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A conversation with 2013 Herskovitz Prize winner, Derek Peterson

Derek Peterson is a historian of eastern Africa’s intellectual cultures. His first book, Creative Writing (2004), concerned the history of Gikuyu-language literature in central Kenya. More recently Peterson’s work has shifted largely to Uganda. His second book, Ethnic Patriotism and the East African Revival (2012), was a study of a Christian conversion movement that provoked eastern Africa’s patriotic community-builders. The book was awarded the African Studies Association’s Herskovits Prize and the American Historical Association’s Martin Klein Prize, and was first runner-up for the American Society for Church History’s Phillip Schaff Prize. To read his full bio click here.

Peterson tells us more about his award-winning book:

Can you please give a description of what your Herskovitz Award book, Ethnic Patriotism and the East African Revival: A History of Dissent, c. 1935-1972 is about?

The book tells two interconnecting stories. The first concerns the history of ethnicity in eastern Africa. In the 1940s and 50s, husbands and fathers began to see their family lives as a political problem. They were especially worried over independent women, who came to work and live in Nairobi, Dar es Salaam and Kampala in increasing numbers. Embarrassed and discredited by independent women, men invented or renovated traditional institutions in order to curb women’s movements. It was out of this social work that ‘ethnic patriotism’ was formed. Ethnic patriots published instructive books, developed legal codes, and founded institutions that, together, defined the patria as a fatherland. The patria of the Luo, the Gikuyu, the Haya, or the Toro was both a value system and a locale. It identified rural life as a source of moral and social virtue; it elevated husbands’ and fathers’ interests over wives and daughters; it cast city living as an iniquitous source of moral corruption and cultural amnesia. Ethnic patriotism worked to root people within culture and tradition. It was the stage-management by which creditable, respectable men presented themselves in the political theater.

The second story concerns the East African Revival, which was a Christian conversion movement that began in southern Uganda and northern Rwanda in the 1930s and spread through much of eastern Africa in the 1940s and 50s. Revivalists came from the same localities, the same families, and the same ethnic groups as their patriotic contemporaries. But they acted on a much wider scale. Learning from Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress—which was generally the second book, after the New Testament, to be published in African languages—revivalists identified themselves as pilgrims, leaving aside attachments to kith and kin and heading toward a heavenly city. Converts were aggressive and eager about their antisociality. They described their most intimate sins in public places, disavowed their obligations to their relatives, and ignored polite conventions regarding food, sex and comportment. 

The book shows how the antagonism between cosmopolitan revivalists and grounded patriots played out. Revivalists rarely drew attention from officials in central government; with a few exceptions, they did not seem to pose a challenge to the colonial state. It was in the arena of family politics, within African communities, that revivalists caused discord. They wouldn’t agree to act according to the stage-managed rules that patriots were inventing. The tensions that revivalism generated helped to animate a range of political and moral reform movements. The protagonists of Kenya’s Mau Mau movement, western Uganda’s Rwenzururu movement, the Johera church in western Kenya, and Buganda’s Bataka Union spoke different languages and pursued different goals, but they shared a profound respect for husbands’ and fathers’ authority, and a profound aversion to the displacements of revivalism. 

So the book is, in short, a history of non-conformism. I think it can rightly be said that I am a bit romantic about revivalism. It’s important to say that revivalists were not liberals. They did not challenge the inequalities of their time; they did not advocate for women’s rights, or minority rights, or other liberal values. Neither did they launch a revolution. They were ascetics, not activists. Their non-conformism was expressed in the mundane economy of etiquette, of kinship, in inter-personal relations. That is why they were so deeply controversial. 

 

What motivated you to focus on this topic?

My first book, Creative Writing, was a diachronic study of Gikuyu language and literature. It showed how Gikuyu people experimented with their vernacular language as they conceived new political communities. All of my early work was specifically focused on central Kenya. I wanted to recover the itineraries of Gikuyu intellectual and political life, to show how a people’s particular history could form their engagements with changing times. 

By 2004, when Creative Writing was published, the intellectual and geographic locality with which I had identified myself was feeling like a cloister. Scholars of the Swahili Coast were publishing expansive books about the economic, cultural and textual interconnections joining eastern Africa with the Indian Ocean world, and there was a similarly exciting scholarship about the ‘black Atlantic’. While scholars of oceanic history were reconfiguring the geography of African studies, those of us working in upland eastern Africa seemed to be stuck with a pre-established framework: historians of Kenya wrote about tribes; historians of Uganda wrote about kingdoms; historians of Tanzania wrote about the nation. 

