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Thomas Echlin – Harradine is a MSc student in the School of History, Classics and Archaeology.  He also holds a MSc from the Centre of African Studies, University of Edinburgh.  Here he reflects on a student organised event that he conceived, ‘Decolonising Africa in History and History in Africa.’

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Professor Paul Nugent, the final speaker 

Over the previous months, I have come across a growing body of literature that challenges current methodological frameworks which have gained common currency.  These works critique approaches that are overwhelmingly grounded on western intellectual traditions.  One way to break free of these constraints and arrive at more nuanced and comprehensive conclusions is through a “decolonisation of the academy.”  I have long had a keen interest in studying contemporary and historical issues and debates from the African continent.  It was at this point I first had the idea about putting together a panel discussion exploring ‘decolonising Africa in history and history in Africa.’

I was also inspired by a recent student workshop on pan-Africanism to organise something similar with a more explicit historical focus. A committee was formed and we set about putting all the pieces in place for this panel discussion to take place.  Dr Hazel Gray, Brooks Marmon, Albert Mkony and Professor Paul Nugent were confirmed as panellists.  We wanted this to be a collaborative effort, and one that would go some way, even if only a little, to sow the seeds for more collaboration between the School of History and the Centre of African Studies.

Through a concerted team effort, we booked a venue, distributed flyers, and organised light refreshments.  The process itself was a good learning experience for all of us involved, and on the day of the panel, each panellist was assigned a committee member as a discussion chair.  The turn-out was very good for this student-initiative and the discussions were quite informative.

The aim of the event was simple, to present an interdisciplinary approach that engaged with history as a way to “decolonise the academy,” and overcome frameworks dominated by a Western/Eurocentric outlook.

Hazel Gray brought an economic perspective and discussed her own work on political economy.  Dr. Gray illuminated how colonial history has been misused in the New Institutional Economics.  She pointed out how one of the key figures in the field of new institutional economics, Douglass North, scarcely mentioned colonial violence in his treatment of transaction costs.  This was said to be a serious weakness, considering the extensive treatment North gave to discussing violence.  Dr. Gray’s overall conclusion was that current literature selectively used colonial history to conclude that free market economies and western style governance are the ideals to aspire to, and largely discount other possible economic models.

Albert Mkony spoke next and gave important insights and reflections on being Tanzanian in Edinburgh.  He said that for him and many Tanzanians, he had multiple identities depending on where he was and whom he was engaging with.  Albert related his experiences going through the Tanzanian education system and how a real strength of the system was the cultural exposure and awareness of how diverse, but equal all Tanzanians were in the eyes of the state.

Brooks Marmon offered some interesting insights on his own experiences during his Masters dissertation research and his time working in Liberia and Niger.  Brooks focused on showing how he went through his own “decolonisation of the mind.” He covered how he first became engaged in researching Liberia, and the impressions of Liberia that he formed based on his readings.  When he had the opportunity to travel to Liberia, his experience was far from the what he had expected through his reading.  Brooks’ time made him question who was writing these accounts, and the problem that so much literature is written from the outside looking in by western academics, and that often their accounts stray from reality and fail to take into account local complexities.  Brook’s message was simple: go beyond the texts, and beyond the mainstream historical literature.

Paul Nugent concluded the discussion by turning the topic on its head and suggesting that what was needed was not so much a decolonisation of the academy, but a question of saving history.  He noted that the African continent barely received mention in British secondary education, an omission with significant consequences.  Dr. Nugent argued that the focus on issues like World War II at secondary level often prompt students to elect for “safe” options at university level, rather than deviate into ‘unknown’ intellectual territory.  This in turn contributes to a lack of demand for courses dealing in not just African history, but histories from other non-Western regions of the globe.

The lack of this demand means that universities hire lecturers who specialise in European history, bringing with them the conventional frameworks that cause problems when applied to non-western contexts, contributing to a lack of exposure to alternate perspectives and methodological frameworks.  This was a compelling way to end the panel discussion, and certainly provoked deep reflections amongst the audience.

The event ended with a brief closing statement in which I observed that a common theme of each speaker was to emphasise the dangers of becoming attached to specific methodological approaches, and that the panel had highlighted how important it was for academics and researchers to engage and collaborate with scholars and perspectives from other disciplines.  In doing so, more comprehensive and nuanced understandings of contemporary issues, debates, and topics on the Africa continent can be reached.

