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Frank Cullo '12

Johnson Opportunity Grant Winner Conducts Ethnographic Research in Africa

Hometown: Sewickley, PA

Major: Sociology and Anthropology

Extracurricular Involvement:

  • Varsity Swimming
  • W&L African Society

Off-Campus Experiences:

  • Internship with Pennsylvania State Representative Mike Turzai (R- PA-28)
  • Monticello Archaeology Dig (Spring ‘09)

Why did you apply for the Johnson Opportunity Grant?
This summer I knew I wanted to travel to Africa. When I found the St. Mary's College of Maryland program in The Gambia and saw that it matched my interests in both Africa and Anthropology, I applied right away.

How does your work under the grant apply to your studies at W&L?
To be able to conduct ethnographic research on the undergraduate level is an extremely rare opportunity. This trip to The Gambia facilitated not only my study of Africa, but strengthened my academic experience in Anthropology. The experience was not only extremely fulfilling, but provided me with enough intellectual fodder to explicate several papers.

What has been the most unexpected aspect of your grant experience so far?
I was most surprised by how willing the Gambian people were to help. From our amazing language instructors to the villagers themselves, everyone was willing to help in any way they could, even if they did not understand what I was asking. People were eager to welcome me into their homes to share a meal or a glass of ataaya, even on visits unrelated to my project.

Post-Graduation Plans: More traveling, a Master's degree in Anthropology and Law school, but junior year comes first.

Favorite W&L Memory: Bluegrass Mountain Swimming Conferences my freshman year.

Favorite Class: In the interest of choosing one, I would say Professor Dickovick's POL 215: International Development class was my favorite, despite many other classes leaving a strong impression.

Favorite W&L Events: Fall Term Midnight Breakfast

Favorite Campus and Lexington Landmarks: The Commons Living Room

Francis Cullo applied for a Johnson Opportunity Grant to spend the summer conducting ethnographic research in Africa through the St. Mary's College of Maryland's program in The Gambia.


I'm not due at breakfast until 7:30, but I usually wake up with the sunrise and nature's alarm clock-- the ferocious sound of bees buzzing, not unlike the roaring of the vuvuzela horns at the World Cup games. Getting ready does not usually happen until just after 7, and includes a cool morning shower, malaria prophylaxis and a copious amount of both bug spray and sunscreen. I live in a camp situated by a the village of Berefet. Berefet lies on the South Bank of the Gambian River, about an hour and half outside of the capital city of Banjul by car.

From my porch it's only a few short meters to the Gambian River. We live in old-style rounded bungalows. The workers at the camp are all from the local village, and make a point to serve us tasty, Westernized Gambian dishes (which sadly means they usually prepare our meals without hot peppers). Breakfast consists of tapalapa, a kind of spongy baguette made in the village, various accompaniments and porridge. Breakfast is always served with either instant coffee or tea. After the second--or third--cup, the day begins.

Each of the students in Berefet works on their own, individual ethnographic research project. I am studying the way children think about, and view, their home and their village--particularly how they represent those views in drawings of their compounds. Most Gambians, and all of the villagers in Berefet, live in extended-family arrangements where several homes lie behind one fence-line. There are kitchens, bathrooms, trees and shady spots shared among the family.

In the morning I usually go into the village, and with the help of a translator I conduct interviews with various villagers about their conception of space and design. Some days I go into the village school to teach the children. In Gambian culture, greetings are vitally important to forging good social bonds. Any interview always starts with greetings in Arabic and either Mandinka or Wolof, two local West African languages.

We break for midday around noon, or high heat, until 3:30. We eat lunch at 1:30, but the oppressive heat (reaching over 110° some days) forces us to inactivity. I usually spend this time underneath the bantaba, which is a benched area underneath a large, shady tree, with the workers from the camp and the other students. We brew ataaya, an intricately prepared, heavily sweetened green tea that packs quite the caffeine punch, sharing stories, and listening to music. On some days, I may even go for a swim in the river.

In the afternoon I either conduct more interviews for my project or I conduct oral history interviews with the elders of the village for the archaeologist stationed with our group in Berefet. The workday ends at 5:30. I go for a run through the bush when the heat dies down around 6:15. The power turns on at 7--6:30 if there is a World Cup game--just after I return from my run. After dinner, I usually type up my notes from the day and just hang around the camp. As it gets darker a group of us usually head to the shoreline to stargaze and talk until bed.