14, and a baby daughter born while he was away, out of Tamatave.

    “By the end of the summer, government troops under the legal civil authority were beginning to restore order. They also had repaired the road, so I was able to get a car and take my wife and family out. We arrived in Chicago in September,” he said.

    Randrianja, who taught history at the University of Tamatave for 12 years, completed his higher education in France. He wrote two books in French about Madagascar, as well as a number of articles on the nation’s ethnic groups and its post-colonial experiences.

    Here at Chicago, Randrianja is working on an English language history of Madagascar, which he is writing with a British colleague. “Much of what is written about Madagascar in English is written from French sources, which have colonial biases,” Randrianja said.

    In the course of his work at Chicago, which will include teaching two classes on African history this year, Randrianja is helping students and faculty understand the heritage of his nation.

    “This map shows there are 18 ethnic groups,” he said, while leafing through a book with information about Madagascar. “But the boundaries have never been established scientifically, and there are a hundred ethnic groups in the country.”

    The French developed an ethnic perspective on Madagascar that provided them with a rationale to pit groups against each other, allowing them to maintain their power, he said.

    The history of conflict between ethnic groups in Madagascar continues: it provoked the tensions that unsettled the nation as the result of a closely contested presidential election between the leaders of two rival ethnic groups. One of the ethnic groups used militias to reinforce its power. In the ensuing lawlessness, Randrianja found he was a possible target. A colleague on the medical faculty at the University of Tamatave had been beaten, and Randrianja decided to leave and get his family to safety.

    “Randrianja is exactly the type of individual our program is designed to help,” said Robert Quinn, Staff Director of the Scholars at Risk Network. “He is a respected academic who, as a prominent member of his community in Madagascar, faced serious risk of violence during the recent political crisis there.”

    Since it was established in 2000, the Scholars at Risk Program has reviewed more than 220 cases of scholars from more than 60 countries. The Network currently has 89 open cases, including 65 scholars who are seeking positions, said Quinn.

    The Network is seeking new funding sources to continue operating beyond 2003. “So many people have been so supportive of Scholars at Risk that I’m confident we can find the funding we need,” said Quinn. “It’s just a question of finding the right people who can help us at this time.”