Kadalie Clements in 1926

Clements Kadalie addressing a gathering of over 10,000 in Bloemfontein.  From The Workers’ Herald, 15 December 1926

Henry Mitchell is an ESRC funded second-year PhD student in the Centre of African Studies.  As a MSc student at CAS, his dissertation, “Independent Africans: Migration from Colonial Malawi to the Union of South Africa, c.1935-1961” was awarded the George Shepperson prize.

Henry is currently based in Johannesburg, South Africa, where he has been conducting research at the Wits Historical Papers and a number of other collections.  His PhD thesis examines how the labour activist Clements Kadalie interacted with anti-colonial and anti-capitalist networks in the early 20th century.  Here Henry takes us back nearly a century, looking at the immigration question and early tensions between Malawian immigrants and native South Africans, an issue with increasing contemporary resonance as South Africa struggles to shake a hardening stigma of xenophobia.

“We have nothing in common with Blantyre Natives”: Immigration, internationalism and the nation in South Africa, in the 1920s and today

Henry Mitchell (henry.mitchell@ed.ac.uk)

 

In late February this year, after the Democratic Alliance mayor of Johannesburg Herman Mashaba labelled undocumented migrants as ‘criminals’, Nigerian businesses in Tshwane once again came under attack, with protesters demanding the deportation of all ‘foreigners’.1 Again the ever-unresolved question of who belongs to, and who is outside, the nation reared its head and dominated the news. Whilst researching the life and times of the Malawian immigrant and trade unionist Clements Kadalie in 1920s South Africa, similar issues and debates came up with remarkable parallels to today – yet, despite the vast amount of research on the contemporary situation, historians have done little to address the fact that this uncomfortable question challenged black South African nationalism throughout the 20th century, and split the founding fathers of the African National Congress (ANC). Already in the 1910s and ‘20s, the migration question and anti-immigrant violence were contentious issues, and could not simply be distilled down to a political choice between narrow minded-nationalism and more cosmopolitan internationalism. Ideas about migration and nationhood were entangled within broader debates about how to address falling real wages and declining living standards, with ANC leaders and black trade unionists divided over how to resolve the contradictions of colonial capitalism.

 

On Christmas Day 1927 a huge riot erupted in Western Native Township, Johannesburg. The Transvaal African Congress (TAC) alleged that “without provocation the Blantyre Natives [from today’s Malawi] secretly plotted an attack”, and that “heavy casualties were sustained amounting to between 50 and 100.”2 The following day Basotho men retaliated by attacking Malawians living in Newclare, killing 6 and injuring 25. The Chamber of Mines-owned newspaper, Umteteli wa Bantu reported that the “general feeling is that the time has come when Central Africans should be cleared out of the country…they are taking bread out of the mouths of the people who pay heavy taxes…[and having] introduced the knife for fighting purposes…they are chiefly responsible for the recent epidemic of stabbing affrays”.3 Demanding the mass deportation of Malawians, the TAC asserted that Central Africans’ “continuous stay in the Union will only perpetuate the recurrence of faction fights and bloodshed”.4

 

The author of the ANC’s first constitution, Richard W. Msimang deplored the stance of the Transvaal African Congress, and wrote to Umteteli wa Bantu “not to defend the Blantyres or Central African Natives, who no doubt can speak for themselves”, but “to protest against the petition of the Transvaal Congress.” Living “in a country whose Government is armed with drastic powers of deportation for imaginary offences”, Msimang asserted that it was “unlike an African Congress to support the application of a bad and retrograde policy.”5 In reference to the ‘Colour Bar’ legislation which the government had just passed, RW Msimang thought it was “strange to find Native leaders of an African Congress strengthening the hands of the Government in its bad policy of replacing Natives by Europeans…Happily employers do not ask whether the man is a Union Native or comes from Central Africa – they employ a man according to the services he gives.”6

 

