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Faculty Spotlight: Simeon W. Chilungu

The squeaky wheel gets the grease. This adage refers to those who get attention because they speak up. But there are those who choose to quietly—and effectively—go about their work. Simeon W. Chilungu, associate professor of anthropology, has done so for nearly 40 years at Buffalo State.

Simeon W. Chilungu“I may seem quiet, but I understand and think about the issues,” he said. “I maintain a low profile on campus but I speak up in the classroom.”

Chilungu remembers walking to his first class as an assistant professor in 1970. “I looked like a student,” he said. “A secretary came to open the classroom door but she asked, ‘Where is your professor?’ The students laughed and told her that I was their professor.”

At the time, he was just the fifth person to join the newly created Anthropology Department. Hired by the founding chair, Professor Emeritus June Collins, and Professor Emeritus George Tomashevich, Chilungu was asked to develop a course on African families. He still teaches it.

Chilungu likes what he sees today at Buffalo State, particularly the increased diversity among students, new faculty and staff, new buildings, the remodeled Campbell Student Union, restructured library, and beautiful campus landscaping. The changes keep him energized after so many years.

Chilungu said his overarching goal remains the same: to teach anthropology from a different perspective. As he states on his curriculum vitae: “One major reason why I became an anthropologist was to discover similarities and uniqueness about peoples of the world, their nations, and their cultures.”

Arguably, Chilungu’s quiet success is due in part to his own unique upbringing. Born and raised in Kenya, he traveled to the former Soviet Union to study pharmacy. But it was there that his initial curiosity for anthropology began, particularly through his observation of language diversities in the city of Baku.

After one academic year, Chilungu returned to Kenya. He then traveled to Syracuse University on a Fulbright-Hays Fellowship. Upon taking a course in cultural geography taught by an anthropologist, Chilungu knew that anthropology was his calling. He then transferred to the University at Buffalo to complete his studies.

Chilungu’s research has resulted in the development of teaching materials for his courses, including Peoples of Africa, African Family, Urban Anthropology, and Research Methods in Cultural Anthropology.

Two of Chilungu’s book-length manuscripts are key readings for many of his courses. World Ethnographic Notes and the still-in-progress Peoples of Africa: Their Nations and Their Languages serve as helpful guides for students. He uses maps and charts to show students what languages are spoken throughout various African nations and highlights linguistic and cultural groupings.

Chilungu has a profound love for languages, calling them “a badge of identity for many people.” He speaks English, Swahili, Bukusu, and a bit of Russian. He would also like to learn Arabic, French, Portuguese, and Spanish to help understand publications on African nations that are written in those languages.

But no matter what language is spoken, the soft-spoken professor can quickly become fiery if he hears a misnomer or derogatory phrase used to describe a people or a nation.

Chilungu is very sensitive to using appropriate names that people identify themselves with, such as “Inuit” instead of “Eskimo.” In his classes, he quickly teaches the importance of using the term “Khoikwe” instead of “Khoisan” and “Amazigh” instead of “Berber,” among other distinctions.

“Finding the truth—the right way to identify people—keeps me energized to keep teaching,” he said. “On this earth, we are all one people. The goals we have for our families [here in America] are the same all over the world.”

Besides learning new languages, Chilungu has other aspirations. He would ideally like to see three anthropology courses added to the curriculum: Peoples of Asia, Anthropological Linguistics, and Human Genetics. As he continues to collect kinship terms in world languages, he intends to show the “shared principles in classifying relatives that link the world together.” In addition, Chilungu also originally planned to take a sabbatical next semester and travel to Kenya but is delaying his trip because of recent election-related violence.

But even more than his quest for the truth and love of languages, there is one thing that energizes Chilungu most of all—teaching students. He said he often hears from past students, especially those who tell him he gave them inspiration to follow their dreams.

“I try to teach my students to become total human beings,” Chilungu said. “I love it when they think of me as their mentor, and hearing from them after they graduate is a small joy that I love about teaching. It’s [the pleasure of] knowing I might be able to influence even one or two people.”

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Kimberley Zittel-Palamara