It’s thousands of miles away, but growing up in Kansas, the continent of Africa made a significant impression on young Robert Wayne Harms.
Editor’s note: Our new feature “Where are they now?” takes a look at what former Newtonians are up to. If you know a former Newton resident or Newton High School graduate who is doing great things in other communities, let us know. We can be reached at 283-1500 or firstname.lastname@example.org.It’s thousands of miles away, but growing up in Kansas, the continent of Africa made a significant impression on young Robert Wayne Harms. As a youth, Harms often heard stories from missionaries to the world’s second largest continent. Over time, Harms became increasingly familiar with Africa — a process he has made his lifelong passion and intellectual pursuit. Harms’ work in the area has led him to recently being named as the Henry J. Heinz Professor of History and African Studies at Yale University. It’s a position named in honor of the founder and operator of the famed ketchup manufacturing company and is at one of the nation’s most prestigious universities, where Harms has taught and conducted research for 30 years. Harms also has won numerous book prizes, including accolades from Yale, the French Colonial Historical Society, The Boston Globe and as a finalist in the Los Angeles Times book prize’s history category. Reflecting on his latest accomplishments, Harms termed them as “beyond his wildest dreams.” Certainly, he thought, he might get a teaching job at a small college, such as Tabor College in Hillsboro, where he earned his undergraduate degree, but to have a post at an Ivy League school such as Yale —and to win such prestigious prizes for his books —was much more than he figured on. Harms has numerous south central Kansas roots. He is the son of Orlando and Erna Harms (both decreased) of Hillsboro and his brother, James Harms, an organ craftsman, lives in Newton. In addition, his wife, Sandra Wiens, a psychologist, also is a graduate of Tabor College. She is the daughter of Ben and Mary (deceased) Wiens of Hillsboro. But Harms also has placed his life in Africa. A teacher in Africa Harms’ first real contact with Africa began with a stop on an around-the-world scholarly voyage, when he spent several days in Kenya. Harms really immersed himself in the land and its people when he became a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War, where, as part of his service agreement, he signed on to be a teacher in the eastern Congo. It was there Harms met a couple conducting field research. Harms determined their jobs were more interesting than his and found out the University of Wisconsin had the graduate programs in African studies he would need to get their type of work.“The university is the leader in the field,” Harms said. Along with his advanced studies, Harms spent several years in Africa, much of it traveling in a 30-foot canoe in the jungle recording stories from tribal members. Harms is fluent in French, the official language of the Congo, a former French colony. He also knows Bobangi, a language spoken by several tribes along the Congo River, where Harms conducted research. It’s an area Harms knows well — its ups as well as its many challenges. “It’s a difficult place,” Harms said of Africa’s third largest country, as war and a poor economy have taken their toll on the country and its people. Research and publishHarms went on to earn both a master’s and Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin and upon graduation in 1978, applied for about a half dozen academic openings. It was Yale that made him an offer, although Harms never really knew why the New Haven, Conn., university did so. It didn’t really matter because Harms was more than happy to have a job in his field. With its rigorous academic standards, Yale places some of the nation’s top students in Harms’ classroom. “They take things very seriously,” he said of the students. At Yale, Harms has almost complete freedom in directing his scholarly work, a process he relishes. Officials there encourage Harms to conduct research and publish, which he does. And while receiving prestigious prizes from that work is rewarding, Harms doesn’t set out to win an award but to do the best work he can — and the prizes come after that. During his academic career, Harms has made several return visits to Africa, a continent that has more than its share of problems. Some areas are booming and expanding, while others are mired in violence, corruption and extreme poverty. ‘Place withouthistory’Much of Harms’ work focuses on the ivory and slave trades with one of his most celebrated books being “The Diligent: A Voyage through the Worlds of the Slave Trade,” and is based on the journal of French lieutenant Robert Durand, who took part in the slave trade. Other topics Harms concentrates on are African environmental and agrarian history. For Harms, dedicating his life to the study and preservation of African history also is a service issue. “For a long time, Africa was thought of as a place without a history,” Harms said. The general thinking, he said, was the continent was merely a place that contained “savage” tribes without much intellect and without a culture worthy of being chronicled. That’s the wrong attitude, Harms said, and one he wants to help correct. “There is a huge hole there to be filled,” he said. Working to assist in filling that “hole” with others in African Studies is what Harms has and wants to continue to do. It’s an effort that benefits everyone in the world, he said. “They’re better off and we’re better off, too,” he said.