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Professor wins third sabbatical prize

By Chelsea LoCascio
News Editor

Over the course of 14 years, Matthew Bender scoured sources in archives across Tanzania, France, Britain and America to piece together an intricate story. He lived in Tanzania for a year and visited four summers thereafter to roam the slopes of Mount Kilimanjaro, seeking the natives’ wisdom. He dedicated nine and a half of those years to transform his research into a comprehensive manuscript on the source of life: water.

From his childhood on a farm in Indiana to his adulthood spent in classrooms of higher learning, Bender’s interest in agriculture shifted to water, specifically how particular populations perceive this vital resource.

Now an associate professor of history at the College, Bender has dedicated most of his adult life to researching the past 150 years of an indigenous Chagga-speaking population that lived on Mount Kilimanjaro for the last 800 to 1,000 years. He also studies how outsiders have influenced the Chagga’s view of water, which comprises his manuscript “Water Brings No Harm: Knowledge, Power and the Struggle for the Waters of Kilimanjaro.” As the third recipient of the College’s Gitenstein-Hart Sabbatical Prize, an endowment set up by College President R. Barbara Gitenstein and her husband Donald Hart, Bender can now ensure the manuscript will come to fruition with this stipend.

“What I’m interested in doing is finding out how the people of the mountain are able to negotiate the ideas that are brought from the outside in order to preserve their control over the resource,” Bender said. “The kind of knowledge that outsiders bring in is not just about control of the resource, but it’s also about the very fundamental nature of it. So who owns it, what its religious significance is (and) what its capacity to bring harm is.”

According to Bender, the outsiders that have tried to shape the locals’ views on water include Swahili, European explorers, the independent Tanzanian state and currently, climate scientists.

“(I) look at how this mountain population tries to make sense of outside ideas, how they incorporate ideas that are useful to them and how they manage to reject ideas that they find to be incompatible with their way of thinking,” Bender said.

The Chagga have been able maintain their own views of water despite these outside influences, he added.

According to Bender, the outsiders that have tried to shape the locals’ views on water include Swahili, European explorers, the independent Tanzanian state and currently, climate scientists.

“What I do is look at how this mountain population tries to make sense of outside ideas, how they incorporate ideas that are useful to them and how they manage to reject ideas that they find to be incompatible with their way of thinking,” Bender said.

The Chagga have been able maintain their own views of water despite these outside influences, he added.

“People on the mountain think of water in a very holistic kind of way that people in western societies often don’t think of anymore,” Bender said. “It used to be that when people thought about indigenous societies, they thought that outsiders had a tremendous amount of power in terms of influencing their ideas and practices, but… people on the mountain show a remarkable ability to control how they conceptualize the resource.”

According to Bender, he has published five scholarly articles and a book chapter about the topic, but this manuscript is a culmination of the whole project. The first half of the manuscript is complete. He intends to use the first part of his 2016-2017 sabbatical to finish writing it and the rest of his time to edit, Bender said.

“The sabbatical prize helps to close the gap between what (you are) ordinarily paid and what you’re paid if you go on sabbatical,” Bender said. “The College’s policy is if you’re going on sabbatical for a year, you’re paid three quarters of your salary. The (prize) money is meant to help make up for the difference, so the people that want to take a year sabbatical can afford to do so.”

Though neither Gitenstein nor Hart decides who wins the awards, they have been satisfied with the past three recipients.

“I’m thrilled with the three choices. They just couldn’t have been better,” Gitenstein said. “The College of New Jersey has a fabulous faculty.”

The first two recipients of the prize were Associate Professor of Physics Nathan McGee and Associate Professor of Mathematics Jana Gevertz.

According to Bender, he is proud to be the first one from the School of Humanities and Social Sciences to win the sabbatical prize. His colleagues are just as pleased.

“Bender richly deserves this award. He represents the history department’s real commitment to combining our teaching and scholarship in meaningful ways,” said Cynthia Paces, history department chair and professor. “I have used some of Bender’s articles in my own courses and have invited him to lecture in my classes. His writing is a model for clear, engaging prose.”

The faculty committee that chooses the Gitenstein-Hart winner looks beyond just the writing, taking into account the faculty member behind the application. According to Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs Jacqueline Taylor, the committee looks at faculty who are still in the early stages of their career and then ranks the applicants and recommends the best to her. Taylor makes the final decision based on their rank, proposal and adherence to the award criteria.

“I was particularly happy… to see Matt Bender win the award this year. He wrote an outstanding sabbatical proposal,” Taylor said.

Despite his current success here at the College, Bender experienced some hardships along the way, including his field sites being 8,000 miles away and some language barriers. Though he speaks French and Swahili, can carry out simple conversations in Chagga and can read German, Bender struggled with reading through his source material, carrying out interviews and developing relationships with Chagga natives.

Despite the challenges, Bender overcame these obstacles in order to give the natives a voice — his biggest reward.

“I feel that I can do a lot to share their stories and draw attention to the challenges that local communities face regarding access to water. Not just on Kilimanjaro, but more broadly,” Bender said. “(My work) indicates the way that people on Kilimanjaro think about water is very unique to their own historical experiences. We live in a world where water is a scarce resource for billions of people and in order to address problems of water scarcity moving forward… we need to understand how people in local communities think about resources and how they manage them.”

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