The Joys of Being an Africanist: Summertime in Tanzania, by Dr Heike I. Schmidt

Part II

Conducting oral history interviews as well as participant observation are the prerogatives of the modern historian. These methods also need to be carefully learned and critically questioned as the research itself generates primary sources. They require the researcher to make him- or herself vulnerable and it is this vulnerability that can lead to comic and uncomfortable moments, often going hand in hand, at times leaving the researcher having little understanding of the research encounter. Two examples from my Tanzania research in 2001 come to mind. I spent a few weeks at a Benedictine mission station, Peramiho, where the abbot, Lambert Doerr, generously provided support for my interviews and granted access to the monastery archives holding documents in Kiswahili, German, English, French, and Latin. Peramiho is the Benedictines’ main mission station in East Africa, founded in 1898. Soon joined by nuns in 1901, and both brothers and sisters with motherhouses in Bavaria, St Ottilien and Tutzing, one significant contribution the mission has made is through its seminary, the largest in Africa by the year 2000. Staying in the mission guest house was a tremendous luxury after a very long bus ride of almost 1,000 kilometers from Dar es Salaam, with reliable electricity provided by a hydraulic plant, built by the German development agency and overseen by the monks, three meals of German food a day, and a washing machine provided with German washing powder.

Research on the mission station was fabulous but venturing beyond it was a problem. The two rainy seasons had merged into one and the rains never stopped. Assigned as the main interlocutor for my research was Brother Polykarp, a German monk who, I was told, knew the history of the area better than anybody else. I also found a teacher who was willing to serve as interpreter, switching from Kiswahili to Kingoni as the interviews required. My research project examined gender, political authority, slavery, and the slave trade in the Songea area[1] and Brother Polykarp suggested to interview an elder who could share his family memory of having been slaves of the politically dominant Ngoni ethnic group. Because travel even in a four wheel drive was treacherous Brother Polykarp suggested to take an additional man along, Zulu Gama, son of the ruling nkosi (king), ethnically Ngoni, the formerly slave raiding, trading, and owning society.

Brother Polykarp, Namabengo, Songea region
© Heike I. Schmidt

Mzee Edmund Simba, the elder, was most welcoming and eager to talk.[2] He shared that his grandfather, like so many slaves in the area, joined the German troops during the Maji Maji war of 1905 to 1908. At that time the able-bodied male enslaved population of the area either joined the Germans as auxiliary forces or fought as warriors with their Ngoni owners which was a route to gaining freedom and to changing their ethnicity to Ngoni. Zulu Gama had kept an eye on things outside and mid-interview entered the room. The elder noticed him, established that he was the nkosi’s son, and immediately changed his facial expression, his body language, his intonation, and with excitement in his voice, repeating words and phrases, insisting that I understand the importance of what he was saying, insisting that we all heard what he was telling us, performing with gestures, getting up, sitting down, moving around. Mzee Simba performed the utter humiliation that his grandfather had enacted upon Zulu’s grandfather and his warriors. As casualties were at times significant, so he told us, his grandfather and other slaves went to the killing fields, took the skulls of Ngoni warriors and drank alcohol from them. He recalled this inversion of power, an utter gesture of disgrace with great passion. The point here is that he may not have done so had Zulu not entered the room. The written sources contain an account that the German officers ordered the auxiliary troops to collect skulls, a power gesture, demanding of colonial subjects to touch the untouchable, human remains, probably to do a head count of enemy casualties, possibly to collect trophies. The elder’s recollections in contrast are of empowerment, of slaves proudly imbibing from their defeated masters’ skulls. His performance was triggered by and probably aimed at Zulu Gama, the researcher becoming a facilitator in an ethnic discourse while creating a tremendously important account of the past that complicates colonial history beyond a simple oppressor-oppressed dichotomy.

