John Hanson, longtime Director of the African Studies Program and new Executive Associate Dean of the Hamilton Lugar School, is passionate about bicycling. “I bicycle commute to work whenever I can,” he says. “Commuting is a way to unwind as you leave your workday, or get revved up as you come into your workday.”
He’s not a mere bicycle commuter, though. “I’ve cycled in [the] Netherlands…both in Amsterdam and in the cities but also on the dikes, out in the rural areas,” he adds. One might wonder if he was inspired by Bloomington’s bicycle culture to hop on two wheels.
No, he says, he’s been enthusiastic about it since childhood. “When I was young, that was my first major purchase, to buy a bicycle,” he explains. His goal was mobility, freedom of movement. With a bike he was better able to travel around his hometown of Niles, Michigan.
And beyond, he says. “I had a friend, and we would go out biking for a couple-day ride out [into the Michigan countryside] and buy fruit in the summer. And it was just really fun.” Sometimes their youthful jaunts would take them as far as Lake Michigan.
As a scholar, teacher, and leader, those skills he developed on the bicycle—curiosity, endurance, exploration—have served as the basis for an impressive career spanning decades. Not to mention the fact that cycling has helped provide him with the mental space to solve troublesome issues related to his scholarship.
His most recent book, The Ahmadiyya in the Gold Coast: Muslim Cosmopolitans in the British Empire, spans three continents and over a hundred years. It tells the story of how the Ahmadiyya Movement, a minority movement within Islam, came to be an important force in Ghana, an ethnically, religiously, and environmentally diverse nation on the Atlantic coast of West Africa, which at the time of the first Ahmadi missionaries was the British colony the Gold Coast. He realized over the course of his initial drafts that the story of the Ahmadiyya in the Gold Coast starts well before the first missionary arrives, so, as he says, “I needed to broaden the search and basically look at the history of South Asia and how the missionaries came.”
Sources in London, another important location for the Ahmadiyya, also proved crucial. He found archival materials there that corroborated the stories he heard in Ghana and India. “Written materials from South Asia, written materials from London, as well as written materials from West Africa…helped me piece together a story that each [place] separately would not have told,” he says.
“To write [the book] was not very easy,” he adds, an understatement considering its scope, “because how do I start? And do I start in West Africa, do I start in South Asia, do I start in London, where do I start?”
This is when bicycling proved useful. It gave him the mental space to come up with a plan to connect the different stories he was telling. Riding, he says, “can jog your memory and you can think of something.”
With more rewriting, the structure of the book became apparent, and he discovered how to piece together the many “narrative arcs” related to the Ahmadiyya in the Gold Coast, which included British colonists, Methodist missionaries, Muslims already in the Gold Coast, as well as Africans who engaged in indigenous religious traditions. The result is a compelling history that had never been told before, about the expansion of a minority religious movement that has an “outsize presence” in Ghana.
Hanson’s journey to becoming a scholar of African religious movements started young. Growing up, Hanson lived in a diverse, integrated neighborhood but noticed that there was very little about Africa and its history in the curriculum. That sparked his curiosity, and he wanted to learn more.
It was in college, and specifically a study abroad program, that his interest was encouraged to flourish into a passion. “I went to Ghana, was fascinated by the history, especially of Muslim communities in West Africa who wrote in Arabic and had documents from 200, 300, 400 years ago,” he says. Encountering African history written in Arabic proved pivotal in Hanson’s life.
Hanson’s study abroad experience immersed him in Ghanaian culture and exposed him to the complexity of its society. “We were put into dorms with other African students,” he says, and his roommate would invite him to their home. Other Africans would invite him to their homes, as well. But he wanted to learn and experience more.
“It was actually a trip during Christmas break that I took to the north,” he says, that fed his curiosity about Muslims in Ghana. There were mosques in the northern part of the country, and Hanson wanted to see the mosques first-hand.
In the north, he “stayed in the town of Wa,” he says, where he met a Peace Corps volunteer, who then introduced him to the Wa Na, the leader of the town. He interacted with Muslims and, fascinated by what he heard and saw, realized that studying the religious history of Ghana was going to be his career.
He hasn’t looked back. In addition to his most recent work on the Ahmadiyya, Hanson has published Migration, Jihad, and Muslim Authority in West Africa: the Futanke Colonies of Karta; co-authored the 4th edition of the textbook Africa from IU Press; edited the journals Africa Today and History of Africa; and published several articles and essays, including a chapter of The New Cambridge History of Islam on 20th-century sub-Saharan Africa. He has been awarded research fellowships, received honors for his teaching, and secured competitive national grants for the African Studies Program.
