Mariama Khan, MA SID'08: Becoming a cultural scholar

June 23, 2022

Mariama Khan, MA SID'08
Illustration by Tal Friedlander

Mariama Khan, MA SID’08, a native of The Gambia in West Africa, has always been interested in African culture, but it wasn’t until she enrolled in the Heller School’s MA in Sustainable International Development program that she decided to make it her life’s work.

“My interest in the subject kept growing when I was at Heller,” recalls Khan. “[Professor Emerita of the Practice] Susan Holcombe, in particular, was always encouraging me to explore my culture, to think about language, and it became a cornerstone of what I believe development should include.”

More than a decade later, Khan has established a successful career as a cultural scholar, publishing on the relationship between indigenous languages and development in West Africa, and the impact of border politics on kinship ties.

In her latest book, “Politics in The Gambia and Guinea-Bissau: Precolonial Influence on the Postcolonial State,” which she dedicated to Holcombe, Khan explores how the culture and traditions of the precolonial Kaabu empire have been used to shape political rhetoric in both countries throughout history. In particular, many modern-day political movements have demonstrated a renewed sense of cultural awareness, employing indigenous terms and motifs to prove their legitimacy, Khan writes.

In her research, Khan conducted interviews and utilized archival materials, but she also drew heavily from cultural evidence, like indigenous songs and oral traditions.

“I used these historical resources to show how people express their belonging to the state and their vision of politics,” Khan says. “The evidence suggests that people want change, they want democratic leadership.”

After graduating from the Heller School in 2008, Khan continued working for the Gambian government, but decided to leave in 2010. She eventually returned to the United States and joined the faculty of Lehman College of the City University of New York, where she teaches today.

In her work, which includes teaching, research, writing poetry and filmmaking, Khan continues to draw on lessons she learned from the Heller School, where her professors encouraged her to pursue new experiences, from her introduction to graduate teaching to directing her first film.

“There were so many professors whom I personally learned from inside and outside of class, and their lessons continue to be part of my life,” says Khan. “I gained both an education and wisdom from Brandeis, and that is very rare.”