Showing "Grandmother" the new book on medicinal plants in Kenya

CLAS Acts November 2018



     The month of November makes me feel that life is passing more quickly. In an effort to slow it down, I try to fill the hours more meaningfully.     

     ~Henry Rollins

I want to begin by thanking everyone for their many feats of teaching and research in October, but I especially want to laud your service.  You have done some very long days of advising post-midterm students, speaking and performing at notable events, prepping for more of the same in November, getting into the thick of searches and committee work, and generally keeping the fire burning around here.

According to the old saw, the height of generosity is giving someone the shirt off your back, but maybe it’s even better to put the students’ own shirts back on their backs, to show them how that is accomplished, and to model perseverance all at the same time.  Congratulations to what VP Blue has dubbed the “guild” of Repair Clinic volunteers who last week made 50 successful repairs in two hours, a couple of them rather spectacular ones that continued on after the clinic was over into the days following.  This is, as one gobsmacked student said, what Grand Valley is all about, and what sets it apart. 

November has a particular focus on teaching and learning, beginning with the two-day Teach In and including CLAS’ own Teaching Roundtables on the Monday of Thanksgiving week.

As you have heard many times, November 5 and 6 are the days the HLC accreditation team will be on our campus.  Thank you for making yourself available.  I’m grateful to all the people in the university who have worked hard on the reports and other preparations for their visit.  Failure is not an option, but I am totally confident that, if we can communicate what we’re doing when the different questions get asked, we will succeed.

I’m also thankful to the faculty and staff who have undergirded the civic parts of our mission so they become a reality and a learning context for our students.  Congratulations to the ongoing Democracy 101 program (some of you have been speakers or voter registration staffers) of our Office of Student Life Community Service Learning Center.  They are glad to have our partnership and tell us that often. Through their efforts, our students will be able to go to the polls via voting vans to Allendale and Georgetown Township.  If you can consider ways in which you can be flexible on November 6 to make it possible for students to vote, I’d appreciate it.    Wouldn’t it be wonderful on November 6 to all be wearing our “I Voted!” stickers?

Let’s finish with some great news stories around the college.  Rick Rediske of AWRI received an environmental award for his work on PFAS.  Bob Hollister of BIO received a $1M grant to continue his arctic research on climate for another 5 years.  Kyle Barnes of MOV has some interesting student-faculty research speeding along about running shoes. Diane Rayor of CLA is enjoying the sabbatical production in Colorado of her translation of Hecuba, to be published by Cambridge U Press.  Sherman Horn, a Visiting Professor in ANT, has been in the news for detecting a Mayan civilization using LIDAR.  Christine Sankey, a senior majoring in vocal performance, won a Grand Award for Outstanding Actress in a College Production as Aunt Eller in our Opera Theatre’s “Oklahoma!”  Tim Penning of School of Communications became a Fellow of the Public Relations Society of America, which is a very big thing.

I wish you a great month with a well-timed Thanksgiving break to fortify you for the final semester-end push. Know that I am grateful for your extraordinary effort, and for you.



Bridging Generations with a Commissioned Book—Collaboration with Kristin Hedges

Kristin Hedges of Anthropology knows better than most that work like that of Albert B. Lord (of Singer of Tales fame) which captures in a written form what had been orally transmitted knowledge has the effect of inhibiting its oral transmission afterward. 


And yet, the situation is rather different when that oral transmission has all but stopped in the face of change, and the anthropologist is asked to please help the traditional knowledge from being lost altogether. 


Kristin was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Kenya and lived with the Maasai tribe from 2000 to 2003.  She has been returning to work with them since and discovered a recurrent theme among the elders of the tribe—the use of traditional plant medicine was being lost because the young had busy lives and little interest in learning it.  Meanwhile, the young did indeed have busy lives, but were more open to learning about traditional medicine than their elders suspected.  The old and the young saw that the familiarity with medicinal plants was falling away as fencing and other factors constrained the Maasai from seeing and talking about these plants in the environment.


Thus was born a collaboration with contributors on two continents, some of them Maasai even in their late nineties and some Grand Valley students and faculty.

Summer work of collecting data through interviews, photographs, and videos led to work at Grand Valley to transcribe, cross check, and collate the identification, preparation, and indications of many medicinal plants. 


Anthropology major Zoe Zaroff took photographs of Maasai beadwork that eventually provided a beautiful cover for a spiral bound book and decorative borders for a laminated poster, both featuring medicinal plants.  Meanwhile, Anthea Mitchell, a biochemistry major used her illustration skills to make botanical drawings of the plants.  Three more students were hired through CLAS and OURS supplemental startup funds of $1,000 for first or second year tenure-track faculty. The fund encourages new tenure-track faculty to actively engage undergraduate students in their research and scholarship. This funding allowed the students to work on the transcriptions of interviews that contained the medicinal plant knowledge that would become the text of the book and poster.


“So five students in all have their work in the book even though they didn’t travel to Kenya.  One, Roberto Carriedo Ostos then applied for S3 and did travel to Kenya with me,” Kristin notes.  Roberto then wrote an article about his fieldwork experience which was published in Anthropology News.


The collaborative process also included other Grand Valley faculty.

At the March 2017 CLAS Faculty Research Colloquium, Kristin became aware of Vinicius Lima and his work on art catalog production (“When exhibitions become books: the design process of a catalog”).  Kristin was also a presenter, so he heard about her work with the Maasai.  They talked afterward, and soon the product of her work that Kristin had imagined as staple-bound printer paper, suddenly was transformed by Vinicius’ graphic design vision, which did indeed result in a highly useful pocket-size field manual of attractive design.

A CSCE mini-grant with help from the Anthropology Department paid for the 30 printed copies (by Allegra).

To say the book is a hit would be an understatement.  The Maasai coordinator for the project, Mr. Joseph Ole Kipila, carried the book all summer long and talked it up with locals who would beg to be given his copy.  The delight of a 97-year-old Maasai woman known as “Grandmother” is clear (see header picture above), even though this may be the first book she had ever handled.  She told Kristin she intended to keep it safe under her bed to save it for her grandchildren. The young man (pictured at the top of this article) in his garden was proudly able to identify one of his plants in the book.


“In the future, as we expand the book, we’ll add the scientific names, and register it with the Library of Congress,” Kristin explains. 

Now a collaborative grant is in the works with Tim Evans of Biology to help establish an herbarium in Kenya in the Summer of 2019.   Kristin explains that this new collaboration started when she googled “Herbarium” on the GVSU website and reached out to Tim to meet for a cup of coffee.

Kristin has been very grateful for the receptivity of both Vinicius and Tim to her passionate project.  Tim explained to Kristin that this project expands his access to plants which helps in his teaching. 

Though this is a story at one level of collaboration in research, at a deeper level this is a teaching collaboration.  The Maasai conceived it that way, the students brought a cross-section of their individual talents together in a way that taught them new ways to contribute to a project, Vinicius enhanced learning through graphic design, and Tim immediately saw the expanded possibilities for his own teaching.  The whole team is helping the Maasai teach a new generation about their own medicinal heritage. 


Young Maasai man finds one of the plants featured in the book in his own garden.

Cover of the booklet featuring Maasai beadwork