top of page

Lab Members

Ellen Bassett (Lab Leader)

I’m an urban planning professor at UVA in the Department of Urban and Environmental Planning.  I originally went into planning because I grew up in metro Detroit, Michigan.  I was a teen there in the 1970s when white flight from the city was at its height and when tensions between the suburbs and the central city were very pronounced.  I was attracted to planning because—like legions of Detroit planning kids since—I wanted to bring jobs back to the city, foster reinvestment and increase social equity. 


I got interested in Africa when I went to Kenya as a Peace Corps volunteer in 1989 in a sector called small town planning.  I was first based in Embu, a town around Mt. Kenya; I later moved to Nairobi and worked for the German aid agency, GTZ, in the Kenyan ministry of local government.  Kenya basically changed my life and my focus in planning.  I’m especially interested in land tenure—who has rights to land and what rights they have—and how land rights relate to urbanization, living conditions and political power.  Right now I’m researching the governance transition ushered in by Kenya’s 2010 Constitution and its implications for city development. I also have on-going work with colleagues on living conditions in Kenyan cities and what the different lived experiences are for those living in informal versus formal settlements.  


The African Urbanism Humanities Lab is already changing the way I think about cities.  With the students in my class The African City I’ve had space to read and discuss novels and short stories, examine film and music, and delve into history in a way that planning pedagogy does not allow. While I doubt I will write the Nairobi equivalent of Nature’s Metropolis (but one can always aspire!), my scholarship on African cities is becoming more multi-faceted and deep due to my engagement with the humanities and conversations with members of the lab.

Sheila Crane

Trained as an art historian, with long-standing interest in architecture and cities, my work has explored the history of architecture and urban planning, urban theory and new forms of urbanization, and the visual culture of cities, focusing particularly on France, the Maghrib, and the Mediterranean region.   My first book focused on the city of Marseille and how its varied urban imaginaries––inspired especially by the city’s status as a major Mediterranean port and as the key point of connection between metropolitan France and its expanding colonies (especially in North Africa and West Africa)––shaped by proposals urban planners and architects from the 1920s through the intertwining periods of postwar expansion and decolonization.  Long ago now, as a graduate student, I came to Marseille in part through a series of classes I took on the history of art and architecture in sub-Saharan Africa.  My work on Marseille pushed me to think further about the history of cities and urbanism in the Maghrib, and I have since been working on a book project tracing the history of the bidonville, or shantytown, as an urban form, a subject of visual representation, a site of knowledge production, an object of social and spatial reengineering, and a space of contestation.  The project aims to consider how accelerated urbanization and rural-urban migration led to new mappings of the city and to myriad strategies for containing, reordering, and eliminating developments newly perceived as unauthorized and informal. 


I am especially excited to participate in collaborative research and shared conversations about everyday spatial practices in cities across Africa, the shifting categories and mappings of the urban-rural continuum (the focus of many on peri-peri conditions is of particular interest to me), as well as our overlapping investments in rethinking informality and exploring the methods we use to understand the urban.

Rebecca Dillingham

Rebecca Dillingham, MD/MPH is the Director of the University of Virginia's Center for Global Health and co-founder of UVa's Global Health Leadership Track, a two-year program that provides global health training for residents from seven departments. Dr. Dillingham has led the development of global health training across UVa's campus through her directorship of the UVa Framework Program in Global Health, an initiative supported by the Fogarty International Center. In addition to sustained funding through the Framework program, Dr. Dillingham leads 3 other NIH-funded international research training grants. Dr. Dillingham's faculty positions are in the Division of Infectious Disease and International Health and in Public Health Sciences. Dr. Dillingham received her B.A. from Harvard/Radcliffe College and then traveled to the Ivory Coast where she worked on HIV prevention for two years prior to entering medical school at the University of Missouri-Columbia.  She served as a resident and chief resident in Internal Medicine and as a fellow in infectious diseases at UVa. Dr. Dillingham has been awarded numerous teaching and clinical service awards in recognition of her skill as an educator as well as her humanistic approach to medicine. Her major clinical activity is the care of adult patients infected with HIV.  Dr. Dillingham's funded research projects include the use of cell phone-based technology to help vulnerable populations improve engagement in HIV care and the evaluation of the impact of changes in water and sanitation on the incidence of water-borne disease. This research takes place in Virginia and South Africa.

