Collaborative Historical Research: Notes from Eastern and Central Africa

Editor’s Note: This piece is second in a series of two posts on collaborative historical research. The first post can be found at blog.historians.org/2017/08/when-historians-collaborate-scholarship-benefits/ 

By Catherine Cymone Fourshey and Christine Saidi

Between 1880 and the early 1960s, all of Africa, except Ethiopia and Liberia, was under colonial occupation by European powers. Colonial rule came with political and economic domination and contentious struggles between the colonized and colonizers over cultural and social values. Gender relations, in particular, were strikingly impacted by colonial norms and needs.

Through piecemeal policies and destructive interactions, colonial officials eroded women’s authority and presence from the public sphere. At the same time, however, anthropologists and missionaries like Audrey Richards, Elise Kootz-Kretschmer, and Father Jean Jacques Corbeil chronicled women’s authority in urban and rural communities from the Congo to Zambia and Tanzania. The archival records of these countries, thus, harbor an incongruity: ethnographic records describe powerful mothers-in-law dictating terms of marriage and expectations of labor to sons-in-law, for example, while colonial and postcolonial assessments present such women as victims of oppression. This paradox led us to conceive of a research project consisting of a collaborative survey and analysis of Bantu-speaking societies that contain clear elements and remnants of matrilineal institutions and practices. 

Photo of researchers, left to right back row: Christin Saidi, Rhonda M. Gonzales, and Catherine Cymone Fourshey with Radio Luswepo employees and Moto Moto Museum team in Mbala, Zambia. Photo by Mr. Chitungu

So began the project “Expressions and Transformations of Gender, Family, and Status in Eastern and Central Africa 500–1800 CE.” Funded for three years by the NEH (RZ-249953-16), we started work on the project in 2016. Early in the process, we realized that collaboration, not just among ourselves, but with local communities, would be vital to the project’s success. Along the way, we were reminded that voices inside the archives and in the community are crucial interlocutors. We discovered that saying yes to unexpected and organic opportunities, though seemingly tangential to the research, can be invaluable and lead to new partnerships and engagements with the public.

During the summer of 2017, we spent seven weeks conducting archival research and collecting oral traditions, focusing on information on family and gender relations, and language data surrounding life stages and authority in Zambia and Lubumbashi, Democratic Republic of Congo. In Lusaka, Zambia, we worked at Fenza, the White Fathers’ Archive. Today known as Missionaries of Africa, this Catholic group was founded in 1868 by Cardinal Charles Lavigerie, archbishop of Algiers and Carthage in North Africa. They were designated “White Fathers” based on their garment, modeled on the traditional North African dress of a white gown (gandoura) and a white hooded cloak (burnous), signs of their desire to adopt local practices to facilitate their mission work.

From the late 19th and through the 20th centuries, White Fathers missionaries kept copious notes, resulting in detailed linguistic and ethnographic records. In 1949, officials in Rome requested that White Fathers missions (which numbered over 100) administer a 600-item questionnaire about the cultural, spiritual, political, and social realities of people living in the territories surrounding the missions. The White Fathers, thus, produced a wealth of archival material that became our historical treasure trove. While at Fenza, we divided the labor to examine the contents of nearly 100 boxes, containing approximately 1,000 documents running to nearly 10,000 pages of material. We sifted through and culled data from nearly 10,000 pages of material.

In addition to archival research, we also interviewed more than 30 individuals in rural and urban contexts. Interviewees ranged from oral historians who’d preserved the records of matrilineages to professionals in the fields of archaeology, museum curating, public policy, and youth education and initiation. Many of the Zambian and Congolese community members we met were fascinated and excited by the work we were doing to recover matrilineal histories in their countries. Proud of their matrilineal institutions, they found ways to become critical collaborators on this project. Many eagerly helped us translate materials, suggested research questions, introduced us to additional interviewees, and shared books and documents they had collected over the years. These individuals also facilitated bringing our theoretical and scholarly work into the public sphere.