Another of the ANC’s founding fathers, and Richard’s younger brother, Henry Selby Msimang, however responded with a bigoted if ‘economically-rational’ argument, supporting the call for the deportation of all ‘Central Africans’. For Selby, immigration had increased “to such an extent that our labour market has become a dumping ground for unskilled workers of the African continent”, and thought it “perfectly reasonable if the Union Natives want to claim their own that they should endeavour to clear redundant labour by imposing restrictions against non-Union Natives”.7 Whist the restrictions of the 1923 Urban Areas Act were resented by many black South Africans,  for Selby, “no one can quarrel with the object of the Johannesburg Municipality in seeking powers to check the ingress of Natives which tends to create redundant labour. It is in the interest of the worker or any organisation of Native workers that there should be such restrictions in this direction so as to create a constant demand for the supply of labour in order to ensure increased wages.”8 With the state restricting the immigration and mobility of Indians, as “a means of self-preservation for the European trade, more should be done to lend ear to the petition of Union Natives for their measure of self-preservation.”9

 

In part, Msimang’s essay codified who ‘South Africans’ were, and who they were not. He opened his essay with the assertion that the “South African Native is fast gaining race consciousness”, and concluded by qualifying “most emphatically that we have nothing in common with Blantyre Natives”.10 But his arguments also tied into his broader theory of an ‘authentic African’ trade unionism that aimed to control the ‘labour supply’ to urban areas at a national level. By establishing trade union-funded rural co-operatives which would keep “redundant labourers busy at their homes”, Msimang hoped to “remove the temptation to flood the labour markets in industrial centres – thus making it possible for our urban Natives to compete freely with any section of the community”.11 Having worked for a white ‘labour controller’ during the 1910s, Msimang posed important questions about how black wages could be realistically raised in the foreseeable future – though he employed xenophobic rhetoric to do so.

 

In contrast, the most famous ‘Central African’ in 1920s South Africa, Clements Kadalie, had a completely different, if equally ambitious, model for solving black workers’ low wage problem. With South Africa’s mining companies and farmers drawing on ‘cheap labour’ from Mozambique, Lesotho, Swaziland, Botswana and Malawi to create a ‘low-wage labour empire’, Kadalie’s Industrial and Commercial Workers’ Union of Africa (ICU), looked to organise all black workers south of the Zambezi into ‘One Big Union’. Understanding South Africa’s low wages as part of a far broader colonial system of expropriation and exploitation stretching throughout Central and Southern Africa, the ICU became Africa’s first mass movement with hundreds of thousands of members and branches throughout the region, rejecting both ‘tribal’ and nascent ‘national’ divisions. Attacking those “still thinking in terms of outworn nationalism”, Kadalie asserted: “We are utterly opposed to nationalism. Our goal is international Socialism.”12 Recognising “that the recruiting system is the means of keeping a regular supply of native mine-workers”, the ICU felt that “if recruiting, therefore, was only concerned with that object, we would have very little quarrel with it; but from what we would have seen and heard of the working of the recruiting system, it is nothing but highway robbery” The ICU wanted “free labour within the Union of South Africa and elsewhere in the Continent. We want a living wage, a new scale of compensation for the African mine workers…and above all, this criminal recruiting system must go at once.”13 Following the global forward march of labour in the aftermath of the October Revolution in Russia, Kadalie saw wage controls and anti-capitalist international solidarity as the answer to the woes of Southern Africa’s workers.

 

Kadalie’s pro-immigration stance was backed up by progressive and liberal black elites such as Sol Plaatje. Having “lately received four letters, each asking me to support a movement under the auspices of the African National Congress” for “the expulsion from the Union of all Blantyre Natives”, the ANC’s first general secretary “refuse[d] to support the suggestion by either word or deed” for both private and public reasons. With a number of his relatives already living north of South Africa’s borders, Plaatje feared the “time will come when more of my own relatives will find life intolerable in a ‘whiteman’s country’ and migrate to Central Africa, where some of them are already; in that case, a Blantyre retaliation may prove very uncomfortable.” In terms of public policy, Plaatje noted that it was already “the intention of certain people in this Union to rid South Africa of the Native population. How do we benefit the Natives if – wittingly or unwittingly – we play into the hands of such selfish people?” He went on to question: “Natives cannot even get money out of the Taxation and Native Development Fund to build a day school for their children, so, in the event of deportation, who must foot the bill?”14 More critically, Henry Daniel Tyamzashe, dismissed Selby Msimang as a hypocrite: “Many white people of this land have advanced, as a reason for their bad laws, the excuse of ‘self-preservation’, and Mr Selby Msimang is numbered among those who rightly condemned such reasoning”.15 Similarly, RV Selope Thema believed that the TAC had only lurched towards anti-immigrant populism, and “fortified themselves behind the barbed wires of racialism and provincialism”, because it had “lost the sway which it once held over the people”.16

