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Out of Africa




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A. Sue Weisler

The 10-year-old boy from Wisconsin sat on the veranda of a British Colonial hotel in Nigeria eating a slice of cherry pie, pausing periodically to spit out the pits.

“The pits were still in the cherries,” laughs Anthony Vodacek, remembering the whitewashed hotel. “I would like to know where those cherries came from.”

The Nigeria he witnessed from the edge of expatriate life in 1968 is made up of the details a child would notice—a favorite dessert prepared by a cook unfamiliar with the foreign recipe or the magic of driving through a “blizzard of butterflies” in the Savannah. Vodacek’s 18 months in Nigeria 43 years ago form a montage of Africa from a young boy’s perspective.

Years later, Vodacek is leading a study to benchmark biodiversity around Lake Kivu on the border of Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Natural hazards and a large refugee population around the lake have compromised the region’s ecosystem. The project, funded by a $350,000 grant from the MacArthur Foundation, will require several trips to Africa.

“I’ve always wanted to go back to Africa,” says Vodacek, professor in the Chester F. Carlson Center for Imaging Science.

In 1968, John Vodacek moved his wife and four children to Zaria, Nigeria, where they lived on the campus of Ahmadu Bello University in the Sub-Saharan north. He was among a group of educators from Wisconsin that was helping develop the educational system in the country. The outbreak of the Nigerian Civil War delayed the program by six months before the educators could be safely dispatched.

“We stepped off the plane and we were immediately introduced to the corruption and the bribes that are the culture of Nigeria,” Vodacek recalls. “Then we drove off.

“As I remember it, I didn’t ride in the same car as my parents. We drove through a new emir being installed or something like that—a crowd of people, horses and camels. We drove right through the middle of it. The energy was eye-opening.”

The family was given a car and a modern yet simple cinder block house with a metal roof and gravel drive. Vodacek’s father traveled throughout the country visiting different institutions and sometimes took his family with him.

Vodacek’s parents were comfortable with living removed from the culture that surrounded them whenever they went to the market or stopped in the village.

“They were happy to be set in this community of expatriates,” he says of his parents. “I always wondered when we looked outside our yard and down the way—we could see some huts down there or some small farmer houses—and I never got to know those people, and I kind of always wished that I had.”

A slice of Nigerian life knocked daily on their door as traders came to the house selling vegetables, trinkets and other souvenirs that fit in the carts attached to their bicycles. They came with baskets, instruments made from gourds, and carvings of animals, scenes from daily life and handsome Nigerian faces.

Living in northern Nigeria introduced the Vodaceks to life centered on mosques and five prayer times per day. The predominantly Muslim culture exposed Vodacek to a religion with different rituals from his own Catholic faith, which—much to his chagrin—his mother was determined to maintain while in Nigeria.

“We had to go to church on Sundays,” Vodacek says, recalling the injustice he felt as a child. “Not only did I have to go to school, here I am on this big adventure in Africa, and I have to go to church on Sunday morning.”

When not in church or school, the Vodacek children explored the university campus on their bicycles. “We didn’t go too far off the beaten path, but I always wanted to. I was itching to just go walk out. And I guess I was just young enough that I wasn’t willing to do that.”

Vodacek’s project in Rwanda will require him to travel through the country much as his father did in Nigeria. Instead of educational institutions, the younger Vodacek will assess areas of deforestation and the quality of streams. Although his purpose has a different aim, Vodacek will savor his return to Africa.

“It’s a sense of place and smell and time, and things just going on and on,” he said. “It feels very ancient. The sun rising, sounds of the birds singing, someone walking past to tend their fields, the intense tropical rain. It’s a sense of being in a place like that.”

For more information on Vodacek’s Lake Kivu research, visit www.rit.edu/news/story.php?id=48423.

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A. Sue Weisler

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RIT imaging scientist Anthony Vodacek has vivid memories of his time traveling through Nigeria with his family when he was a young boy. Today, his research focuses on the volatile Lake Kivu area of Rwanda to assess deforestation and water quality.