Part of Hanson’s mission reaches beyond IU, as he seeks to revise Euro-centric world history curricula by advocating for Africa as an important locus and player in the historical process. “We have a very extensive outreach program to try to get Africa into the curriculum of K-12, and we’ve been quite successful in that,” he says, mentioning a recent encounter in which a teacher from Indianapolis contacted the department and asked for help developing materials for an African history course.
Hanson describes his own course at IU, African Civilizations, as “an introduction to all that’s interesting about Africa.” He says he hopes to communicate “the way Africa was connected to the world, even from its origins.” Animating the course are questions such as, “How does Islam arrive in West Africa? How does Christianity arrive? How does the world get certain resources that are only from Africa?”
Putting Africans at the center of their own story is a crucial value to Hanson. For instance, he points out how Christianity was not simply imposed upon Africans by missionaries, but instead “Africans started reading the Bible [and] started to interpret the Bible in their own ways, and that actually shows how religion can shape and be transformed by Africans.”
He says that, by the end of African Civilizations, students tend to realize “Africa is much more complex than they thought it was.” He points out that there are “two thousand five-hundred languages” spoken and a remarkable diversity of geographies that shape “different kinds of lifestyles” and “different ways of exploring environments.”
“For me, [history is] not a profession, it’s not a discipline that’s removed from life, it’s actually immersed in life,” Hanson explains. So while students in their high school history courses may have only learned about “wars or political leaders,” Hanson wants students to see “how normal people actually are involved in the historical process.”
Regarding the subjects he interviewed for his book project, Hanson says, “There’s a certain power and connection that comes from hearing people narrate their own pasts.” He enjoys this type of on-the-ground history, and the need for interviews with regular people is one reason why Hanson traveled to Ghana five times to research his book on the Ahmadiyya.
Hanson’s tenure as Director of the African Studies Program has been marked by tremendous success. In 2011, he was awarded the John W. Ryan Award for Distinguished Contributions to International Programs and Studies, as he had overseen three successful applications for Title VI National Resource Center funding, in addition to numerous other commendations. In successive cycles, in 2003 and 2006, IU received more federal support than all other Africa centers, contributing to distinguished scholarship, conferences, student research, and more.
Hanson points out how much of a pleasure it is to work with his colleagues. “I really feel lucky and fortunate,” he says, to have the colleagues he does. These colleagues work not only with Africa, but also with South Asia and the United States, lending a diversity of interests and specialties to the department.
Acknowledging the legacy of the African Studies department, Hanson says, “African Studies has been important at IU for over fifty years, and so… I feel like I’m carrying a torch.”
Hanson brings his passion for teaching, leadership, and scholarship with him to his new role as Executive Associate Dean. He knows that global education and global knowledge, procured both in the classroom and outside the classroom, can change students’ lives, since his own life was shaped so fundamentally by his undergraduate year in Ghana. “I still come from the point of view that especially an undergraduate degree is a time of exploration, and to me study abroad is a broader extension of exploration,” he says. When asked what he would tell a student who’s considering study abroad, he replies, “I would say to any student that study abroad can be formative and so: do it.”
The Hamilton Lugar School’s nascence is exciting to Hanson, both because of what it’s accomplished so far and what opportunities are available in the years ahead. “The first five years [of the school] lay the foundations, and so I feel like this is a critical moment to try to expand upon those foundations,” he says. He thinks it’s important to work together as a group as the school furthers its mission and charts its future.
HLS students themselves make Hanson sanguine about the future. “Our graduates are throughout the world, doing amazing things that we never could have imagined they were going to do,” he says. One of the benefits of such dispersion and accomplishment is that current students can look to alumni not only for inspiration but also for opportunities and guidance.
He says that the school imparts the values of the liberal arts—critical thinking, asking questions, looking for answers—and that these values can form the basis of a career in service. He encourages students to consider how their language learning, cultural education, and global knowledge can be made “valuable to others.”
Hanson’s experience in study abroad, history, and regional studies, in addition to his emphasis on global connections, are all fundamental to Hamilton Lugar’s mission. The curiosity that inspired him to buy his first bicycle, study in Ghana, and research how a minority religious movement came from Asia to Africa is still an animating force for Hanson.
But this curiosity is matched by a sense of responsibility. While working on his book, he thought of the subjects who told their stories to him. While he was struggling to complete the book, thinking of them “pushed me along,” he says. And now, as dean, he has the responsibility to support and integrate all aspects of HLS: international studies, area studies, and languages. The prospect excites him because it’s rare to have so many incredible resources and opportunities all under one roof.
Scholar, teacher, program director, dean: Hanson has a number of commitments, but he is enthusiastic and set on rising to the challenge. And if he ever encounters a problem he doesn’t know how to solve, perhaps a bicycle ride would spark some possible solutions.