I wanted a vehicle with which to write about intellectual and cultural flows, and I found it in the Revival. When I wrote the first funding applications for this project, there was but a small scholarly architecture: a bibliography from historian Jocelyn Murray; a few chapters on the Revival in Buganda from Kevin Ward; an excellent but unpublished dissertation from the sociologist Kate Robbins. In 2003 I went to Uganda for the first time, searching for traces of the movement’s early history. The National Archives in Entebbe held almost nothing for me. It was in the disused paperwork kept in the attic above the district headquarters in Fort Portal and Kabale that I found my subject. The records were full of recriminatory correspondence from chiefs, headmen, labor migrants and urban reformers concerning the sins of revivalists, prostitutes and other displaced people. In the succeeding years I worked in other provincial archives: in Hoima in Uganda; in Bukoba, Ngara and Mwanza in Tanzania; in Kisumu and Kakamega in Kenya. Most of the paperwork that I read was never forwarded to the central government authorities in Kampala, Nairobi or Dar es Salaam. The British authorities were preoccupied with bigger things: with the political threat of Mau Mau in Kenya; with the management of Buganda’s refractory king; with nationalism in Tanzania. They were generally unconcerned with the dynamics of marriage and kinship. 

With the district and provincial archives as my starting point, I’ve written a book that relocates the political history of the mid-twentieth century in eastern Africa.  Historians have been too much occupied with the English-language paperwork that populates the central government archives.  In the vernacular-language paperwork that now fills the attics, basements and storerooms of local government buildings, African politicians engaged in the admonitory, chastening, disciplinary work of creating stable constituencies. Their chief targets were the converts who are the subject of my book. Revivalists’ moral and social displacement placed them outside the fold of the communities that patriots were working to create. 

It was the structure of the archives that gave my book its subject. By moving my research focus to collections outside the central government repositories, I’ve been able to access debates that were largely unheard in the halls of power. 

 

What links can researchers who are looking at the impact of evangelical Christianity on social and political structures in parts of contemporary Africa, make to your work?

Controversies over the Revival were about scale. Revivalists and patriots argued about the appropriate frame in which Africans ought to act. Revivalists, who were bound up in an inter-continental circuit of texts and life stories, thought of themselves as acting on a global scale. Patriots—who were no less plugged into the circuitry of the mid-twentieth century—thought of themselves as defenders of a specific locale, protecting particular virtues against the overwhelming assault of modern change. 

These contending scales are still with us, and they help to animate contemporary political life. Tradition has recently enjoyed a comeback. Particularly in Uganda and also in Kenya and Tanzania, crowns are being polished, ethnic heritage is being branded and marketed, kings are enjoying a new life. Whatever the name by which it is called—federo, majimbo, neotraditionalism—the discourse of ethnic patriotism is playing a pre-eminent role in eastern Africans’ efforts to re-think their political future. It is also a big business: branded as heritage, formerly outmoded artifacts now live on as the commodities of cultural tourism. 

In some ways I think contemporary Pentecostals have inherited revivalists’ anti-establishment commitments. It is not that there’s a linear connection between the Revival and Pentecostalism. Neither is it that Pentecostal Christianity is inherently antagonistic to the exercise of state power. Uganda’s leaders have proven to be particularly adept at harnessing the discourse of Pentecostalism: in October 1962, when Uganda was celebrating the anniversary of its independence, President Museveni publically confessed the ‘sins which have greatly hampered our national cohesion and delayed our political, social and economic transformation.’ The practice of conversion can validate, not only destabilize, political hierarchies. But within the economy of neo-traditionalism, Pentecostals arouse considerable controversy. Like the revivalists of an earlier time, they won’t abide by the rules of kinship; they won’t fulfill the responsibilities of the young to the old; they refuse to honor their ancestors or abide by their teachings. They live (at least in principle) in anticipation of a new world, and they will do little to uphold the old. 

I think it important to recognize that the patrimonial ‘politics of the belly’ is not the only economy in which east Africans can live. Their patriotic history teaches them to value the gerontocratic authority of elderhood and to organize themselves as kin and ethnic compatriots. But there is, also, a discursive and organizational architecture, handed down from the Revival, that enables non-conformity, that distances converts from their native cultures, that places them outside the economy of eating and being eaten. There is always new life. 

 

Derek R. Peterson
January 2014

 

 

 

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