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Coming Full Circle

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Heather Hein

Senior Editor

A passion for anthropology brought Getrude Finyiza all the way from Malawi to DU. She’s going back home as a researcher on a mission.

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Getrude Finyiza

When Getrude Finyiza was a high school student in Mangochi, Malawi, a friend told her about an unusual job she saw in the newspaper that she thought Getrude would like.

“An anthropology student from Europe was looking for a research assistant,” she recalls. “The student wanted someone who knew the local culture and language and enjoyed interacting with people.” But they also wanted someone who had never been to university because the work was in rural areas. “People who went to college didn’t want to work in the villages."

Getrude, who wasn’t sure what she wanted to do after high school, decided to apply. The youngest of six children, she says she was flexible and open to new experiences and traveling around her country. Little did she know that the decision would lead to her working for more than a decade with PhD students from around the world and, eventually, coming to the University of Denver to study cultural anthropology herself.

She worked for researchers from Europe and the U.S., from the University of Amsterdam, the University of Chicago, the London School of Economics and the University of Oslo, among others. She worked throughout her time as a student at Skyway University, in Lilongwe, Malawi’s capital city, where she completed her bachelor’s degree in project management.

Getrude’s interest in anthropology grew over the years, as she helped conduct studies in many of the 28 different districts in Malawi—each with its own culture, language and norms.

Getrude Finyiza wall

“There were tribes that had specific rituals they follow when someone dies, for example. We didn’t have any rituals where I came from, so it was different,” Getrude says. She had to learn languages quickly to do her job. “I would have someone in the community teach me some of the words and, if I didn’t understand, I would ask little by little, and I started getting used to different languages.”  

Getrude began exploring anthropology programs in Malawi and found that there was only one—and it had just two or three students. So, she started looking at programs in the United States, specifically, the University of Chicago and DU. DU was the first program to accept her.

'Now, I can do my own research'

By the time Getrude enrolled at DU, she was married and had a baby daughter. In the fall of 2022, she and her family moved to Denver, sight unseen. They settled into an apartment close to campus and her husband, Nebert, who has a bachelor’s degree in community development from a college in Malawi, took care of their daughter while Getrude dove into her studies.

Almost immediately, she also started a job as a desk assistant in DU’s Housing and Residential Education office. Although Getrude already knew English, she says, “I thought it would help me get used to people around here. I talk to different people every day when they ask for keys or ask for other things. I thought I could get used to the way they speak so that I can understand better.”

Her classes, too, provided learning opportunities right away. She says that, despite her many years working as a research assistant, there was a lot she didn’t know. “I was just doing my job without knowing what I was doing sometimes. And I was working for others,” she says.

She learned about ethnographic research methods and how to collect and analyze data using a variety of software—something she had never done before. “Now,” she says, “I can do my own research.”

Getrude notes that she was helped along the way by her supervisor, professor Alejandro Cerón, who checked in on her progress and made sure she was going in the right direction academically. She also worked as a research assistant for him, learning how to work with data from the archive—something else she had never done.

She says her classmates were also helpful. “At first, I was scared. In class, I was thinking, ‘Are they going to understand me? Maybe they’ll just look at me.’ But everyone was very nice. If I didn’t understand something, my friends would explain it to me after class. We had lots of group discussions, which I liked a lot.”

Gertrude Finyiza in the field

Last summer, Getrude had the opportunity to put what she’s learned to use when she returned to Malawi to conduct research with HIV-positive pregnant women on the prevention of vertical transmission (passing HIV from mother to baby). She worked at a health center in Mbela, a village in the southern part of the country—where she had worked as a research assistant many years ago.

That was just the beginning of Getrude’s full-circle journey. After she graduates in June—and after Nebert finishes his master’s degree in higher education at DU—they plan to return to Malawi. Her goal is to set up a research consultancy firm, where she will once again help students and faculty who want to conduct research in Africa—but this time, as their guide.


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