History is a matter of a longing for rifles and flat screen TVs
History can be found in utensils and in interviews with ordinary citizens. ‘With the reconstruction of everyday life, an anthropological approach works better,’ thinks historian Jan-Bart Gewald. Inaugural lecture on 6 June.
Farmers and petrol station attendants
Gewald does research on the social history of Southern Africa. He is particularly fascinated by everyday life. Interviews with ordinary citizens, such as farmers and petrol station attendants, often serve as the point of departure for his research, a method that leads to discoveries and new insights. ‘Many historians base their work only on written documents, but an anthropological approach works better if you want to reconstruct everyday life.’
Soup made from human bones
Gewald conducted interviews with descendants of the Herero, a people from Namibia, who recounted how German colonists murdered their ancestors and boiled their bones to make soup. A seemingly bizarre story which led him to do research in the archives of the German colonial regime. The archives confirmed the systematic genocide in the period 1904–1908, as well as the fact that colonists made medical preparations from the boiled bones of the Herero.
Consequences of colonial violence
Gewald: ‘These colonial camps are well known among Africanists, but apart from them, few people are aware of the systematic extermination of people that the Germans were already implementing in Africa at the beginning of the 20th century.’ In the coming years, colonial violence and its consequences will be one of his most important research topics in the coming years. ‘For this I look over the boundaries of my own field and want to collaborate with psychologists and geneticists to find out the long-term consequences.’
Guns and Bibles
A continuing theme in Gewalds research is the movement of people and goods that travelled their way through Southern African and the impact that had. After the discovery of diamonds, South Africa struggled with a major labour shortage. People were attracted from all parts of Southern African to work in the mines. The migrant labourers took goods with them on their way back, goods such as rifles and mass-produced clothing, but also the Bible and new ideas. ‘The journey made by these migrant labourers changed habits and customs forever.’
No mud huts
The historian, who lived in Southern Africa until he was 23, is bothered by the archaic picture of Africa that still persists, as if its inhabitants still lived in mud huts and lead simple lives in the countryside. It hasn’t been like that for a long time, Gewald emphasises. The majority of the inhabitants live in cities and are keen on consumer goods like flat screen televisions and mobile phones. ‘Everywhere in Africa, young African men, regardless of race, aspire to the same cars, clothing and accessories. Insight into material culture—what people long for and what physical objects mean for their identity—offers a better understanding of Africa than if you were only to study the political history.’
(11 June 2014 - LvP)