During our time in rural northern Zambia (Mbala), the Moto Moto Museum asked us to participate in its popular community radio program Mambwe Stories, a bilingual English-Mambwe program. On May 30, 2017, we went to Radio LUSWEPO to share our work with the wider community. The lively question-and-answer session, conducted with three local residents including our radio host, the director of the Lusaka National Museum, and the MotoMoto Museum education librarian (who served as our Mambwe translator), led to discussions of how to preserve history locally. Over the course of the next few days, everywhere we went, we were approached and greeted by locals who had heard the program and were proud their history was gaining recognition.

Photographed at Lutheran Church in Mabumba, Zambia. Front to back: Irene Edith Chilipya Chalwe, Christina Mwape, Jennifer Chiwamina, Maureen Kupeta Kanyembo, and Catherine Cymone Fourshey. Photo by Christine Saidi

In Lusaka, we had the opportunity to engage in a two-hour discussion with the Minister of Higher Education, Dr. Nkanda Luo, a well-known and influential Zambian woman whose previous roles include Minister of Gender, Minister of Local Government and Housing, and Minister of Chiefs and Traditional Affairs. She became the president of the Women’s Parliamentary caucus in March 2016. Our discussions focused on how the historical research we were conducting could contribute to Luo’s ongoing policy initiatives, including building a peace garden and women’s museum in Lusaka. Luo’s professional mission to combat the exploitation of women has led her to develop a keen interest in educating the public on the important social role matrilineages played historically and continue to play in producing equity and a social safety net in the present.

Near the end of our trip, Martin Mwale, host of the television show My Country, My Pride, a program that explicitly encourages its audience to research Zambian social history, asked us to share with their audience why and how we conduct historical research on gender in Zambia. This opportunity allowed us to discuss local archives and oral interviews, and also raise questions about how matrilineal institutions impacted historical, political, social, and economic developments over time and in contest with colonialism, globalization, and capitalism.

As American historians conducting research and compiling data from rural villages in Central Africa, we learned to appreciate what local intellectuals and communities know and value about their history. Their wealth of knowledge, however, does not usually attract TV segments or meetings with government officials. These rural women and men whose knowledge of their own history is deep and vast are in many ways dismissed or ignored because the modern African state accepts neoliberal norms that reify Western educated “experts” as the producers of meaningful knowledge. It is these women and men, however, who have protected their histories against onslaughts of missionary values, colonialism, and the postcolonial nation state.

These experiences discussing historical research and community building in the public sphere demonstrated to us that our collaborative efforts had reached far beyond the bounds of the three scholars officially authoring the study. Our work was made possible by museum directors, librarians, archivists, radio and television hosts, government officials, and, most importantly, the wider community of interviewees. Our hope is that our public endeavors also inspired those we’ve never met to continue local historical work. 

This project will continue over the next two years. During the summer of 2018 we will travel to Mozambique and Tanzania to work in archives and conduct interviews. As we look forward to the next leg of research, we intend to apply the lessons we learned from our in-country partners in the first research trip to make the ensuing phase even more productive. Collaboration in historical scholarship between the historian, librarians, and archivists is expected. As the discipline faces new challenges about relevance and career paths, it is important to consider how a wider community of collaborators may in fact facilitate projects that keep history relevant, fresh, and valued.

Christine Saidi is a professor of African and world history at Kutztown University. She has conducted research in Somalia, Rome, Zambia, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Saidi has authored many scholarly articles, a book, co-authored a book, and is currently writing a textbook on the history of African women.

Catherine Cymone Fourshey is associate professor at Bucknell University where she holds the John D. MacArthur Professorship in History and International Relations. Fourshey’s published research covers economy, hospitality, migration, and politics in precolonial Tanzania. She is co-author of Bantu Africa (Oxford Univ. Press, 2017) and has published in African Historical ReviewInternational Journal of African Historical StudiesJENdA, and Ufahamu.

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