“Kusaidiana ndiyo maana ya maisha.”
That’s Swahili for “to help each other is the meaning of life,” a theme that runs through Nicole Eggers’s work.
An assistant professor, Eggers is an expert on African history and is fluent in Swahili. She received the College of Arts and Sciences 2020 Faculty Academic Outreach Service Award for her work with Congolese refugees in Knoxville.
While completing her master’s degree and doctorate in African history at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, Eggers became interested in the history of Kitawala, a religious movement with roots in both Watchtower (Jehovah’s Witnesses) and central African systems of belief.
Kitawala came to the Democratic Republic of the Congo in the 1920s via African migrant workers. It rapidly gained a large following among mineworkers and people in rural communities.
While Kitawala was about searching for healing on spiritual, physical, and communal levels, it also inspired defiance of colonial rule, Eggers said. Kitawalists led a major uprising in 1944. The Belgian government considered Kitawalists dissidents and arrested thousands of them, sending many of the Kitawalists and their families to prison camps for upwards of 25 years.
In the course of her research, Eggers has made multiple trips to Africa. In 2008, Eggers went to Tanzania on a Fulbright fellowship to study Swahili, after which she visited eastern Congo for the first time in search of Kitawala followers to interview.
In 2010, Eggers returned to Congo on a year-long Fulbright Doctoral Dissertation Research Abroad award.
“I spent a lot of time on the back of a motorcycle, traveling around (with a guide), looking for communities of Kitawalists,” she said.
In the summers of 2014 and 2018, Eggers again traveled to the Congo. In 2018, she visited the site Colagrel-Kasaji prison camp and talked to descendants of prisoners. She also tracked down an influential Kitawala leader named PP2 she’d learned about from a United Nations video.
After completing her doctorate in 2013, Eggers was an assistant professor at Loyola University in New Orleans for four years.
Arriving in Knoxville in 2017, Eggers started volunteering with Bridge Refugee Services, an agency that has helped resettled more than 2,400 refugees from Africa, Southeast Asia, Eastern Europe, Central and South America, and the Middle East.
Knoxville is home to a large community of Congolese refugees.
“Once I learned about it,” Eggers said, “I asked, ‘What can I do to help?’
Working together with Bridge staff, Eggers helped to facilitate and translate for presentations for the refugees on topics ranging from health care to cooking. She also helped establish a community gardening program.
Remembering how the Congo people had welcomed her into their communities, Eggers said, “it was my obligation to pay that back.”
The work has inspired her next project: a look at religion in the lives of refugees.
In her spare time, Eggers enjoys crafts, including sewing, as well as woodworking, landscaping, and cooking. She loves Mardi Gras and marches with the Society of Saint Anne’s through New Orleans neighborhoods on Fat Tuesday. Eggers makes themed costumes for the parade; one year, she and her husband, chemist Derek Yeadon, were circus characters, and Eggers learned fire eating by watching YouTube videos.
–Story by Amy Blakely