 

As these debates played out on the pages of South Africa’s black press, other Central Africans also spoke for themselves – just as RW Msimang had presumed. Echoing Kadalie’s arguments for the liberal freedom of movement, the Johannesburg-based Nyasaland, Rhodesia and East African Congress (NREANC) under the leadership of Rev John George Phillips argued that:

The natives of Nyasaland, and neighbouring British Territories we claim, are a valuable asset to the Union [of South Africa], the country of their adoption. Were the Government to submit this question to a Committee of Business Men, of large Employers of labour, to Leaders of big Industries, we have no doubt that this ‘Edict’ for our Repatriation would be met by a very decided negative…No word was ever spoken to us, that we were ‘Prohibited Immigrants’. No, this is a later development, which threatens to break our homes, to divide families, and to bring moral, Social, and Religious blight upon thousands of inoffensive, God-fearing Native people.17

 

Whilst Andrew Chinzewe asserted Malawians’ “inalienable right to earn our daily bread within the Union, or in any other country, within the Commonwealth of Nations”, Peter Nyambo – a Malawian who was president of both the Cape Town ANC and the Cape Town branch of Marcus Garvey’s UNIA – similarly argued for the ANC to act, not as a narrow South African organisation, but as a “League of Nations”.18

 

Crucial figures in South Africa’s liberation history, regardless of their place of birth and political orientation, argued for the freedom of movement and a broader pan-African solidarity. Debates about the place of Malawians in South African society, however, centred around and brought to the fore questions about how wages and living standards could be raised – for Selby Msimang “the question of foreign labour casting us from employment is greater than all other considerations”, and had become “a question of self-preservation.”19 Already in the 1920s, important and contentious questions were being raised about the economic consequences of migration: Did immigration really ‘undercut’ wages? Why were wage differentials so significant across Southern and Central Africa? And could the issue of low wages be resolved through a minimum or living wage rather than anti-immigrant measures? Demanding a minimum wage across South Africa as a solution to declining real wages, the ICU answered these important questions with remarkably similarity to experts appearing before South Africa’s ongoing Minimum Wage Commission. Whilst the likes of Selby Msimang, and the ANC more generally, saw the control of movement as the solution to South Africa’s problems, for Kadalie and the ICU the solution to capitalist exploitation was not narrow-minded nationalism and deportation, but the control of wages, international socialism and pan-African solidarity.

 

 

  1. https://mg.co.za/article/2017-02-28-south-africa-faces-continents-wrath-as-xenophobia-rears-its-head-again
  2. ‘Africans Versus Africans’, Abantu Batho, 09/02/1928.
  3. ‘Trouble at Western Native Township’, Umteteli wa Bantu, 31/12/1927.
  4. ‘Africans Versus Africans’, Abantu Batho, 09/02/1928.
  5. W. Msimang, ‘Congress Supports Deportation’, Umteteli wa Bantu, 11/02/1928.
  6. W. Msimang, ‘Congress Supports Deportation’, Umteteli wa Bantu, 11/02/1928.
  7. S. Msimang, ‘Congress and Blantyres’, Umteteli wa Bantu, 18/02/1928.
  8. S. Msimang, ‘Congress and Blantyres’, Umteteli wa Bantu, 18/02/1928.
  9. S. Msimang, ‘Congress and Blantyres’, Umteteli wa Bantu, 18/02/1928.
  10. S. Msimang, ‘Congress and Blantyres’, Umteteli wa Bantu, 18/02/1928.
  11. S. Msimang, ‘Organising the Bantu Workers’, Umteteli wa Bantu, 28/02/1925; see also H.S. Msimang, ‘Non-European Trade Unionism’, Umteteli wa Bantu, 20/03/1926; H.S. Msimang, ‘Trade Unionism and the Natives’, Umteteli wa Bantu, 28/07/1928.
  12. Kadalie, ‘The Old and the New Africa’, Labour Monthly, (October 1927).
  13. ‘The Recruiting System’, The Black Man, 1:2 (1920); ‘The Slavery of Recruited Labour’, Workers’ Herald (c. July 1923), quoted in The International, 11/08/1923.
  14. Plaatje, ‘Should the Nyandjas be Deported’, Umteteli wa Bantu, 03/03/1928.
  15. D. Tyamzashe, ‘Congress and Blantyres’, Umteteli wa Bantu, 25/02/1928.
  16. V. Selope Thema, ‘The Responsibility of Bantu Leadership’, Umteteli wa Bantu, 21/01/1928.
  17. South African National Archives, Pretoria (SANA) NTS 2076 166/280 ‘Influx of Nyasaland Natives into the Union’.
  18. SANA NTS 2076 166/280 ‘Influx of Nyasaland Natives into the Union’; NTS 7670 86/332(1) ‘Native Unrest: Police Reports: Cape Town’.
  19. S. Msimang, ‘Congress and Blantyres’, Umteteli wa Bantu, 18/02/1928.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Brooks Marmon, managing editor of Postgrads from the Edge, reflects on a workshop co-hosted by CAS and the University’s Global and Transnational History Research Group.

