‘Like a child in a candy store’ – a historian of 20th-century West Africa delves into the BLDS Legacy Collection

Guest blog by Dr Gerardo Serra (Presidential Fellow in Economic Cultures, Department of History, University of Manchester) 

Before the spleen of writing, editing (and re-writing and re-editing) sets in, there is a fleeting moment in which the historian is like a child in a candy store, starry-eyed and gleefully lost. I experienced such a moment when, in 2016, I walked into the basement of what was then the British Library for Development Studies (BLDS) (the library attached to the Institute of Development Studies). As a historian of 20th-century West Africa, I couldn’t believe my eyes: not only was I facing an astounding collection of postcolonial government publications and academic journals from the continent, but it was all laid out in front of me on open shelves. Each shelve shone, the dust sparkled with possibilities.

During my time as temporary lecturer at Sussex, I made extensive use of the Library. With the encouragement and enthusiastic collaboration of the wonderful Library staff, I brought the undergraduate students taking my postcolonial African history module to identify the primary sources on which to build their term papers. The results were exciting – and immensely varied, dealing with issues such as economic planning in Ghana, activism and protest in South Africa, and the social roots of Boko Haram. I spent my last week at Sussex frantically taking pictures of parliamentary debates, pamphlets on the Biafra war, and academic journals published by Nigerian and Ghanaian universities.

Leaving aside the impact they had on my research and teaching, it is difficult to convey the importance and significance of the BLDS (currently being catalogued by University of Sussex Library staff) African collections. An important part of their value has to do with the sheer rarity of a significant part of the material. Compared with the holdings of other institutions, shaped more directly by Britain’s colonial trajectory, these collections stand out for the wealth of material from Francophone and Lusophone countries. As many of these countries remain severely under-studied in British universities, it is comforting to know that students could immerse themselves in sources from countries other than from Ghana, Nigeria, Kenya and South Africa (in my experience, some of the favourites of students approaching colonial and postcolonial African history). The systematic way in which the IDS built its collections from the 1960s led it to accumulate material on countries that remain largely absent in British repositories. Over the past few decades, several African countries have experienced a decline in their capacity to preserve historical records, the consequence of issues as diverse as conflict and lack of funding for university and institutional archives. There is a tragic irony in the fact that some records preserved in the Sussex Library would be difficult to retrieve and access in the countries that produced them. Somalia, where a protracted civil war and political instability has taken a heavy toll on the country’s institutional memory, is a case in point. I was particularly struck by the richness and diversity of the material from the Siyaad Barre era, with publications as varied as the research on camels sponsored by the Somali Academy of Sciences and Arts, pamphlets of the Supreme Revolutionary Council, and statistics of the National Banana Board.

However, the (ever-changing) value of all historical sources lies in the questions they allow us to raise. From this point of view, the wealth represented by these collections is difficult to convey. Firstly, these collections provide invaluable entry points into how postcolonial African states work and imagine themselves. The state occupies a central and yet contested status in our attempt to come to terms with Africa’s past. It has been depicted as either too strong or too weak, the epitome of a context-specific rationality or the triumph of excess and corruption, the inevitable evolution of precolonial and colonial structures, or the outcome of contingent factors, a developmental agent strangled by neo-colonialist forces or a criminalised and rhizomatic entity. The wide diversity in this collection allows to observe closely the multiple realms, practices and discursive formations in which the state manifests itself, and to subject it to questions and methods associated with different disciplines. Thus, these government publications can inform with the same naturalness an ethnographic study of planning and temporalities, a comparative analysis of fiscal capacity, revenue composition and public debts, a policy paper on the impact of structural adjustment policies on agriculture and child mortality, or a cultural history of ports and infrastructures.  

On the other hand, it would be a mistake to impose too strict a teleology – and thus make the postcolonial nation-state the ‘natural’ successor to colonial empires. In the years of decolonization, Africans imagined many political, economic and cultural alternatives to a world of ‘balkanised’ nation-states. If the African Union’s (formerly Organisation of African Unity) publications represent a somehow obvious point to trace the evolution of the Pan-African imagination, these collections facilitate a holistic appraisal of the forms of institutions cooperation and the networks of solidarity envisaged in Africa in the second half of the 20th century. Indeed, these collections are a precious window onto a much more complicated and fragmented ecology that includes less studied institutions like the Afro-Asian Solidarity Organisation, the All Africa Conference of Churches, and the Pan-African Postal Union.

Nor would it be accurate to reduce discussions of ‘decolonisation’ to the quest for alternative political and economic arrangements. The political struggle was – and is – paralleled by an epistemic one – one for ways of interpreting and constructing reality informed by the specificities of African experiences and perspectives. From this point of view, this collection remains an invaluable resource to observe closely the methodological concerns, the theoretical reference points and the empirical strategies employed by African scholars and institutions. How did they change, and why? What do these changes tell us about their perception of the relevance and the political implications of Western epistemologies? How does it speak of the political context in which these contributions were conceived? How easily did they travel outside their context of inception, and what were the epistemic and practical obstacles that prevented their further dissemination? Whether one is interested in how Burkinabe’ scholars discussed Marx under Thomas Sankara, in what historians in 1960s Nigeria thought about oral evidence, or in South African economists’ stance on racism and oppression during apartheid, these collections stand like palm trees waiting to be tapped.

The list of possible questions that the holdings in the BLDS Legacy Collection could help raise and address could go on. This casual attempt to convey the importance of these collections has been inevitably conditioned by my research interests. Yet I have no doubts that scholars across disciplines interested in other issues would also easily see the immense potential of these collections, and find plenty of reasons to make Sussex (alongside better known repositories, such as the National Archives at Kew, SOAS or the British Library) a key destination for scholars with an interest in postcolonial Africa. On the other hand, through the preservation, digitisation and sharing of some of these records with African institutions, the Collection could become a global player committed to restoring and encouraging the continent’s institutional memory.

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