Anthropologist addresses Ebola

Colgate Professor Mary Moran

Mary Moran

Professor of anthropology and Africana and Latin American studies

In light of the Ebola outbreak that spiked last summer, organizations like the United Nations and the World Health Organization have been consulting Professor Mary Moran, whose longtime research now has a new purpose. To assist with the crisis, Moran is going back to her notes from the ’80s, when she conducted her dissertation research in Liberia. Her fieldwork there included women’s involvement in funerals and the treatment of the dead.

“I have written lots of scholarly pieces about funerals and no one has ever needed them before,” remarked Moran, a professor of anthropology and Africana and Latin American studies. “It’s nice to find that all of this work that I’ve been doing for a rather limited audience suddenly has other uses.”

In November, Moran joined more than 20 other anthropologists to meet with policy makers in Washington, D.C., in order to advise organizations assisting with containment efforts. She helped organize the conference titled Ebola Emergency Response Initiative: Discussion and Preliminary Findings of Anthropological Experts Workshop. Held at George Washington University, it was sponsored by the American Anthropological Association.

Conference participants met in working groups to address questions and topics on which policy makers asked for guidance. The results from those working groups were compiled into recommendations for actionable steps. “For one of the first times that I’m aware of, we’ve got experts on this region advising an ongoing intervention,” she said. “Practitioners on the ground have not always believed that they needed regional expertise in responding to an emergency.”

Moran’s interest in Africa and Africana studies began when she was an undergraduate at Mount Holyoke College and became involved in the divestment movement. The movement encouraged American institutions to abstain from doing business with companies associated with South Africa’s apartheid government.

Then, while earning her master’s at Brown University, Moran studied African-American communities on barrier islands off the coast of Georgia and South Carolina. The people spoke a creole language with linguistic roots tying back to the West African coast, including Liberia. Continuing to study at Brown for her PhD, Moran traveled to Liberia for her dissertation fieldwork. “It seemed like a transatlantic way to connect my master’s work to my PhD work,” she said.

Today, Moran refers to her research while teaching Gender and Society in Africa, Political Anthropology, Core Africa, and in an extended study course trip to South Africa.

She also leads Colgate’s Model African Union, a half-semester class that culminates in a trip to Washington, D.C., where her students join 20 other top colleges and universities in an annual simulation of the African Union.

Although Moran was on leave during the fall 2014 semester to write a book about men who declined to participate in the Liberian civil war, she dedicated much of her time to the Ebola crisis instead. “Because this is an emergency, I’ve turned to looking at how research I’ve conducted in the past can be useful to practitioners on the ground,” she explained.

— Jessica Rice ’16; Photo by Andrew Daddio