George Mpanga

Mr. George Mpanga is an independent researcher living in Kampala Uganda. Mr. Mpanga has a BA in Social Work and Social Administration and has been collaborating with anthropologists and historians on a variety of research projects since 2007. Mr. Mpanga is currently collaborating on a book project with Prof. Scherz entitled Higher Power(s): Alcohol and After in Uganda’s Capital City.  This book will be based on their study of alcohol use and the plurality of approaches being used to address alcohol abuse in Uganda. As co-investigators, they have conducted ethnographic research, together and separately, and have jointly supervised and supported several UVa undergraduate students working as research assistants on the project. 

Anne Rotich

I have been trained as a social scientist with expertise in Education, specifically Social Studies and Global Education. My published work examines a broad spectrum of issues and topics of interest including the analysis of African literary works, the teaching of controversial issues in K-12 schools, teaching about Africa in the US and Swahili language and cultures. In my previous research, I conducted a case study that analyzed how teachers in Kenya and in the United States teach about controversial issues. I investigated teachers’ epistemologies and how their perceptions and interpretation of hot-button issues in the society and globally impacted their teaching and developing of active democratic citizens.

In relation to the African City, I intend to further this research on controversial issues by investigating how the youth in the urban cities engage controversial issues discussions. Of importance will be to examine how Sheng and popular culture has influenced the discussions of controversial issues among the youth and its impact on social criticism and activism. Some questions that I want to explore are: How does Sheng, a language spoken in the urban areas, and popular culture shape and transform the way the youth discuss about hot-button issues in the urban society? Does these avenues advance certain opinions or positions? How is popular culture and sheng an agent of activism, and a voice for some of these controversial issues? How do the youth negotiate and utilize the urban spaces and contexts to engage sensitive issues? How does these spaces then courage social change?

China Scherz

I am a socio-cultural/medical anthropologist. My research is based in the central region of Uganda and revolves around questions of care, interdependence, ethics, agency, and health-seeking practices.

My first book explored a set of conflicting and intertwining ethics of care at play in NGOs working with orphans and children with disabilities.  It was centrally concerned questions of interdependence and gift exchange as they relate to the concept of sustainable development.

I am currently conducting research on drinking and the array of strategies Ugandans use to try to stop drinking.  My longtime collaborator, George Mpanga, and I have been conducting ethnographic fieldwork at bars, in-patient rehabilitation centers, churches, herbalist’s shops, and the shrines of basamize since 2015 and we are currently applying for funding to study a cohort of people who have tried to stop drinking over a longer period of time.  Theoretically this project is focused on (1) tracking the introduction of the new biomedical category of addiction, (2) understanding contemporary practice of indigenous medical and spiritual practices in the “peri-peri” spaces of suburban Kampala, and (3) modifying the theoretical frameworks being used in the anthropology of ethics to make them more attentive to the role of affect, embodied experience, and the actions of collectivities of human and supernatural actors.

Nancy Takahashi

I am looking forward to my fourth upcoming trip this summer ’17 to Ghana where my research is investigating the impact of rising sea-levels on African coastal cities. Since 2014, I have been engaged with an international and interdisciplinary team composed of faculty and student from the University of Virginia, University of Ghana Legon, University of Derby UK, University of Education Winneba, Ghana Central Region Division of Wildlife and Forestry, and Winneba stakeholders and political leaders. Our focus has been on the city of Winneba, a coastal fishing city (pop. 60,000) west of the capital, Accra. Critical to this city is the adjacent Muni-Pomadze Lagoon, a rich wetland identified through the 1971 Ramsar Convention and a traditional sacred site at the heart of the community’s cultural identity. Through Winneba, our team seeks to understand how communities can be inventive and proactive in the face of dynamic coastal and lagoon changes. There’s already strong evidence of entrepreneurial, productive human enterprise that utilizes the lagoon’s assets-- agriculture, mangrove reforestation, children’s education, fishing, aquaculture, cultural festivals and ecotourism-- yet the lagoon faces threats and uncertainties from sea level changes and informal building. We hope to support the work of Winneba and other communities to plan and manage a stronger economic and social future through their valuable, changing water assets.   