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Tom Molony delivers opening remarks alongside Historical Perspectives Panel:  Photo Courtesy Global & Transnational History Research Group

Conference/workshop season is heating up at the University of Edinburgh.  April is shaping up to be particularly busy with CAS’ annual conference on Law and Social Order in Africa, followed by a workshop on Social Media in Africa at the end of the month.

February however, was highlighted by a workshop marking the 50th anniversary of the Arusha Declaration, the famed statement of African socialism by the Tanzanian President, Julius Nyerere, an Edinburgh graduate (read about this period of his life in more detail here).

The Tanzanian presence at the University of Edinburgh is significant.  In CAS, our lecturers Hazel Gray and Tom Molony have produced a wide body of work on Tanzanian history, economics, and politics.  Gray has worked in Tanzania’s Ministry of Finance while Molony has just published a biography on Nyerere’s early years.  In History, Emma Hunter has also published widely on Tanzanian political thought and print media.  All three chaired panels at the workshop.

Needless to say, this presence was immeasurably bulked up on the 24th of February for The Arusha Declaration @ 50 workshop with specialists on Tanzania from across Europe and East Africa flocking to Edinburgh.  The conference consisted of four panels and 17 speakers, with Molony closing the workshop with a special address on ‘Nyerere’s Edinburgh Safaris.’

As a (budding) historian of southern Africa, I was a bit out of my league in terms of the content, but the dynamism of the conference was contagious.  Perhaps unsurprisingly, I particularly enjoyed the opening panel, ‘Historical Perspectives’, chaired by Dr. Hunter.  The panel opened with an analysis of the Arusha Declaration by George Roberts, an emerging scholar at the University of Warwick (which I was to subsequently learn was strongly influenced by lecturers who had taught at the University of Dar es Salaam law school).

The speakers who followed had all worked in Tanzania in the 1960s or 70s and brought a first-hand perspective to the implementation of the Arusha Declaration.  Ralph Ibbott played a key role in helping Nyerere build his vision of ‘Education for Self-Reliance’, Brian Van Arkadie advised the government on economic policies in the late 60s, Father Vic Missiaen (who was perhaps the panellist most critical of Nyerere’s failure to implement ujamaa) arrived in Tanzania in 1968, followed shortly thereafter by the last speaker, Elsbeth Court, who served as a teacher with the Peace Corps.

While the themes of the presentations varied widely, from education and politics to arts, the deep historical perspectives of the panellists ensured a rich and enlightening discussion.

The three panels that followed maintained the momentum.  The second panel explored ‘The Impact of the Arusha Declaration’ – primarily through an examination of economic and social development.   A trio of PhD students, including CAS’ own Robert Macdonald, who spoke on the contemporary opposition’s embrace of the Arusha Declaration, were joined by Charlottes Cross in a panel on the ‘Arusha Declaration in Contemporary Politics.’  The final panel, ‘The Arusha Declaration Today’, was an all Tanzanian affair featuring Edinburgh’s Albert Mkony with an analysis of social media discourse on the Arusha Declaration and Julius Nyerere.

