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Balancing safety, research

World travel warnings complicate academe

By Mike Krings

Mike Krings/University Relations

Garth Myers, professor of georgaphy, African and African-American studies and director of the Kansas African Studies Center, points out areas of Africa under state departement-issued travel advisories.

As one of KU's major missions is research, it is not uncommon for faculty members to travel the globe pursuing their subjects of expertise. But what is a researcher to do when the U.S. State Department has strongly recommended avoiding travel to a country in which his or her work is focused?

The question of waiting out the potentially dangerous situation versus going is always present. The question of funding the travel also becomes an issue.

At KU, university funds may not be used for travel to countries under travel advisories. People traveling to such countries are also not covered by travel insurance afforded to others traveling to nations without travel warnings. Those who do travel to such countries must first complete a waiver and release of liability form.

Garth Myers, associate professor of African and African-American studies and geography and director of the Kansas African Studies Center, is familiar with the problem. Of the 31 countries currently on the state department's list, 13 are in Africa. Myers said he thinks the policy is a good idea, but has had to work around it in the past.

"These (travel) warnings are usually in place for a good reason," he said.

The two nations he researches most, Kenya and Tanzania, have both had travel warnings during his research. Kenya is still on the list. He has been able to focus his research on Tanzania while travel to Kenya is advised against. The transition hasn't been as difficult in his case as it can be for others, he said.

"In my case it's a fairly easy thing. Both countries have Swahili as the official language, and are former British colonies," he said.

Travel advisories

See the U.S. State Department's list of countries with travel advisories.

KU's travel policy

Those who perform research in Nigeria, another country on the list, may not be so fortunate. The large, highly populated country is home to more than 200 languages and numerous religious, cultural, political and geographical landscapes. The variance across the country can make it extremely difficult to shift research once the investment of time has been made to specialize in a given area of the nation.

Five faculty members are members of the African Studies Council, and do research in Nigeria. Three are of Nigerian descent.

Myers has been able to work around the potential disruptions to research. He has traveled to Tanzania on National Geographic and Fulbright grant funding when the warning was issued. He said his commitment to research, as well as relationships with people in the region have convinced him to travel, in some cases despite travel warnings.

One of the countries on the State Department's list, Sudan, has been in the public eye for the genocide and atrocities being committed in the Darfur region. Myers said it is an illustration of how regional unrest or problems can create the perception that an entire nation is unsafe.

"It's a huge country, most of it is at peace. A lot of people don't realize the Darfur region is about the size of France," Myers said while pointing to a map of Africa on with the areas in which travel is not advised outlined.

Even though a commitment to research has driven him to travel when the state department does not advise it, Myers does advocate evaluating the potential benefits versus the potential dangers of each situation. When it is too dangerous to travel, there is the option of publishing without field research, such as writing about the literature of a region.

"I have to rely on my knowledge of the situation," Myers said about deciding when and when not to travel. "I would make my decision based on my own sense of security," he said.

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