Poppy Fry explores African history to shed light on its past
"In Africa, there are traditions and histories of things other than chaos and warfare," says Poppy Fry '00. "There is a redeemable past that can be retrieved, that will give people hope."
Fry carried her optimism and respect for Africa and its cultures with her to South Africa last summer on a grant from Stanford University's Undergraduate Institute on South Africa, where the previous year she was a fellow in advanced studies on Southern Africa. Her project, "Methodism and the Methodist Church in South Africa," took her throughout the Cape, from Cape Town to Grahamstown to Port Elizabeth.
Fry's devotion to her subject grew out of a course at the College in precolonial Africa with Assistant Professor of History Pamela F. Scully. "Kenyon's history majors are required to include a non-Western area in their curriculum," Fry explains. "When I encountered African history, I fell in love with it, and I've been focusing on it ever since."
A native of Seattle, Washington, Fry was looking forward to her first physical encounter with the African continent and its people when she left campus last May. "My field research in Africa is something I need to do before I go to graduate school in African history," she said before leaving for Africa. "I want to get a sense of what the issues are-not simply the academic things that are being written about, but also what the people are concerned about and how South Africans think about their own history at this particular moment of political transition. I certainly expect to find that official history is extremely limited."
Fry prepared for her journey by making connections within the Methodist Church, which is the largest Protestant denomination in South Africa. "The people have been very helpful and gracious to me, and they have welcomed my research," she noted. In addition to conducting interviews, Fry intended to examine the church archives at the Cory Library for Historical Research at Rhodes University in Grahamstown. "I'd also like to examine the ecclesiastical architecture and pull that into the mix of issues," she said. "There were many relocations during apartheid, so churches became an important source of stability. The way they were envisioned and used is demonstrated in the way the communities and churches are physically laid out."
Getting to the truth of history in South Africa is problematic, in Fry's view, because that history has been effaced and politicized for so long.
Fry's senior honors thesis at Kenyon examined the missionary encounter with political culture in the interior of South Africa. She sought to elaborate the ways in which missionaries and their relations with Tswana-speaking peoples on the South African frontier have been understood. Fry was particularly interested in how missionaries became implicated, often unintentionally, in the politics of chiefship and the colonial state. More broadly, she wanted to understand the first half of the nineteenth century as a period of political dynamism and innovation, including such diverse developments as the colonial state, the rise of the Zulu Kingdom, and the various attempts made by missionaries to convert the African people to Christianity.
"It was a beautifully and intelligently crafted project," says Fry's advisor, Associate Professor of History Clifton C. Crais. "Poppy's thesis illuminated how we understand politics and power in the pre-colonial and early colonial eras in South Africa."
Although Fry's academic work has been centered on the nineteenth century, she says she finds it is by no means irrelevant to the issues of today. "I think history is closer to the surface in South Africa than in it is in many Western nations, despite the fact that people there try to keep it out of the political arena," she says. "In many ways, it just hasn't been dealt with."
A person of diverse interests, Fry augmented her history major with a concentration in the College's interdisciplinary program in public policy. "I continue to be interested in government and, in particular, in the way the U.S. government can further the understanding of Africa, both in the United States and around the world," she says.
Fry, who was also accepted for graduate work at Boston, Harvard, and Yale universities, has opted to attend Harvard University. "The history department at Kenyon has not only taught me a lot about history," she says, "but also a lot about being an historian. I think it has really prepared me for graduate school in a remarkable way."
While Fry's plans for the future are still developing, she is committed to educating people about the importance of Africa and African history. "Whether I will do that within an academic setting or some other setting, I'm not sure," she says. "I do know that all of the great teachers I have had have been in love with their subject, and that I truly love what I'm doing. I think I'd like to give teaching a try."
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