Girma Kebbede

Meribeth E. Cameron Faculty Award for Scholarship

When Girma Kebbede began teaching at Mount Holyoke in 1982, there was not a single course in the Geography curriculum dedicated to environmental issues. A founding member of the Environmental Studies Program (now department), Girma taught the Geography Department’s first course on the physical environment. Since then, he has developed and taught a range of courses on political geography, food and population, African political economy, and development that have significantly enriched the curriculum not only of Geography and Environmental Studies, but also Africana Studies, International Relations, and the Nexus track in Development. 

Interdisciplinary in scope, Girma’s courses attract students from all over campus and the Five Colleges. He introduces students to new ways of thinking about environmental changes in Africa and their profound consequences for states and societies throughout the region. After taking Girma’s course on African environments, an architectural studies major wrote: “Through this class, I have been forced to rethink what I thought I knew about the African landscape, while thinking of creative ways to apply this new-found knowledge to my field of endeavor.”

It is precisely these new, interdisciplinary ways of thinking about the “African landscape” that distinguish Girma’s teaching and scholarship. He is the author of numerous articles and four books: The State and Development in Africa, Living with Urban Environmental Risks: The Case of Ethiopia, Environment and Society in Ethiopia, and an edited volume, Sudan’s Predicament: Civil War, Displacement and Ecological Degradation. The quality of Girma’s scholarship and its impact have earned him several prestigious fellowships and grants, among them a Ford Foundation Research Fellowship, a National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) award, and two Fulbright fellowships.

Girma’s scholarship addresses the human dimensions of environmental changes. Through long stints of often difficult fieldwork, collecting data, conducting hundreds of interviews, and culling through reams of reports and surveys, Girma shows how decades of neglect, flawed government policies, colonial legacies, and Cold War rivalries have led to ecological degradation, resource scarcity, political conflicts, and massive displacement in the Horn of Africa. Acutely conscious of racial and gender disparities and economic inequality, Girma pays particular attention to the lives of ordinary people—poor farmers and urban dwellers, migrants and refugees—who bear the brunt of environmental degradation and unsustainable resource extraction.

Efforts to address environmental problems, Girma argues, must take into account economic, social and political factors such as poverty, illiteracy, and repressive regimes. His trenchant critique of state policies and incisive analysis of the ways in which complex environmental challenges impact the health and livelihood of millions of people in a geographically diverse country like Ethiopia is sobering. Yet, the study of the environment and society in Ethiopia, Girma reminds us, “is not all about doom and gloom.” Rather, by giving examples of local and national initiatives for promoting environmentally sustainable development, he gives us hope for a different and better future.

Girma’s deep commitment to educating the next generation of teachers, scholars, activists, and policymakers extends far beyond Mount Holyoke. As a Fulbright Scholar in 2014-15, Girma taught at the Debre Behran University in Central Ethiopia. In addition to offering courses on the environment and urbanization and natural resources management, he led faculty workshops on pedagogy and guided major curricular initiatives.

An invaluable colleague and an excellent citizen of the College, Girma is a long-standing member of the faculty advisory committees for Environmental Studies and International Relations. He has thrice chaired the Geology and Geography Department and served on many College committees, as well as the Five College African Studies Council.

It is a great pleasure to present Girma with the Meribeth E. Cameron Faculty Award for Scholarship.