University of Vermont

Athens and Africa

Classics professor takes research to Malawi

Students from UVM Professor Mark Usher's classics seminar at Chancellor College, Zomba, Malawi.

What business does a classics professor from the U.S. have conducting research in Malawi? That's the question Mark Usher poses to himself in the first post of a blog he's kept for the Center for Hellenic Studies, the Harvard-funded institute that helped support his recent trip to the small, African nation this February.

It may not be immediately clear what ties connect Athens with Africa, but Usher, associate professor and chair of classics at UVM, isn't the first to explore them. He's following in the footsteps of Italian filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini, who in 1970 traveled to central and eastern Africa to create "Notes for an African Oresteia," a set of visual notes for a filmic version of Aeshcylus' Oresteia, a trilogy of Greek tragedies concerning Agamemnon, his wife Clytemnestra and his son Orestes. The trilogy grapples with murder and matricide, revenge and justice, and marks a historical shift, says Usher, from "the summary justice of blood-feud to the rule of law in a democratic city-state."

"In a nutshell, Pasolini's argument was that societies go through growing pains," Usher explains. "One of the central themes of the Oresteia is that we achieve wisdom through suffering. Pasolini saw Africa in 1970 as a case study for that. African nations faced significant challenges after independence."

Usher's hope for the trip, which will be the subject of a scholarly essay, was to "take the pulse of Pasolini’s Aeschylean vision for Africa one generation later." To help accomplish this, he taught a seminar on the Oresteia to students at Chancellor College in Zomba, Malawi. They read the trilogy, watched the Pasolini film, and discussed the relevance of Aeschylus and the study of classics in Africa today.

What Usher didn't know is that his trip would coincide with revolution in Egypt and political unrest throughout the continent, an energy he says that was felt on the Chancellor College campus when students rioted over delayed payment of a stipend from the government and the academic staff union held a sit-in in support of academic freedom.

In other words, the environment was ripe for talking about a Greek drama that deals with the birth of democracy and the reorganization of society. Listen to the above interview to hear Usher discuss the Oresteia, its relevance to Africa and his students' reactions to the texts.

Delve deeper into Usher's research and see more photos from his travels: visit his blog on the Center for Hellenic Studies website.