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Interview with James Brennan, 2013 Ogot Award Winner

Dr. James Brennan is Associate Professor of History and African Studies, at the University of Illinois. His research interests include Urbanization, Political Thought, and Media in East Africa, History of Decolonization, History of the Indian Ocean. He won the African Studies Association's Bethwell A. Ogot book prize, for this book Taifa: Making Nation and Race in Urban Tanzania

What is Taifa: Making Nation and Race in Urban Tanzania about?

My book began long ago as a historical study of race relations between Africans and Indians in Dar es Salaam. At one level, it still is this sort of study, but more importantly the book also questions how categories like race and nation were generated in the first place—not to divine any precise origins, but rather to see how various historical actors shaped and mobilized these ideas. In a bustling colonial city like Dar es Salaam, the colonial state naturally played a key role in this, through segregationist urban planning and a general legal framework that ranked races. But there were limits of both capacity and will to how deeply the colonial state would racialize urban life. With a few notable exceptions, associational life in Dar es Salaam was largely self-segregated among Indians, Africans, and the town’s small European population. Until the Second World War, the most important divisions concerned religious community among Indians and varying depths of local rootedness among Africans. World War II changed urban life significantly by introducing a two-fold revolution of rapid population growth and increased state commitment to regulating urban life. This took on a sharply racialized character in its enactment and reception, which in turn provided the foundation for popular racial politics.

One of my book’s main goals is to demonstrate the relationship between these sorts of ground-level socio-economic changes with transformations in political thought. The latter half of the book traces how ideas of race and nation—both translate-able as taifa during much of this book’s period (1920s-1970s)—became the fulcrum of African political debate. Taifa was not simply a derivative category of European colonial rule, but rather served as a way to reflect on and confront social and political inequality, often between Indians and Africans, through the legacies of Swahili-language thought and popular ‘commonsensical’ understandings that viewed descent as the organizing principle of community. It is through this intellectual forging of political terminology that the Tanganyika African National Union (TANU) would generate its unifying and effective solidarities over the late 1950s and early 1960s to gain independence from Britain. Julius Nyerere, it is true, went out of his way to offer an inclusive and ‘non-racial’ definition of Tanganyika (after 1964, Tanzania), most prominently in the country’s non-racial citizenship laws. But my book attempts to show that despite this, such commonsensical understandings of an implicitly ‘African’ nation, alongside deep resentments of lingering racial inequalities, proved at least as important in shaping Tanzania’s postcolonial history. This racial populist dynamic culminates in the nationalization of all non-owner-occupied housing worth over £20,000 in 1971—an act plainly aimed at Indians, who owned 98% of such residential and business properties.

What are some of the key issues you raise in your book?

In addition to attempting to start a dialogue between a type of urban history committed to explaining socio-economic change and a type of intellectual history committed to explaining discursive change, my book also tries to understand how cities worked. African urban studies has become a remarkably fruitful field over the past two decades, in large part by coming to grips with the decisively ‘non-normative’ patterns of urbanization that has characterized the continent’s history. For me, this largely stemmed from my frustration with what I viewed as an excessive academic deference to the significance of colonial planning to African’s urban past. For the most part, colonial cities like Dar es Salaam were at best lightly guided by the work of urban planners. Far more important were the strategies of landlords who actually directed most of the town’s built environment. A significant portion of my book examines this aspect of urbanization, as well as the even more vital role that credit played in establishing viable households and commercial relationships between Indians and Africans. Although much of my book concerns a rather large-scale topic—the historical production of race as a political phenomenon—I found that the texture of daily urban life from which race emerges cannot be gotten at without attention to these more seemingly mundane topics like property investment and consumer credit.

How do you think your work can contribute to on-going discourses not only in East Africa but also in other parts of Africa, around indigeneity, belonging and “African identity?”

Those interested in studying African identities and themes of indigeneity do themselves a disservice by not first asking how such categories came to be effective vehicles for claim-making in the first place, and why they continue to persist. The starting point of my book is that it is mistaken to assume that ‘African’ is either a natural and self-evident category, or that it is primarily the product of European colonialism. This ignores the intellectual work and wide-ranging political debates about community, descent, belonging, and ownership carried out across Africa, through which the idea of ‘African’ emerges. As a form of widespread popular discourse inside the continent, this really develops only during the twentieth century. This is not merely to pay obeisance to the reigning academic consensus that race is principally a social construct. Rather, it is to show that race is a type of claim about indigeneity, defined along continental rather than local lines, and through which arguments about power, justice, and obligation get made. Furthermore, it is equally mistaken to assume that current understandings of the distinction between ‘nation’ and ‘race’ can be projected backwards. Nations and races by definition must exclude as well as include. But exclude on what grounds? To typologize historical exclusions based on distinctions between abstract sociological categories—that race is more ‘primordial’ and nation is more ‘civic’—is to assume that historical actors themselves were similarly concerned with such distinctions. Most weren’t.

Do you plan to take your research in this area forward in any particular way, in the future?

Two paths of further research have emerged from Taifa. Part of my book examines Tanzania’s late colonial and post-colonial political history. The most advanced of my current on-going projects is a biographical study of Oscar Kambona, who was a leading figure in TANU and eventually came to be the principal rival of Julius Nyerere. As with my choice of studying race relations between Indians and Africans, I was drawn to studying Kambona for two reasons—first, the obvious importance of the topic to the country’s history, and second, the awkward academic silence that surrounds the topic owing to its controversial nature. The topic of Kambona also opens up the study of political opposition more generally, which I find to be one of the most interesting and dynamic fields of post-colonial African history. Within Tanzania, the legacy of Julius Nyerere is both highly valued yet also seemingly fragile. Viewing his legacy and its wider history through the eyes of his principal opponent, I feel, opens up a host of important questions about the consensuses and contested meanings of Tanzanian nationalism.

My first book also relied a good deal on print journalism as a primary source to reconstruct political thought and debate. Over the past few years I have developed a strong interest in the history of radio, print media, and journalism in East Africa over the twentieth century, particularly with an eye toward the business foundations and larger political economy in which such media have developed. This is very much an on-going work, and I am now considering ways to use this project to fit East Africa into wider regional frameworks of the rest of Africa as well as the Indian Ocean.






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