Molony, clad in an olive safari suit, closed out the workshop with a fascinating account of Nyerere’s Edinburgh years, 1949 – 1952.  Nyerere received his MA from Edinburgh several years after undergraduate study at Makerere.  In a rather impressive feat, he returned just a decade later as head of independent Tanganyika to receive a honorary degree.

A subsequent reception at the Talbot Rice Gallery formally concluded the workshop.

The Arusha Declaration @ 50 workshop brought together a compelling mix of academics, students, and historic practitioners of ujamaa for a lively and insightful conference.  While I don’t think I can imagine the experience of Nyerere’s Edinburgh, I’m glad to have been here for Arusha @ 50.

 

 

 

 

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Most of the Africanist events on campus fall on weekdays, with the weekly CAS seminars on Wednesdays forming the cornerstone of CAS convocations.

This Saturday, however, is shaping up to be a treat with the student initiated and CAS and Global Justice Academy/Global Development Academy supported exploration of The Future of Pan-Africanism.

More info is available on the Eventbrite page here.

A little later in the month, The Arusha Declaration @ 50 Workshop, on Friday, February 24, will also be a good way to kick the weekend off.  The workshop is co-sponsored by CAS and The Global & Transnational History Research Group in the School of History, Classics, and Archaeology.  The Tanzanian High Commissioner will be in attendance.

Registration and more information is here.

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Matthew Pflaum is a MsC student in Africa & International Development.  He has been an active force on campus, founding the Africa Society.  Here he writes about a student initiative to generate greater dialogue around elections on the continent.

On the evening of 7th December, around thirty University of Edinburgh students met to explore and follow the Ghanaian election being held that day.

The idea emerged when groups of students and faculty stayed up late to closely follow the US elections across the campus and city – in bars, offices, and classrooms. We wanted to create similar opportunities to collectively follow African elections, starting with the Ghanaian elections, which were scheduled for just a month later . Having successfully received funding from the Global Justice Academy and the Global Development Academy, we put together a Facebook Group for the event and interest spread. 

The idea did not arise in a vacuum, but rather was part of a broader move to decolonize the study of politics. At the University of Edinburgh, we are fortunate to have regular Africa-focused events and activities. Alongside lectures, seminars, roundtable discussions, we have events like G-connect, in which a country is celebrated through food, dancing, music, and events, serves to educate and inform people about different countries and cultures. Our event was a valuable addition to this mix.

The event began around five in the evening in the first-floor practice suite in the Chrystal MacMillan Building of the University. The evening began with an introduction by Joseph Yaw Kissi, a Ghanaian student studying international development. Joseph provided an insightful overview of current politics in the country, including summaries of the major parties, candidates, and platforms. This gave a good foundation and context for the subsequent discussions and lectures.

Following Joseph’s introduction, we had lectures and question/answer sessions with two Ghanaian Professors, Dr. John Osae-Kwapong of the University of Findlay and Dr. Isaac Owusu-Mensah of the University of Ghana. They provided very important and interesting information and data from their own research and expertise, explaining regional and geographic voting trends. Throughout each lecture, students asked questions and received excellent responses from the Professors. We learned, for example, that the issue of gender has not emerged as a pivotal and critical topic during the election. We also learned that regional and global geopolitics remain lower priorities than issues like jobs, unemployment, and economics in Ghanaian elections.

Throughout the event, we feasted on the delicious food prepared by fellow students (special thanks and gratitude to Joseph Yaw Kissi, Nina Amoah-Buabeng, Micaela Opoku-Mensah, Dorcas Amoh-Mensah, and everybody else) who generously volunteered to cook despite the burden of final papers. The food they spent all day preparing – Jollof, rice, fried chicken, eggs, salad, and more – was delicious.

Thanks to this event we learned much about Ghana’s politics, culture, and history. More importantly, we were left with questions that will provoke greater interest in the country. The event served to stimulate discussion and engagement. The following day we were greeted with news that the opposition NPP candidate Nana Akufo-Addo won the election. Some people rejoiced at these results, while others lamented them. The new President has promised to serve and represent all Ghanaians in achieving political and economic progress, and Ghanaians and the rest of the world will surely follow ensuing developments closely.

