Master of Arts in Sustainable International Development

Becoming a Cultural Scholar: Mariama Khan, MA SID'08

Mariama KhanMariama Khan, MA SID'08, a native of The Gambia, 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 the cornerstone of what I believe development should be.” 

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 pre-colonial 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.” 

Khan left her country in 2011 to come to the United States. After graduating from Heller School in 2008, she continued working for the Gambian government, but decided to quit in 2010 to start a school for the creative arts. The Office of the President asked her to rescind her resignation and when she did not, she was made the subject of a government investigation and agents of the National Intelligence Agency were sent to her home and seized her travel documents. Khan was eventually cleared of any wrongdoing, but she left The Gambia at the first opportunity, traveling to the United States and eventually joining the faculty of Lehman College in New York, where she teaches today. 

“The ordeal was difficult for me,” Khan says, “but from that experience and from my travels after I left the country, I learnt a lot of things – about myself and about the world. In the end, I forgave them and moved on.”

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

“There were so many professors who I personally learnt from inside and outside of the 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.”