- An Invitation to Work –Editors’ Introduction
This year’s issue of History in Africa is an “invitation to work.” It has six articles directly related to the history of labor relations and the European perception of work in Sub-Sahara Africa. On top of that several contributions in this issue remind us that research into the African past can be a substantial workload when sources prove to be difficult to trace or organized in unforeseen ways and formats. A final “invitation to work” is in the arguments that Africa’s histories have become products of fixed or standardized research protocols related to the collection of data in the field or to an esteem attributed to (colonial) archives. Possibilities of breaking through the barriers of these fixed protocols are proposed by discussing fieldwork experiences as well as the desirability to break up the archive as an institution.
The first section on Critical Historiography starts with David Gordon’s observation that historians have overestimated the value of oral traditions for the reconstruction of Africa’s past. With a case study on Ngongo Luteta’s rise and fall during Belgium’s efforts to establish the Congo Free State, Gordon demonstrates the importance of archival research in the writing of a history of the first decades of colonial exploitation through the Congo Free State. Gordon invites a response to his suggestion that research based primarily on oral traditions too often has avoided challenging issues in reconstructing the past.
Erin Jessee and Sarah Watkins add to Gordon’s challenge to the status of oral history as evidence to reconstruct the past. Their analysis of models to represent Rwanda kings reveals how these models reflect contemporary discourses on the past. They relate this classical critique of oral traditions to the efforts at societal reconciliation in Rwanda. [End Page 1] By doing so, they give insight in the complex roles and functions of history in an African state, and demonstrate at the same time that these narratives are pertinent in the search for reconciliation and a well-functioning civil society.
Terri Ochiagha’s article gives us an insight in the colonial classroom. A dedication by Chinua Achebe to one of his former teachers at Umuahia College provides the starting point for her detailed reconstruction of the education of writing and rhetoric. Her analysis suggests a substantial as well as remarkably constructive role for colonial education in the coming of age of some of Nigeria’s future spokesmen of counter-colonial voices.
Richard Reid’s analysis of historical writing on Eritrea from 2001 reveals the “presentist” focus on the “bad neighborhood” created by the authoritarian Eritrean state and its poor governance and human rights records. He adds that the Eritrean regime contributed to the limited research agenda through its restrictions on access to conduct independent historical inquiries. Reid argues for a new approach, unshackled from a teleological emphasis on the present, and focused on the critical era from 1940–1970.
Klas Rönnbäck’s systematic analysis of reports of work ethic and labor attitudes in precolonial Africa confirms the widely accepted idea that the Africans were most of the time described as “lazy” in non-African sources. In contrast to the historiographical emphasis on slavery’s association with this stereotype, Rönnbäck demonstrates that this thesis is more stubborn in European society and argues that the image of the lazy African antedated the era of slavery as well as survived the abolition of slavery.
Southern Africa has an abundance of source materials, but this evidential base does not mean that our ideas and impressions on Southern African history have reached broad consensus or even a generally accepted outline. The contributions to the section New Sources for South African History illustrate the methodological challenges for those who work in this field. Each of the three contributors to this section write a compelling historiographical analysis that will shift existing ideas about Southern Africa, and in particular Zulu history, and apartheid administration.
Robert Gordon, introduced by Bruce Kapferer, presents and analyzes an unpublished manuscript by Max Gluckman. In this manuscript Gluckman discusses his fieldwork method. We...