Please reload

James Igoe (Lab Leader)

I am an environmental anthropologist and most of my field experience is in community-based development and participatory action research in Tanzania and South Dakota. Most of my work engages with struggles of indigenous communities to control and manage natural resources according to their own self-defined needs and values. In am currently in the preliminary stages of a new research trajectory around the cities of Moshi and Arusha in Northern Tanzania. The main themes of that research, as it relates to the African Urbanisms Lab are as follows: 1. Peri-Peri – intersections of peri-urban and peri-rural spaces, how are ongoing transformations in northern Tanzania challenging prevailing understandings to urban-rural divides; 2. Visual Solidarity, Collaboration, and Representations – the ways in which people are using media technology to articulate identities that are legible to both themselves and outsiders, and to engage in advocacy activities related specifically to land and water rights; 3. Technology and Livelihoods – how are people using technologies in adapting to rapidly changing ecological, economic, and political landscapes; 4. Memory and archive – possibilities for using media technology to define heritage and archive collective memories, knowledge, and values. I will be travelling to Tanzania over the next two years to begin working out specific research activities and methodologies. In relation to the African Urbanism Humanities Lab, I am especially concerned questions of engagement and development with social justice. I am particularly interested in working with community activists, artists, filmmakers, journalists and scholars (just to name a few) on the kinds of questions and issues briefly outlined above, but of course not only those. I would like to be part of a sub-group within the lab that would host these kinds  of partnerships and cultivate long-term collaborations beyond the next two years. 

Ellen Contini-Morava

I am a linguist with specialization in African languages.  Most of my research has been on Swahili, the most widely-spoken language in Eastern Africa, and also used in large parts of Central Africa such as the eastern provinces of the Democratic Republic of Congo.  I teach a mixed graduate-undergraduate course on African Languages and I incorporate research on African languages in my courses on Sociolinguistics, Language and Culture, and Linguistic Field Methods (where we are currently working on Maay Maay, a Cushitic language of Somalia).  Of particular relevance to the African Cities project is the 2015 dissertation of my student Michael Wairungu, who investigated uses and perceptions of Sheng, an urban vernacular language that incorporates elements of Swahili, English, “ethnic” languages, and newly-coined slang, that originated in Nairobi and has spread to other cities in Kenya.  Sheng is typical of “mixed” urban vernaculars reported from other parts of Africa, such as Nouchi in Abidjan (Côte d’Ivoire), Tsotsitaal in Johannesburg (South Africa), and Dakar Wolof (Senegal).  

Nomi Dave

I'm an ethnomusicologist, with a background in law and anthropology. I've been working in Conakry, Guinea on-and-off since 2002 -- first as a humanitarian worker focusing on refugee rights, and later as an ethnographer.

My current book project is on the legacies of authoritarianism in Guinea, examining in particular the role of pleasure and aesthetics in public life. I'm also in the early stages of planning my next project, on the use of music in humanitarian and human rights initiatives. While these initiatives most commonly use music as a vehicle to carry messages and raise awareness about issues of concern, my aim in this project is instead to consider music as a site to explore and work out questions of rights, responsibility, personhood, etc; and as a means to tell stories and make individuals or groups more visible / audible. I'm particularly concerned with questions of efficacy and impact, and thus in addition to researching existing initiatives, the project will also involve designing new initiatives -- working with collaborators in Guinea and elsewhere, and across disciplines.


A central question I address is my research in how music is imagined to re-make the world. In relation to the African Urbanism lab, I'm also interested in understanding how music and performance can create space for people -- physical space and resources; recognition and space in the public sphere; and space for critical reflection. 

