The Joys of Being a Historian: Summertime in Tanzania, by Dr Heike I. Schmidt

Part I

I knew exactly what I was doing. I planned my fieldwork to utter perfection. After all I was an experienced postdoc, having spent about three years living in Zimbabwe while studying and researching the country’s past. Now working on Tanzania, I had visited the country twice, travelled far and wide to find my ideal field site, started to learn Kiswahili, and won a significant funding bid. What I did not consider is what I could have learned from reading Laura Bohannen’s ‘Shakespeare in the Bush’.[1] Published in 1966, the essay is a classic and read by generations of students. The attention is well deserved. While it is a product of its time, it does an excellent job of showing the fallacies of fieldwork.

A US American, studying for a doctorate in social anthropology at Oxford, Laura Bohannen was just as confident about her research. Alas, the idea of carrying out fieldwork during the rainy season so that the households she intended to observe and people she wanted to interview in rural Nigeria would not be busy with agricultural work did not quite come to fruition as intended. Homesteads became islands as swamp water levels rose and so much alcohol was consumed that Bohannen withdrew to her sleeping hut reading. Eventually elders, tired of her trying to ask them questions, turned the tables and insisted that for a change she tell them a story. Bohannen chose Hamlet, surely a classic. Soon the elders began interrupting her to correct the story line. As she describes becoming cranky and exasperated the brilliance of the essay emerges to the reader, realising that the skill of the researcher is to listen and that listening can only succeed with a critical reflection of one’s positionality. Here Bohannen had to let go of what Hamlet meant to her and the idea of universality. She had to learn to listen to elders sharing knowledge, experience, and thinking different from hers. What makes her essay a must read to this day is that she addresses the core of research skills as well as the practicalities that are involved in fieldwork, all packed into a wonderfully humorous account.

Admittedly the Covid-19 health crisis for the first time in my many years of studying the African past has made me envious of my colleagues who sit comfortably at their computer at home and in their office accessing primary sources online or who can travel locally to an archive and conduct their research. I have even become pensive about my past fieldwork exploits. After all I have managed to catch many infectious diseases from malaria to typhoid, cholera, and both bacterial and amoebic dysentery and twice came very close to death in Africa. I managed to break my back when hitchhiking, sitting on the bed of a lorry in Zimbabwe and hit my head quite badly in an accident in a dala dala (mini bus) in Dar es Salaam on my way to the university. I cannot claim that I enjoyed learning Shona and Kiswahili, my sixth and seventh languages, as a manifestly linguistically challenged person. This is the point where the narrative continues with but – but what will always enthral me, arouse my passion, and put a light into my eyes are the unpredictability and demands on being in this world that make a great field researcher – something to which I lay no claim.

My research in Tanzania was, to reiterate, perfectly planned. At the time, in 2001, Assistentin (assistant professor) at Humboldt University at Berlin, for once I was not travelling alone but with my spouse whose project was on the islands of Zanzibar, while I studied mainland Tanzania. Two days before departing for nine months to East Africa, I returned from a brief visit in the US on a flight sitting close to a group of Pentecostal Americans who chose to sing and pray for hours as members of their congregation invited travellers to join, sharing that they had a bug going around. Stepping off the next plane two days later in Dar es Salaam, the coastal air on my face like a thick, damp, hot cloth, I realised that I was coming down with the flu. The heat of the rainy season was unbearable as my fever spiked. I do not remember much after that for the next few days.

Picture I: Approaching Zanzibar harbour by ferry, © Heike I. Schmidt
Picture II: View from our house, Baghani Street, stone town, Zanzibar, © Heike I. Schmidt

I cannot recommend bringing a winter flue to the summer heat of the Swahili coast. I can also not propose that one can realistically plan one’s fieldwork. Having applied a year before, I had to wait for the research clearance for several months with frequent visits to remind the officials in person that I was wasting my research funds by just living in Tanzania with nothing to do but to improve on my language skills. So I moved from my tiny room in a guest house in Dar es Salaam to join my spouse in stone town, the centre of the capital of the islands of Zanzibar, where he rented a house. Considering myself heat resistant when healthy, I quickly learned that this time the summer heat of the rainy season did me in. Even with nothing to do other than continuing my Kiswahili lessons and learning about Swahili female propriety and sensuality from neighbours and the umma (Muslim community) kindly providing our water supply from one of the many mosques nearby – it was unbearably hot. The incoming rain clouds raised humidity and instead of bringing reprieve had me lying under the fan that did not work without electricity. I lay there waiting for the neighbourhood boys running through the streets shouting ‘Umeme! Umeme! (electricity!) as most days the power came on for one hour, albeit at any point during day or night.[2] I spent a lot of time imagining new superlatives beyond excruciating.

Picture I: View from the entrance to our house, Baghani Street, stone town, Zanzibar, © Heike I. Schmidt
Picture II: Some of the Sultan’s palaces and the Zanzibar harbour, © Heike I. Schmidt

In the end, my nine months in Tanzania were much shaped by the usual two rainy seasons turning into one long rain that simply never seemed to end. A joke that ran through the newspapers – with photographic evidence – was that when the president with his security detail was inspecting the flood damage in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania’s main city, one of the secret service cars hit a pothole so deep that it sank completely, and the agents were scrambling to get out of it not to drown. In fact, one day in the city center I saw a woman walking towards me, crossing a street disappearing to her shoulders in a pothole, invisible under the water that appeared to be just ankle deep. In Dar es Salaam my thirty minute walk to the National Archives, with the last stretch on a dirt road, became too precarious. Civil servants working in the area and other passers-by built fords with stones and bricks for pedestrians but those had started to be covered by the rising water as well.

Picture I: Dar es Salaam city center, © Heike I. Schmidt
Picture II: The embassy quarter in Dar es Salaam in 1991, © Heike I. Schmidt

Some days I travelled to the archives taking a cab. The driver deadpanned that all we needed was a fishing rod for me to hold out of the car window as he very slowly and carefully made his way to the archives. None of this is to say that research in Africa is exotic and dangerous. This is not least confirmed by recent manifestations of climate change and environmental challenges to human life in the west with floods and fires. The global south, including Africa, offers a research environment that challenges the researcher to listen by being flexible, adaptable, and to negotiate and explore the boundaries and especially the certainties of one’s life. As frustrating as it may be at times, the true joy of being a historian is the unpredictable.

Dhows off the cost of Zanzibar
© Heike I. Schmidt

Dr Heike I. Schmidt is an Associate Professor in African History at the University of Reading, specialising in gender, colonialism, violence & conflict, nationalism, and identity. Dr Schmidt is currently writing a gendered history of violence and the colonial encounter.

[1] Laura Bohannen, ‘Shakespeare in the Bush’, Natural History (August-September 1966), 28-33. A rare treatment of fieldwork for historians is Carolyn Adenaike and Jan Vansina, eds, In Pursuit of History: Fieldwork in Africa (Portsmouth, NH, 1996).

[2] This made for interesting, brief windows of editing African Modernities: Entangled Meanings in Current Debate eds Jan-Georg Deutsch, Peter Probst, Heike Schmidt (Portsmouth/NH and Oxford, 2002).

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