Juliette Wairimu Kariuki is about to enter her second year of PhD studies at CAS.  Her thesis examines informal food provisioning systems in Nairobi, Kenya.  In this post she reflects on her preliminary fieldwork in Nairobi and the unexpected ‘learning moments’ it presented.

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Juliette conducting research

Conducting preliminary field research was an exploratory research journey. I arrived in Kenya with no strict agenda or preconceived ideas. I went to learn and observe what is happening – what people are saying and doing about my topic of interest, urban food provisioning.  By doing this I stumbled upon realities that I hadn’t previously considered.

Informed by my Research in Africa module here at Edinburgh as well as the experience I gained as a research practitioner during my MSc degree at UCL (pictured above in MeK’ele Tigray Ethiopia), going to the field was different this time. I felt more prepared and aware of the advantages of doing fieldwork as well as the complications that one may expect to face in the field.

With this little bit of experience, I tried to be aware of my position and the dangers of having a ‘researcher as knower’ perspective. To aid me in this process, I made sure to pack a field journal to use as part of my journey, taking the time to record observations whilst on the matatu (public bus) or in the evenings after Chai (tea).

In my journal, I recorded notes based on any interactions and observations I had in the day (no-matter how small or seemingly unimportant). On the basis of these daily notes I could reflect and ask myself why did the conversations or observations go the way they did?

These accumulated moments of reflection enabled me to change what or who I was observing the following day, or even the location of my observations. Since returning from my preliminary research in Kenya, I have been asked by fellow researchers and acquaintances, “how was your preliminary fieldwork?” Each time, I find myself answering the question slightly differently, drawing on a different experience/note from my journal. Each answer I give highlights the many experiences one encounters in the field, from the creation of new research relationships, to the opportunity to explore new research narratives and questions.

At this moment, as I attempt to recollect the many experiences of my research, I find myself drawn two particular words, ‘learning moments’.  Learning moments, are instances where you can make connections between the existing complex contexts. For me, these moments helped connect the theory to the local context.

These new connections were not necessarily in line with what I had read.  In my case, these connections revealed my lack of knowledge regarding the constraints of my location, scope, and my research design. These moments of awareness, or reflection also pointed towards the lack of available data, underscoring the necessity of preliminary fieldwork to uncover these gaps in data. My reflections and learned knowledge were only possible through my improved understanding of the context of my research. In short, these learning moments involve the connections between what you think you know and the reality of what you don’t know.

To give a concrete example of a learning moments – when I first began my preliminary fieldwork, I made sure to keep my mind open to every interaction.  I paid particular attention to the natural moments of exchange that happened surrounding food. These exchanges occurred regularly throughout the day; they ranged from the conversations we had between the owners and clients of the corner juice stall, visitors to an open-air-carwash, vendors at the night markets, to the conversations with the lady making lunch for contractors building a four story apartment block.

What became clear in these learning moments is that the culture of food was much more than what I had read. I discovered different types of food served different purposes in different areas. It was only through reflection (going back to my diary notes) that my fieldwork began to take shape. I hadn’t realised the variation of available foods sold along specific streets, that both raw and cooked foods are sold by these vendors, some specialising in meat and others in both vegetables and fresh meat. I saw the extent to which each vendor used their unique relationships with their clients. I also began to take note of the role of the informal food system, the dynamics of rural assemblers and purchasing agents, and rural-urban wholesalers and brokers.

These learning moments were important because they added a deeper narrative to my research, a narrative I couldn’t have found in the literature. Instead, paying attention to the learning moments assisted me in reaching a more localised understanding of the lived experiences of inhabitants of Nairobi.

These learning moments prevented me from looking at the research field as a site of a problem that need fixing. Rather, the field became a learning experience, allowing me the space to discover new connections between certain themes I had once dismissed as well as to question my own positionality and assumptions. Although frustrating at times, being open to change, allowing your ideas and topic to be challenged and evolve is essential.

Preliminary fieldwork is definitely a step in the right direction if you would like to engage in research that will truly contribute to poverty reduction development agendas that are reflective of the community and are practical and sustainable.

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Githurai Estate, Nairobi, Kenya.  A popular street market for food and other goods.

Ismaila Ceesay, who has just finished his PhD at CAS and is currently a Lecturer in Political Science at the University of the Gambia has written a piece on the recent unexpected political changes in that country.  Continue reading below or enjoy in the original format over at Africa at LSE.

