Volume 9, Issue 1 & 2
Practicing History in Central Tanzania: Writing, Memory, and Performance. Gregory H. Maddox with Ernest M. Kongola. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2006. 178 pp.
Gregory Maddox’s book, Practicing History in Central Tanzania, is good example of a new genre of African history that takes as its subject African public (popular, amateur or local) historians, sometimes called ethnohistorians, who write the histories of their own people for a family, local community and/or national audience. This inquiry is more interested in why and how people write history rather than the historical content itself. It seeks to historicize the practice of history in Africa by demonstrating how the post-colonial African context influences the relationship of the present to the past. With books like Maddox’s, Africanist scholars are now beginning to construct an African historiography that honors historians not trained in the academy.
In the not too distant past, public historians like Ernest Kongola, Maddox’s subject, would have been disparaged by academics as someone whose writing of history was neither authentic oral tradition nor scholarly research. Furthermore, these popular historians were the bane of researchers collecting oral tradition, who found their informants “contaminated” by written histories, a process known as “feedback” in the methodology. Yet this book ably demonstrates that “giving voice to the voiceless” might also include these encyclopedic informants. Maddox’s analysis of Kongola’s historical practice as a way to “explore the production and meaning of history in 20th century Africa” is a wonderful addition to this growing body of literature.
Maddox argues that the seven volume historical corpus of Gogo public historian, teacher, and political officer Ernest M. Kongola, contributes to the construction of both a post-colonial social order and his own social personality. Although Kongola himself represents an elite class of educated Christian Tanzanians, he does not make a radical break with the traditional Gogo past, but rather acts as a culture broker or mediator to integrate clan oral traditions with a progressive nationalism and salvation history. In doing so, Kongola establishes a synthetic vision of the past that emphasizes continuity with, rather than opposition to, modernization and national development. Kongola’s work can be understood as both hegemonic, in that its’ Swahili language discourse legitimizes the authority of the nation, and counter hegemonic, in that it preserves the distinctly local and intimate.
Kongola, like others of his class who have gained power in post-colonial
The sources for this book are primarily Kongola’s historical works (clan histories, his autobiography and the biographies of his wife, mother and father) and Maddox’s interviews. Kongola’s writings are based on a genre of clan histories that he performs orally at funerals and which he prepares through his own research. The book includes maps drawn by Kongola to accompany both clan and biographical writing that illustrate the space of social relationships. Maddox also puts this material into dialogue with colonial and mission archival records, academic work on the Gogo and Dodoma, the work of other popular historians like Mathias Mnyampala and the performance of culture through dance troupes and cultural artifacts at the Village Museum.
The literature of post-colonial discourse (Chatterjee and Mamdani) provides a theoretical base for the analysis Kongola’s work but is also critiqued by Kongola’s practice. Maddox uses Kongola’s writing to transcend the orality-literacy divide, treating both as a performance within a social context. Although Kongola researches and writes history in a literary idiom he does so using the structure of clan narratives, producing a hybrid form. This book is useful to scholars interested in the production of history in Africa and post-colonial popular culture. The book, however, assumes knowledge of the theoretical literature of post-colonial discourse and the construction of ethnicity in Africa, making it difficult to use in an undergraduate course without careful preparation.
One of the most striking things about the book is the extent to which it is intensely personal and self-reflective, highlighting the uneasy relationship between popular and academic historians. The book is billed as a “collaborative work” between Maddox and Kongola, who read and commented on each chapter. The two began developing a mutually influential intellectual relationship in 1986 when Maddox appeared in Dodoma to begin his dissertation research and Kongola began writing history. Through his financial sponsorship of Kongola’s project in Dodoma Maddox hopes to support a dialogue about the past that will destabilize unequal power relations in the academy. Yet the book reflects his ongoing anxiety about the power dynamics inherent in the relationship and his own sense of moral obligation to Kongola. Maddox ends the book by contrasting his fairly esoteric goal of analyzing social change in post-colonial Africa to Kongola’s more practical goal of bringing together the past and the present for a community experiencing rapid change. It is fitting that this new genre of African history makes us all squirm as it brings our own practice of history under scrutiny.
Jan Bender Shetler