Brother Polykarp arranged also what I thought would be an audience and hopefully an interview with Nkosi (king) Xaver Gama, Zulu’s father and the ruler[3] of the Ngoni ethnic group in the area. After a warm welcome, being seated with the men, and Brother Polykarp serving as interpreter, I was trying to strike up a conversation with the nkosi. I soon realised that while I had acquired a cultural archive in Zimbabwe that gave me the confidence to know where and how to sit, how to speak and what to say – I lacked this expertise in Tanzania which was further complicated as Kiswahili was not the first language for anybody present. Loosing my linguistic and cultural bearings, I was presented with a huge mango and a sizeable knife. That put me in a conundrum. Was I really to cut it? How was the use of this knife gendered? And if I cut the mango, was I to taste it first or offer the first piece to the nkosi? How was I to cut it? Coastal style? As one of the councillors eventually took over, with me, the white woman, clearly out of her depth, he cut it and indicated for me to eat it. It was a delicious mango, the seed brought into the interior of East Africa by the slave and ivory trade. This was a pre-imperial mango, not yet filled with the fibres that the British introduced by domesticating the trees in India so that they could transport mangos to Europe. As all of this was going through my mind, and I tried to catch some of the conversation in a language I did not speak, Kingoni, when what transpired was that the visit served as a celebration of Brother Polykarp, a true friend of the Ngoni nation. I eventually took the hint that all the much to do was not about me at all. I relaxed into observing unless addressed directly by the nkosi.

Women cooking ugali (maize flower porridge) at the royal household
© Heike I. Schmidt

It is careful and informed planning in combination with adaptability and letting go of one’s own narratives and assumed authority, it is the making oneself vulnerable, listening for the unexpected, unknown that make a great researcher. In a cross-cultural environment this comes with linguistic translation and it also requires the creation of a cultural archive that provides the researcher with the necessary tools to understand what they hear and to know what to listen for in the first place. With the exception of partisan history, which has its own challenges, historians always research the other – if not across space, then across time. One of the great fallacies of researching in one’s first language, in one’s own country, and certainly from one’s desk is not to take these steps. The result is often unreflective, intent driven research the relevance of which has been increasingly questioned in the last few years by LGBTQ+ activism, Rhodes Must Fall, and by Black Lives Matter. The true challenge is not to conduct research in the hot summer on the equator in the global south but to design and carry out research on the history of the west that has relevance in today’s world.

Having a stroll in Songea, regional capital
© 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. You can find Part I of this blog here.

[1] Heike Schmidt, ‘(Re)Negotiating Marginality: The Maji Maji War and Its Aftermath in Southwestern Tanzania, ca. 1905–1916’, The International Journal of African Historical Studies 43, no. 1 (2010), 27-62, ‘”Deadly Silence Predominates in the District:” The Maji Maji War and Its Aftermath in Ungoni,’ in Maji Maji: Lifting the Fog of War, eds James Giblin and Jamie Monson (Leiden, 2010), 183-219, ‘Shaming Men, Performing Power: Female Authority in Zimbabwe and Tanzania on the Eve of Colonial Rule’, in Gendering Ethnicity in African History: Women’s Subversive Performance of Ethnicity, eds. Jan Shetler and Dorothy Hodgson, (Madison, WI, 2015), 265-289.

One unintended outcome of the realities of fieldwork was my research on sexual violence and male same sex desire during the German colonial period. ‘Colonial Intimacy: The Rechenberg Scandal and Homosexuality in German East Africa’, Journal of the History of Sexuality 17, no. 1 (2008): 25-59 and ‘Who is Master in the Colony? Propriety, Honor, and Manliness in German East Africa,’ in German Colonialism in a Global Age, edited by Geoff Eley and Bradley Naranch, (Durham, 2014), and ‘The German Empire and its Legacies: Propriety, Respectability, and Colonial Hegemony, in Colonialisms and Queer Politics:Sexualities, Gender, and Unsettling Colonialities, eds Sonia Corrêa, Gustavo Gomes da Costa Santos, and Matthew Waites (Oxford, forthcoming).

[2] Interview with mzee Edmund Simba, Mpitimbi, Songea region, 21 March 2001.

[3] Even though chieftaincy was abolished in 1963, two years after independence from British colonial rule, in some areas chiefs maintain political authority in the eyes of their followers. Interview with Nkosi Xaver Gama, 3 March Ndirima, Songea region.

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