Nestled inside Senegal like a ‘hotdog in a roll’, the Gambia is surrounded on all sides by its larger neighbour, except for its short Atlantic coastline. A micro-state, the Gambia is considered to be one of mainland Africa’s smallest and ‘least important countries’ with no strategic resources. However, since gaining independence from Britain in February 1965, the country has make up for its ‘insignificant status’ by demonstrating time and again its propensity to defy existing conventional political norms in the African continent.

In the immediate aftermath of its creation as an independent sovereign state, the Gambia’s largely poor colonial legacy, combined with being poorly endowed with strategic natural and human capital resources, triggered a wave of pessimism among observers of the post-colonial African theatre. Amid the independence euphoria, some sceptics were apprehensive about the country’s survivability and long-term viability as an independent state, a sentiment aptly expressed by Berkeley Rice’s proclamation of ‘the birth of an improbable nation’, suggesting that the ex-British colony could not exist as an independent reality, and that the Gambia might sooner or later be co-opted by Senegal.

Despite all the gloomy forecasts, the Gambia survived as an independent nation. Except for a brief period in July 1981 when a group of leftist rebels made a failed attempt to overthrow the government of President Dawda Jawara and replace it with what they proclaimed to be a “dictatorship of the proletariat” under the leadership of the Libya-trained Marxist-Leninist Kukoi Samba Sanyang, the Gambia became a symbol of peace and stability in an unstable African sub-region. In addition, the country was distinguished as one of sub-Saharan Africa’s longest standing multi-party democracies. This was perceived to be an exception on a continent where military dictators held sway and one-party rule and authoritarianism the norm, making the country a deviant case.

The Gambia was once again perceived as a deviant case when a military coup in July 1994, led by a 29-year-old lieutenant Yahya Jammeh, toppled the Jawara government thereby defying the post-1989 sub-Saharan African trend away from authoritarianism towards pluralism and multi-party politics. This sweep of democratic impulses through Africa, also referred to as ‘Africa’s springtime’, the ‘second independence’ or ‘third-wave democratization’, saw mass movements against authoritarian rule by a resurgent civil society demanding the end of one-party dictatorships and the liberalisation of political spaces.

The recently-concluded elections in the Gambia and its political ramifications, to some extent, is reminiscent of political earthquakes of the same magnitude as the fall of the Berlin Wall and the subsequent disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1989-1991 and the end of Apartheid rule in South Africa in 1994. The December 1 2016 polls saw the defeat of incumbent strong man Yahya Jammeh by a united coalition in an election whose outcome defied logic that incumbents in Africa hardly lose elections and took many by surprise. What was more unfathomable was Jammeh’s decision to concede defeat to Adama Barrow, the coalition candidate, even before all the results were published. It has always been the belief that dictators of Jammeh’s ilk will never preside over elections that they know they will lose or easily concede defeat without first attempting to subvert the will of the people.

In a continent where the few standing brutal ‘dictators-cum-big men’ of the likes of Robert Mugabe, Yoweri Museveni, Paul Kagame, Omar Al Bashir, Paul Biya, Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, José Eduardo dos Santos, Idriss Deby, Joseph Kabila and Pierre Nkurunziza are using a combination of tactics to consolidate their grip on power and extend their already lengthy rule, the Gambia, once again, became a deviant case by democratically voting out an eccentric dictator who had promised to rule for a ‘billion years’ and who has consolidated his 22-year rule through a potent mix of fear, intimidation and mysticism. In its show of deviance, what is happening in the Gambia is the first time in post-colonial Africa’s political history that a ‘military-turned-civilian’ dictator, whose rule has been so entrenched, has conceded defeat in a generally free and fair elections and is ready to peacefully hand over power.

Jammeh’s defeat in the polls is not only due to a unified and emboldened opposition, a massive social media campaign by Gambian dissidents in the Diaspora as well as a disgruntled and youthful population. It is also the result of Jammeh’s attempts, partly because of complacency, to minimally reform the electoral system by introducing ‘on the spot counting’. The transparent and efficient nature of this system inhibited any attempts of electoral malpractice that would have led to a different outcome. I could not agree more with the French political thinker, Alexis de Tocqueville’s assertion that the most dangerous moment for a bad government is when it begins to reform.