At a recent seminar a problem was raised that has troubled me ever since I wrote my MA thesis several years ago. The uneasy proposition surrounded to what extent it was ever possible to write the history of the various peoples of Africa (or indeed anyone else) through the writings, memoirs and reports of colonial officials, explorers and missionaries. The answer of course may seem obvious; it is never possible to re-create the world of a community through the eyes of others. Particularly in a re-telling characterised by an ‘imperialist’ western gaze. To a large extent it is necessary to concur. Western officials, of whatever nationality, religion or political belief inevitably carried with them a schema which organised their interpretations of the African world around them. Of course this is well-worn scholarly territory and chimes with ‘post-colonial’ theory and ‘orientalism’. And yet scholars continue to use predominantly western sources to make (sometimes sweeping) assumptions about pre-1900, as well as twentieth century Africa.
Why do they do this? And is it ever valid? Well, to make sweeping statements, no. But, it is necessary to remember that the historian often works with the minimum of tools. I regret the paucity of African sources in my MA on southern Sudan and have tried to redeem myself with generous usage of oral histories and traditions, indigenous newspapers and translated documents within my PhD thesis. The question remains, however, whether the predominant use of colonial sources within the MA prevented me from saying anything at all about Sudan in the early twentieth century. Was I only able to reconstruct the British impression of Sudan’s southern communities and nothing more? Possibly. But in areas where, for whatever reason, written sources are inaccessible and oral testimony unavailable (or particularly confused) is it not necessary for the historian to work with what is available? Moreover, where indigenous voices do glimmer through the layer of colonial silt should they be ignored on the basis that their roots lie in a western document? Perhaps a careful reading, acknowledging both the colonial framework of the piece as well as your own western perception, may yet obtain some insight into everyday Ugandan or Sudanese life that may otherwise have remained buried.
Or perhaps colonial documents may only be used to describe the role of colonial actors and not their impact.