“I like to see how languages work in the world. [I am] fascinated by the complexity of communication and the central role it plays in our everyday life—who we are, what we do, and the social relationships we build,” says Dr. Sarah Hillewaert, an associate professor of anthropology at UTM. Hillewaert never anticipated joining the world of academia, but soon discovered her true passion as a linguistic anthropologist during her university studies and numerous world travels. She sat down with The Medium to discuss her recent research projects and her new book.

Hillewaert’s interest in modern dance inspired her to study African language and culture as an undergraduate student in Belgium. While learning Swahili, Hillewaert and a friend decided to apply their knowledge by travelling to Kenya for three weeks. In Nairobi, she encountered youth living in slums and a new slang language they used. The development of the slang intrigued Hillewaert and she returned to Kenya for further research and eventually wrote her thesis on the topic. The research further sparked a fascination of language and, as recommended by her professor, Hillewaert decided to pursue graduate studies in linguistic anthropology in the United States.

Hillewaert’s most recent research consists of examining the complex relationship between the Muslim community in Lamu, Kenya and the growing trend of wellness tourism. “[Lamu was a] thriving trade city and a center for Islamic scholarship [which] linked it to different parts of the world. It has a massive history,” describes Hillewaert.

However, Lamu’s Golden Age soon ended and the town became politically marginalized following independence from colonization. Since the 1960s, Lamu has relied on tourism as a source of revenue. Hillewaert describes tourists as being “enchanted with this remote island where time supposedly stood still.” The tourism declined in recent years due to terrorist attacks and many countries placed travelling warnings for tourists planning to travel to the island.

Recently, there has been an increase in the development of yoga studios in Lamu. Shela, a town nearby, used to be in ruins until it was discovered by wealthy Western expats who saw this idyllic place as an opportunity for further development. The expats bought land on which they constructed hotels, attracting more wealthy tourists that travelled to Shela to practice yoga and ‘mindfulness.’

Throughout her research in Lamu, Hillewaert has been interested in the trend of promoting Lamu as a wellness destination for international tourists, together with promoting yoga and meditation as a form of development to the local Muslim community, whereby tourists can help teach meditation, for example, in local schools. 

The wellness tourism trend is also prevalent in Eastern Africa, and especially in Kenya. The Africa Yoga Project teaches yoga to children living in the slums of Nairobi. A similar project in Lamu involves yoga being taught as a tool to deal with everyday stresses. Hillewaert plans to research the new role of yoga in the lives of the locals that live in that community.

Another recent development is a yoga safari. “Masai, [the local population,] are incorporated in the yoga [and share] their authentic healing rituals” with the tourists during the safari. The Masai are also taught yoga as part of the project. Hillewaert says that “an exchange is being presented, an appeal of not [only being] a tourist [that] goes and sees [the place], but also [gives] something back.”

As part of her research, Hillewaert stays for long periods of time in the community of interest. The stay largely consists of building contacts, speaking with the local community, and asking if they are willing to participate in her research. In the future, Hillewaert is interested in attending yoga workshops and speaking with the participating tourists. She also hopes to participate in the Africa Yoga Project and experience a yoga safari. Hillewaert believes that it is essential to gain perspective from both communities—the one taking part in the tourism and the one that is part of the local community. Additionally, Hillewaert hopes to conduct her research over a few years in order to observe the impact of yoga and wellness tourism on the local public.

Hillewaert’s new book, Morality at the Margins: Youth, Language, and Islam in Coastal Kenya, was published earlier this year. In the book, Hillewaert aims to explore the experiences of youth growing up in Lamu—a place rich in history but lacking opportunities to grow. Hillewaert explores questions such as “What must it be like to be young in this place? What must it be like to try and build a future here?” She explains that “on one hand [the youth deal] with the strong awareness of pride of [belonging to Lamu].” On the other hand, they are “confronted with [the reality] that there are not many opportunities, or sense of economic development [in this place].”

Hillewaert’s book explores the changing values in Lamu such as the transition from women staying inside the house to the current situation where women contribute to economic development. Female youth do still face challenges due to “lingering ideologies about what respectability and honour and honesty entails” which leads to them struggling with how to balance contributing to the community and upholding the notion of respect. The book essentially looks at “how do you represent yourself as respectable and be a conscious Muslim who contributes to the development of your community?”

Young men in Lamu are also faced with the changing job structures and the responsibility of providing for their family. Hillewaert’s book examines “the everyday negotiations of norms and questions of morality.” A common theme that runs through the book is what it means to be a good Muslim.

Through her book, Hillewaert “wants to challenge stereotypes that people look to Africa with and at Islam, and talk about the challenges that young youth face in general.” She adds that “you can talk about the broader social processes, but where it means something is precisely in the face-to-face interactions.”

Hillewaert is currently teaching ANT335: Anthropology of Gender and History of Anthropological Thought, which is a graduate course at the St. George Campus. She has also previously taught ANT433: Anthropology of Islam at UTM. She will be on leave for the 2020 winter term as she will be travelling to Lamu for research. In the 2020 fall term, she will be teaching ANT102: Introduction to Sociocultural and Linguistic Anthropology at UTM.

Through her writing and teaching, Hillewaert wants to provide her students with “the tools to think critically about everyday negotiations,” and “show that [what they learn] are things that impact their life as well.”

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