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Rosalind Hackett: World Traveler, Gardener, Mystery Lover, Mermaid Collector

Rosalind Hackett with Olel Emmy Wokorach, founder of the Gulu Peace Garden Project, in Gulu, northern Uganda. Hackett said she dreams of bringing Wokorach to UT to study public horticulture and then help him create a botanical garden in this war-affected region of Uganda.

Rosalind Hackett with Olel Emmy Wokorach, founder of the Gulu Peace Garden Project, in Gulu, northern Uganda. Hackett said she dreams of bringing Wokorach to UT to study public horticulture and then help him create a botanical garden in this war-affected region of Uganda.

At UT: At UT since 1986, Rosalind Hackett is head of the Department of Religious Studies, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary. Her areas of expertise include the religions and art of Africa. She co-founded the Gulu Study and Service Abroad Program and directed it for several years. In 2014 to 15, she was a visiting professor at Harvard Divinity School. She is especially proud of having served for a decade as president of the International Association for the History of Religions. She is currently vice president of UNESCO’s Humanities Council and program chair of the African Consortium on Law and Religion Studies, which allows her to travel all around Africa.

Why she chose this field: Born and raised in England, Hackett was planning to study French in college—until she took a noncredit course on world religions. “Even though the teacher was boring, I was hooked,” she said. “My life didn’t go according to plan—and am I grateful for that. Religion is the most fascinating topic in the world.”

Hackett first traveled to Africa as a graduate student. She later taught in Nigeria for eight years. “The moment I set foot in Africa, it suited me perfectly,” she said. “It is a feast for the eyes and ears. There’s vibrant religious diversity there.”

She’s an avid traveler. The last year has taken her to the Arctic, China, Brazil, Canada, England, and India, and she will soon be heading to Mali, Morocco, and Uganda. Her clothing and jewelry reflect her globe-trotting: “I always try to wear something a student might ask me about. It’s all part of my strategy to get students interested in traveling.”

Outside interests: “I’m a missionary for gardening,” she said. The garden at her West Knoxville house—once scouted by Martha Stewart magazine—is filled with perennials, herbs, and vegetables. She has a children’s garden, a Japanese Zen garden, a Mediterranean garden, and a Smoky Mountain garden.

Favorite book: “British detective mysteries are my escapism,” she said. The late P. D.  James is one of her favorite authors.

She plans to write a book to honor her “wickedly funny” mother, who recently died at the age of 97 in England. Hackett and her mother were extremely close and spoke by phone almost every evening. As her mother’s health declined, Hackett began using Facebook—another one of her other favorite things—to record their witty and insightful conversations. Friends around the world became avid readers, and Hackett would like to compile all the posts into a book.

If I didn’t do this, I’d: “Be a BBC producer or a human rights lawyer.”

One last thing: Her office décor features mermaids in tapestry and counted cross-stitch and sculpted from metal, pottery, and fabric. At home, she has a mermaid-themed bathroom and a large Mexican mermaid hanging from a ceiling. “I have enough to go into a museum,” she said.

Her fascination stems from learning about water spirits that are prevalent in the beliefs of the riverine and coastal cultures of West Africa that she used to frequent.

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