Aliko Songolo ’68 is the recipient of the 2015 Goshen College Culture for Service Award. The Culture for Service Awards were initiated in 1989 and are given annually to honor Goshen College graduates who have made lifelong commitments to service. Recipients distinguish themselves through commendable accounts of service and achievements at home or in their churches, colleges, communities and the larger world.
Aliko Songolo’s life has been guided by his compassion for people and a love of languages. A 1968 Goshen College graduate, Songolo is a professor in the Department of French and Italian and the Department of African Languages and Literature at the University of Wisconsin – Madison, but his passion for languages is equaled by his passion for the people and natural resources of his birthplace, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
Born and raised near Lake Tanganyka in the DRC, Songolo grew up speaking Swahili and French, and was a natural at picking up new languages. He came to the United States in 1963 through the International Christian Youth Exchange Program, hoping to become a doctor, but his gift of language took precedence at Hesston College. He completed his degree in Spanish at Goshen College, with the goal of studying all Romance languages in graduate school, and earned a master’s degree in French at the University of Iowa.
“There is no greater honor than being recognized by one’s alma mater,” Songolo said. “It belies the oft-cited adage that you can’t go home again. In this case, home beckoned, and I came. The award means the world to me, and I will display it with immense pride.”
Songolo returned to Central Africa for a short stint before finding his way back to the University of Iowa, where he earned a doctoral degree in Francophone African literature in 1975. He worked at the University of California–Irvine for 18 years before being recruited by the University of Wisconsin in 1991.
Over the years, Songolo has contributed time, energy and personal funds for the relief of populations in Eastern Congo. Currently, Songolo serves as chair of the board of directors for Congo Progress, a nonprofit organization that works for the development and support of Congolese people, both in Africa and the diaspora. With colleagues in environmental science, he helped launch the Central Africa Initiative (CAI) and the University of Wisconsin to join the Congo Basin Forest Partnership, an international organization dedicated to the conservation of natural resources in the planet’s second largest tropical forest area.
“He has made it his life’s habit to feel for others while thinking,” said James Delehanty, associate director of the African studies program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “I believe that professor Songolo’s excellent qualities of intelligence and compassion both were forged in the Christian environment of Goshen College, a place he still refers to regularly in conversation.”
In 2008, Songolo was named Chevalier dans l’Ordre des Palmes académiques, or Knight in the Order of Academic Palms, a national order of France for prominent figures in the world of culture and education, by the French Ministry of Education. He is author of “Aimé Césaire: une poétique de la découverte” (2004), co-editor of “Twenty-five Years After Daker and Fourah Bay: The Growth of African Literature” (1998) and “Atlantic Cross-Currents/Transatlantiques” (2001).
In addition to serving as chair of African languages and literature, chair of French and Italian, and director of the African Studies program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Songolo is currently co-director of the Center for Interdisciplinary French. His research and teaching interests lie primarily in Francophone literatures of Africa and the Caribbean, and Francophone cinemas of Africa and Québec.
On the national stage, he chaired the Modern Language Association’s (MLA) African Literature Division (2002), and its Division of Francophone Literatures and Cultures (2009); was president of the African Studies Association and twice served as president of the African Literature Association.
“He is a man of tremendous energy, who works hard to implement new and creative initiatives,” said Dustin Cowell, professor of Arabic language and literature at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who has worked with Songolo for decades. “Moreover, he is a team player who respects the opinions of others. He is deeply committed to the ideals of cultural diversity and mutual respect. Professor Songolo is a true global citizen with knowledge and appreciation of diverse cultures.”
Songolo lives with his wife, Emilie, in Madison. They have three children, Tosha, Ngijol and Aliko Jr.