What They Learned: Sabea Evans ’18

The linguistics major, religion minor, and Africana studies concentrator wrote her thesis using ethnography to explore race and language in Ghana.

For Sabea Evans ’18, writing a linguistics thesis provided an opportunity for her to expand upon collaborative action research that she conducted in Dalun, Ghana, during the summer after her junior year at Haverford through the Center for Peace and Global Citizenship (CPGC).

Evans’s thesis, “Siliminga, hello! — Negotiating Race, Place, and Language Ideologies in Post-Colonial Dalun, Ghana,” explores the value of ethnographic linguistics research through a series of interviews that probe the intersections of education, history, power, and post-colonial society in a manner that acknowledges Evans’s minor in religion and concentration in Africana studies.

“I hope that my thesis at least provides an example of how to write a thesis supported by experiences rather than technical data to other students interested in anthropological linguistics,” she said. “There aren’t many ethnographic linguistics theses, and I hope that pattern changes as more people learn to value stories and discourse as real data.”

Evans wrote her thesis under advisors Brook Lillehaugen, an assistant professor of linguistics at Haverford, and Jamie Thomas, an assistant professor of linguistics at Swarthmore. (Linguistics is a Tri-College department.)

“Having both of their perspectives and energies put toward feedback on my questioning and my analysis was extremely helpful, and I never felt unsupported, even when I doubted my own process,” said Evans, who continued her collaboration with Lillehaugen through the 2018 Summer Doculab Fellowship.  

Her research was also made possible and informed by guidance from Mohammed Gausu Yusif and Alidu Abdul Rahaman of Simli Radio, Sumaila Alhassan and Bi-Co Education Professor Alice Lesnick, coordinators of the Lagim Tehi Tuma program, and Safianu Mahama, a mentor of the LTT program and a main interview collaborator.

A recent graduate, Evans is spending this year as Haverford House Fellow, where she works as a policy and communications fellow with the Center for Hunger Free Communities.

“I will be continuing my efforts toward ethical representation and amplifying untold and unheard stories by fashioning ways to represent the real-life implications behind the Center’s research on Philadelphians living in imposed conditions of poverty, to policy makers, news outlets, and the public,” said Evans of her post-graduate work.

What inspired your thesis work?

During the summer after my junior year, I participated in a collaborative action research fellowship called Lagim Tehi Tuma through a CPGC partnership. Our goal was to interrogate questions about education, history, power, and post-coloniality through our work interning at local nonprofit organizations. I worked at the local radio station that chooses to broadcast mostly in the local indigenous language, Dagbani, instead of English. The radio station had had partnerships in the past with a program called School for Life that endeavored to provide primary education to rural and non-traditionally-aged students in their heritage language. The focus toward accessibility of education and shifting attitudes about indigenous heritage languages sparked questions in me that led to semi-structured interviews with the various mentors in our program, as well as policy makers and administrators, about heritage language use ideologies in a post-colonial linguistic landscape.

What is your biggest takeaway from the project?

My biggest takeaway was learning how to truly listen to someone and understand them in their own words and through their own eyes. At the start of my interviews, I faced a lot of tension between the answers I was given and what the theories and frameworks I’d researched led me to expect, and I eventually realized that the former should be the priority in my work. I learned that if I only listened for what I knew or what I understood, I would never really get the true answer to what I had asked. It’s people’s real firsthand experiences that should take precedence over how other people have translated them.

Photo: Sabea Evans ’18 visited a crocodile pond on a group day trip to Paga, Ghana. Photo courtesy of Sabea Evans ’18.

“What They Learned” is a blog series exploring the thesis work of recent graduates.