Alumna is a new name in adventure

Alumna is a new name in adventure

Cotsen grant helps student
chase down her dream in Belize, Antigua—and finally the Sudan

Working for nearly two months
along the east bank of the Nile was a dream come true for anthropology alumna
Idi Okilo ’10 MA.

“It was the most amazing thing I
had ever done,” Okilo said this spring, just weeks after returning from a
research expedition to the tiny village of Tombos in Northern Sudan.

Okilo, through the assistance of
a Cotsen Grant in
Cal State L.A.’s

Department of Anthropology, was invited by University of California,
Santa Barbara Professor and Egyptologist Stuart Smith to join a joint
Egyptological expedition with Purdue University. While there, she said, they
excavated an Egyptian/Nubian cemetery, unearthed an ancient pyramid and
interacted with dozens of villagers to learn about their daily lives, customs
and ancestors.

“I went there and automatically
felt as if I had gone home,” said Okilo, who is originally from a remote village
in Nigeria. “When I was around the villagers without the rest of the team, they
treated me as if I was one of them. I could not believe that I could be in
another country and have it feel so much like my native country. It was familiar
and alien at the same time.”

Okilo’s dream of venturing to
the Nile was a long time coming—and the perfect culmination to the education and
exposure she received while studying anthropology at Cal State L.A.

“I have been really fortunate,”
she said. “I have had the opportunity to follow my far-fetched dream, and to
learn about anthropology, and to take part in field work because of Cal State
L.A, Dr. James Brady and many of the donors that support the University.”

Her desire to visit Northern
Africa, study Egyptology, and more particularly, Nubiology—the study of the
ancient Egyptian colony of Nubia, now present day Sudan—sprouted as a young
child when she visited a British history museum and saw an Egyptian mask, she
said. The beauty and detail of the work, paired with the many mysteries the
artifacts held about the people, cultural practices, language and way of life
were intriguing, she said.

Still, despite her fascination,
Okilo’s goal of reaching the Nile seemed like nothing more than a pipe dream
until she started in the master’s program. It was there that she met
Anthropology Professor Brady, and began to take the steps to make her
dream a reality.

“I told (Dr. Brady) what I
wanted to do when I first met him at a lecture,” she said. “He listened, and
then he just smiled at me and said ‘Well, let’s get going.’”

Her first stop, Brady said, was
enrolling in an Egyptology course at University of California, Los Angeles with help from CSULA's five-year,
$200,000 Cotsen Grant. Since the grant was funded in 2006, it has formalized collaboration between Cal State L.A. and The Cotsen Institute of Archeology at UCLA, and aided a
handful of students annually by covering the costs of field work expeditions,
travel to conferences, courses and special training.

From the course, Okilo secured a
position as a curator for the Egyptian collection at the Fowler Museum at
UCLA—which eventually led to her introduction to UCSB’s Smith. She
also got her field work feet wet, going on her first two expeditions at Brady’s

“Idi is extraordinary in
whatever she sets her mind to,” Brady said. “And she has been able to do so many
things because of the support she has received along the way.”

For instance, funding through
the Cotsen Grant paid for Okilo to accompany Brady on a research expedition of
the “The Midnight Terror Cave,” a Maya burial cave in Belize, and excavation of
a plantation home in Antigua.

“It was really ‘Indiana
Jones’-like,” Okilo said, recounting one day in particular at “The Midnight
Terror Cave” where she was attempting to collect pottery fragments in an alcove
along the side of the cave’s cliff.

“I couldn’t reach the pottery
fragments and I was getting really frustrated. They were just out of my reach,”
she continued. “When finally one of the cavers suggested that I take off my
shoes and pick up the pieces with my toes.

“I did,” she said, grinning.
“And there were more than 50 pieces that I collected that way.”

This summer, Okilo is further exploring her interests in the United Kingdom
where she attended the 12th International Conference for Nubian Studies with the
support of Cal State L.A. Trustee Professor and former CSU Chancellor Barry
Munitz, who also helped secure the original Costen Grant.