Adria LaViolette

I'm an archaeologist in the Anthropology Department, and have spent my career thus far studying aspects of sub-Saharan indigenous urbanism (first and second millennium CE).  My graduate training and dissertation research focused on the West African savannah/Sahel, and the region of the Inland Niger Delta in Mali.  I worked at an important early urban site called Jenne-jeno as an archaeologist, and also carried out an ethnographic study of blacksmiths, potters, and masons in the city of Jenne in the early 1980s.  This was done to contextualize craft specialists in recent and historically known urban formations, where they are part of the Mande tradition of endogamous specialists and possibly at the center of early urbanism; and to record the material signatures of what they did as specialists for purposes of comparison with the archaeological record.  The choice of those three groups allowed me to compare male and female specialists, low and high status specialists, and those who were governed by, let's say, expectations of endogamy and those who were considered free, in the Mande system.

After my PhD I took a job teaching archaeology at the University of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, in 1989 and unintentionally but essentially switched my research focus to working on the Swahili coast, although indigenous urbanism and specialization have anchored me there as well.  My major research interests in Tanzania have included the study of non-stone sectors of ancient Swahili towns, and locating and studying non-stone towns and villages on the coast; how international merchant trade interfaced with the regional domestic economy (including local specialization); how elite and common people interacted in towns; how households functioned and changed over time; the extent to which towns were organized around Islamic practice rather than merchant activity per se and how that changed; and the changing role of Islamic practice. I've mostly worked on the coast near Dar es Salaam and on Pemba Island; I've recently begun a new project on Zanzibar, seeking to develop an archaeology of the European colonial period, looking at the relationship between European settlements and Swahili villages on Zanzibar.  I'm engaged in training Tanzanian archaeologists, collaborating with Tanzanian archaeologists and heritage managers, and helping to build bridges to the public in different ways about the role of archaeology since that time.

Noel Lobley

I’m an Assistant Professor in the Department of Music.  I am an ethnomusicologist and sound curator who works across the disciplines of music, anthropology and sound studies to develop a series of international curatorial residencies. I am currently curating an ongoing series of touring sound installation and remix projects designed to link major ethnographic collections from across sub-Saharan Africa.  This entails developing collaborations with local artists, communities and institutions, in order to implement mutually beneficial sustainable methods to curate recorded sonic heritage. 

Tolu Odumosu

I am a Science, Technology and Society scholar who studies telecommunications systems broadly writ. I currently teach in STS program of the Department of Engineering and Society at the School of Engineering and Applied Science at UVA. I also hold a courtesy appointment in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at UVA.

I came to STS from Electrical Engineering which goes some way to explaining the diversity of my research interests. The primary catalyst for moving from engineering to STS was my desire to understand technological systems in Nigeria. As an engineering undergraduate at the University of Lagos I was interested in diagnosing the anemic and sporadic electrical grid (NEPA). My engineering professors discouraged me from doing so in any meaningful way and instead encouraged me to go “model a transmission line”. My dissatisfaction with that response led to my pursuit of a Masters in Electrical Engineering and later, a PhD in STS when I realized that I needed to expand my analytical perspective to properly tackle the sorts of questions that interested me. The way I think of my work these days is that I am interested in how technologies travel. The point of transition is also a point of reconfiguration and so much does, and can happen at that point.


I returned to Nigerian infrastructure for my dissertation project but decided to study a successful technology and focused on mobile telephony rather than electrical power (though there are many connections between the two). In the midst of completing my research, a side-project to understand the birth of modern telephony at Bell Laboratories blossomed into a full-fledged book about Research cultures and environments in the United States. Co-written with Prof. Venky Narayanamurti of Harvard, my first book Cycles of Invention and Discovery argues that some urgent changes are needed in the way and manner we think about the talk about research.


I have since returned to my study of mobile telephony in Nigeria and am working on a manuscript. This work for me is really about the broader question of infrastructure and the modern African city. As it relates to the African Urbanism Humanities Lab, my work seeks to help us understand the role, place, imagination and relationship to infrastructure that is foundational to the development of African urban spaces. I recently contributed a chapter to the edited volume What Do Science, Technology, and Innovation Mean from Africa? that discusses some of these ideas. For African audiences, the entire book is available open access at this link.

Please reload

bottom of page