With a large bookshelf filled with books, brightly coloured couches, and various fabrics adorning the walls, Professor Sarah Hillewaert’s office offers a glimpse into her vibrant life—and hints at the long, winding journey that has brought her to UTM.
Hillewaert was born and raised in Belgium. While she was a good student during high school, she claims that she was never a stellar one. Following high school, she chose to audition for dance school.
“I never [anticipated getting] into academia. I wanted to be a professional dancer,” she says. “I didn’t get in, because I didn’t have the basic technique.”
The school that Hillewaert had auditioned for suggested that she take two years of technique classes, such as ballet and jazz, and then come back for a second audition.
“So my mom gave me the option: ‘Well, you do that and you pay for it yourself,’” reminisces Hillewaert. “She said that I’m not going to stop you, but you get a job, you take evening classes, and you put yourself through these years, and then you put yourself through dance school.”
The second option was that she attend university, with her mom paying the tuition expenses.
Hillewaert decided to pick the second option.
It was her sister who suggested that she should study African languages, since Hillewaert had been studying African dances. There was also a possibility that Hillewaert could write her thesis on African dances, and that way, still be able to maintain her interest in dancing.
“So I started university and I got really fascinated with the topics,” says Hillewaert. “I had one professor in particular who was really interested in languages, and how language and culture intersect. We did a lot of work on refugee studies, working with African refugees in Belgium and the asylum process. […] We were learning several languages—we were learning Tshiluba, which is spoken in Congo, and we started learning Swahili.”
As Hillewaert and her friends learned new languages, they wondered: could these new languages help them navigate through Africa successfully?
“We looked for the cheapest ticket to anywhere where they spoke Swahili, and it turned out to be Nairobi. And so I got on a plane to Nairobi, and I absolutely fell in love with the country. To me, it and Kenya were two of the most beautiful countries that I’ve been to.”
While Hillewaert was in Nairobi, she stayed with a local family. One day, the children in the family were chatting among themselves, but Hillewaert couldn’t understand what they were saying. She blamed it on her poor grasp of Swahili—but then something odd happened. When the children’s mother walked in, she was incredibly upset at what they were saying.
“[I thought] that my Swahili was really bad. […] [But] they weren’t speaking Swahili; they were speaking the kind of slang that they speak in the streets, and [their mom didn’t] want that kind of language in [the] house.”
Hillewaert was immediately fascinated by this slang, and this marked the beginning of her research focus on youth culture. “I went back the next summer to do three months of research on hip-hop, youth language, and how urban youth identity was created through that language […] I loved the vibrancy of the youth culture there,” says Hillewaert.
Following the completion of her B.Sc. and Master’s, Hillewaert’s professor encouraged her to enter the field of linguistic anthropology, and to pursue it further with a Ph.D. in the U.S.
“It just seemed so out of this world,” says Hillewaert. “Who would ever go to the United States?”
But despite how far-fetched it sounded, Hillewaert did head to the U.S. to complete her Ph.D. in linguistic anthropology at the University of Michigan. Her dissertation, titled, “Between Respect and Desire: On Being Young, Pious, and Modern in an East African Muslim Town”, focused on the youth culture in Kenya.
Today, she is an assistant professor at UTM’s anthropology department.
“It’s been a wonderful journey. […] I love what I do. When students ask me, would you recommend that [they] do a Ph.D.? I tell them to never underestimate it—it’s not just a study. It’s your life,” says Hillewaert.
“I think [that] one of the benefits of our jobs is that every single day, you work on stuff that you’re fascinated with, and you determine what you’re going to look at. […] You formulate research questions that you yourself really want to find out. There’s very few jobs that you can get where you can continue learning throughout your entire life and just pursue things that you are fascinated with.”
Hillewaert has not had a chance to enter professional dancing yet.
“On the one hand, I miss it. I wish I could go back to that, to that kind of modern dance again. […] But I do still dance, I just don’t take classes anymore,” says Hillewaert.
Today, she is continuing her research in Lamu, a Kenyan town that historically traded with the Arab world. It had been a wealthy town once. But following Lamu’s incorporation into Kenya, the government placed trade constraints, which caused the economy to suffer.
“The economy [then] shifted to a tourist[-based] economy. Tourists were fascinated by this remote town that had these beautiful stone mansions, but at the same time, was very remote [and had no] motorized transportation […] a lot of tourists started coming, so [Lamu] started thriving on tourism,” says Hillewaert.
But following political instability and the rise of Islamic extremist groups, Lamu’s economy is struggling, and once again, the town faces severe poverty.
“I was very struck with the things young people there are struggling with. It’s quite a conservative Muslim town. You can feel by being there how proud the inhabitants are of their history and of what the town stood for in the past. But at the same time, there is a very stark confrontation with poverty, with a lack of future prospects.”
According to Hillewaert, in tourist magazines, Lamu is presented as a town that is “frozen in time” and has become a heavily exotic tourist destination. But in government discourse, officials think about Lamu in terms of extremism and radicalism, as they worry that young people may join radical groups.
These two broad and conflicting generalizations prompted Hillewaert to challenge these notions. “By looking at the [everyday] practices, [I am] trying to break down the stereotypes of the extremist Muslim or the exotic Oriental image,” she says. “We try to break that down, and try to bring the realistic, and more recognisable, image to Muslim youth.”
“When you look at sociology, there is a lot of discussion about these broader changes, especially in Muslim communities; but there is very little work that actually looks at the everyday negotiations. How do they go about their everyday lives? What happens in their interactions with their peers, their parents, and their elders? And how is that reflective of what they themselves are trying to figure out [in terms of] what their norms and values are?” she continues.
“So that’s what I find fascinating—the very minute details through which young people negotiate identity.”