Trinity College Students Travel to West Africa to Study Religious Traditions

January Term Study-Away Course Provides Unique Firsthand Experiences

​Hartford, Connecticut, February 22, 2018—Trinity College students in Assistant Professor of Anthropology and Religious Studies Timothy R. Landry’s January Term course, “West Africa Abroad,” traveled recently to the country of Benin to learn about its history, religious traditions, and cultural practices. During the trip from January 8 to 19, the 13 Trinity students focused on studying the diverse religions of the area and the history of the trans-Atlantic slave trade.

Landry wanted to take his students on this trip so they could witness the religious ceremonies and traditions that they previously learned about in his classes at Trinity. “It is one thing to read that Africa is a vibrant continent, but it is another thing to experience it,” Landry said. He also stressed the importance of experiencing culture. “We have an image of Africa that is one of war, catastrophe, famine, and tragedy,” Landry said. “By going to Africa, one learns that it is place rich in human experiences. You come to appreciate the wisdom of the continent.”

Kayla O’Connor ’18, who is majoring in anthropology and psychology and minoring in religion, has an interest in indigenous cultures and religions. “Traveling with Professor Landry, who has such a depth of knowledge on the culture and peoples, was incredible and really made this experience much more substantial and meaningful,” O’Connor said. “Human connection transcends cultural boundaries, and the friends I have made there are people I cherish and hope to see again in the future.”

While in Benin, the students visited the village where Landry conducted his doctoral research and lived for a period of time. “During our visit, we had the opportunity to participate in a divination reading and subsequent rituals unique to each of our readings,” O’Connor said. “There’s a difference between learning about something or reading about it in the classroom and then actually being in the moment and experiencing it.”

Students also had the rare opportunity to witness a meeting between the modern-day king of Dahomey, Dédjalagni Agoli-Agbo, and the new patriarch of de Souza family. A Washington Post story that chronicled the event included a quote from Landry and mentioned that his students were present at the ceremony. According to the article, “An African country reckons with its history of selling slaves,” written by Kevin Sieff, “The ceremony was about celebrating a relationship between two families that was originally forged over slaves.”

The experience also helped the Trinity students to examine complicated issues of race. “Most of the students were white,” Landry said. “I believe that it was important for them to feel what it’s like to be a racial minority. The way you come to understand human experiences is through empathy. The idea is not just teach tolerance, but appreciation of differences.”

O’Connor said she was glad to have the opportunity to study abroad through this J-Term course. “I play on the women’s ice hockey team, which goes into both semesters,” she said, explaining that her sports schedule conflicts with studying abroad in the fall or spring. “This was the perfect trip length because it allowed me a culminating experience for both my anthropological and religious studies here at Trinity.”

During the winter break between the fall and spring semesters, students are able to earn a .5 class credit by taking one of the January Term courses offered on campus or in various study-away locations. For more information about J-Term, click here.

Students who went to Benin in January will speak about their experiences during a Common Hour talk on April 3 called “Reflections on Studying Away in Benin” in Hallden Hall’s Dangremond Family Commons.

Written by Lexie Axon ’19