Asmara Mebrahtu’s detour at the library paved the way to scholarly success.
Photo by Tom Cogill.
Sometimes, in an academic career, it’s the books you don’t read that help set your course.
Or at least that’s how it was for Asmara Mebrahtu. The politics major was in her second year when she had to write a paper on a country that challenged one of the theories of comparative politics. She chose Botswana. But so did somebody else. “Somebody had taken all the books, and I was like, ‘OK, let me find another country.’”
She headed back to the 21st-century version of the drawing board and clicked her way to what would be the start of a fate-filled journey to the tiny African nation of Mauritius.
Mebrahtu (Foreign Affairs, French ’07), who is in the politics distinguished majors program, was intrigued by the nation’s “Best Loser” system, which was designed to ensure governmental representation for all of its diverse ethnic populations. The former French and British colony has four communities recognized by its constitution, including Hindu, Muslim, Sino-Mauritian and General Population, which encompasses Creoles and
Franco-Mauritians. Each district is allotted three representatives.
“That is one safeguard to make sure everyone is represented,” Mebrahtu explains. “The second is this ‘Best Loser’ system, which is eight seats that are allocated according to the census. They look at the census; then they look at the representation in Parliament and they see where there is inadequate representation.”
Mebrahtu was testing renowned scholar Arendt Lijphart’s theory of Consociationalism. “The theory basically says that if you get all the elites from different groups together and you form some sort of power-sharing arrangement in the government, these governments are actually more ‘kind and gentle.’ It is sort of counter to the theory that diversity inevitably leads to conflict and political instability.”
Her next date with destiny came when she arrived at the airport.
There to greet her was a college professor who had visited U.Va. on a fellowship. “The first time I met her was when I got off the plane. She introduced me to a family there she had known for a long time. I asked them if they had any recommendations for places to stay, and the father said, ‘You can stay with us!’”
Mebrahtu was immediately fascinated by the multicultural mix she discovered in Mauritius, partly because of her own heritage. Her father is Eritrean, and her mother is from the Philippines. “A lot of times people are pressuring you into choosing one or the other,” she says. “I was intrigued that all these communities could coexist and still be Mauritian.”
In the end, Mebrahtu’s research and experiences led her to conclude that the system may have derived most of its success from its symbolic rather than its literal value. “It seems like it’s been more symbolic, especially for the Muslim and Creole communities, because they feel like they are the most vulnerable, so it gives a sense of security to those communities.”
As for the future, Mebrahtu would like to go to law school and preferably work in an Africa-related public policy capacity. In the meantime, it looks like fate will step back in to bring her back to Mauritius sooner rather than later. “The family I stayed with was like my Mauritian family, so I definitely want to go back and visit them. Plus, I have to get my clothes back. I had to leave half of them there because my suitcase was overweight!”
Read more about Asmara’s Mauritius trip.