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NONCONFORMITY IN AFRICA'S CULTURAL HISTORY*

  • DEREK R. PETERSON (a1)
Abstract

This article uses E. P. Thompson's last book – Witness against the Beast (1993) – as an occasion to claim oddity, peculiarity, and nonconformity as subjects of African history. Africa's historians have been engaged in an earnest effort to locate contemporary cultural life within the longue durée, but in fact there was much that was strange and eccentric. Here I focus on the reading habits and interpretive strategies that inspired nonconformity. Nonconformists read the Bible idiosyncratically, snipping bits of text out of the fabric of the book and using these slogans to launch heretical and odd ways of living. Over time, some of them sought to position themselves in narrative structures that could authenticate and legitimate their dissident religious activity. That entailed experimentation with voice, positionality, and addressivity.

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*

This article was presented at the workshop on ‘History after E. P. Thompson’ at the University of Michigan (Nov. 2015), at the conference on ‘African Intellectual History’ at Yale University (Apr. 2016), and at the Interdisciplinary Center for the Study of Global Change at the University of Minnesota (Oct. 2016). I thank the participants at each of these occasions for their helpful comments. Author's email: drpeters@umich.edu

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1 Thompson, E. P., ‘History from below’, Times Literary Supplement, 3345 (1966), 279 .

2 The phrase is most often offered without a reference to Thompson himself, who is only mentioned in 11 articles.

3 Wood, E. J., Forging Democracy from Below: Insurgent Traditions in South Africa and El Salvador (Cambridge, 2000); von Holdt, K., Transition from Below: Forging the Trade Unionism Workplace Change in South Africa (Pietmaritzburg, 2003); Arrous, M. B., Beyond Territoriality: A Geography of Africa from Below (Dakar, 1996); Wanyama, F., Developing Africa from Below: Reflections on Neo-Liberal Assumptions in Kenya (Saarbrücken, Germany, 2010); Scheidegger, U., Transformation from Below? White Suburbia in the Transformation of Apartheid South Africa (Basel, Switzerland, 2015).

4 Hafkin, N. and Bay, E. G. (eds.), Women in Africa: Studies in Social and Economic Change (Stanford, 1976), 5 .

5 van Onselen, C., Studies in the Social and Economic History of the Witwatersrand, 1886–1914, Volume I: New Babylon (London and Johannesburg, 1982).

6 Atkins, K., The Moon is Dead! Give us Our Money! The Cultural Origins of an African Work Ethic, Natal, South Africa, 1843–1900 (Portsmouth, 1993).

7 The Herskovits Prize is presented by the African Studies Association (ASA) to the author of the most important scholarly work in African studies published in English during the preceding year. This annual prize is named in honor of Melville J. Herskovits, one of the ASA's founders.

8 Thompson, E. P., Witness against the Beast: William Blake and the Moral Law (New York, 1993).

9 Thompson, Witness against the Beast, 109–10.

10 See Atkins, The Moon is Dead; Isaacman, Allen, Cotton is the Mother of Poverty: Peasants, Work, and Rural Struggle in Colonial Mozambique (Portsmouth, 1995); and many other works. Thompson's influence on the field of labor history is assessed in Cooper, Frederick, ‘Work, class and empire: an African historian's retrospective on E. P. Thompson’, Social History, 20:2 (1995), 235–41.

11 Landau, Argued in P., ‘“Religion” and Christian conversion in African history: a new model’, Journal of Religious History, 23:1 (1999), 830 ; and in Peterson, D. R., Ethnic Patriotism and the East African Revival: A History of Dissent (Cambridge, 2012), ch. 1.

12 Feierman, S., ‘Struggles for control: the social roots of health and healing in modern Africa’, African Studies Review, 28 (1985), 73147 . See also Feierman, S. and Janzen, J. M. (eds.), The Social Basis of Health and Healing in Africa (Berkeley, 1992). I have criticized this literature in Peterson, D. R., ‘The politics of transcendence in colonial Uganda’, Past and Present, 230:1 (2016), 197225 .

13 Feierman, S., Peasant Intellectuals: Anthropology and History in Tanzania (Wisconsin, 1990); Lonsdale, J., ‘The moral economy of Mau Mau’, in Berman, B. and Lonsdale, J. (eds.), Unhappy Valley: Conflict in Kenya and Africa (London, 1992), 315504 .

14 Peterson, D. R. and Macola, G. (eds.), Recasting the Past: History Writing and Political Work in Modern Africa (Athens, OH, 2009).

15 Rev. Youngson, ‘The soul-hunger’, Kikuyu News, 32 (Dec. 1911).

16 M. Stevenson, ‘The Kikuyu language committee’, Kikuyu News, 37 (Aug. 1912).

17 McCracken, J. (ed.), Voices from the Chilembwe Rising: Witness Testimonies Made to the Nyasaland Rising Commission of Inquiry, 1915 (London, 2015), 385.

18 See, for example, Harner, C. J., Ekitabo Ekitegeza Ebyafa mu biro ebyeNdagano Eyeda (London, 1906).

19 Mohoro ma Tene Tene (Church of Scotland East Africa Mission, 1917).

20 Kenya National Archives (hereafter KNA) MSS (BS) 1/2, Arthur Barlow to Howard Church, 19 Jan. 1946.

21 Rhodes House Archive (hereafter RH) Mss. Afr. s. 2257, Howard Church, ‘Athi River detention and rehabilitation camp’, 4 Apr. 1955.

22 J. Breckenridge, Forty Years in Kenya (Great Britain, n.d.), 223.

23 This paragraph is modeled after J. Lonsdale, ‘“Listen while I read”: Patriotic Christianity among the Kikuyu’, in T. Falola (ed.), Christianity and Social Change in Africa: Essays in Honour of J. D. Y. Peel (Durham, NC, 2005), 563–94.

24 KNA DC/Machakos 10B/13/1, James Muigai, editorial letter, Mwigwithania, 1:8 (Dec. 1928–Jan. 1929).

25 KNA DC/Machakos 10B/13/1, S. Njuguna wa Karucha, editorial letter, Mwigwithania, 1:6 (Oct. 1928).

26 Peel, J. D. Y., Religious Encounter and the Making of the Yoruba (Indiana, 2000); Vail, L. (ed.), The Creation of Tribalism in Southern Africa (Berkeley, 1991).

27 KNA PC/CP 8/7/3, Assistant Supervisor of Police, Nakuru, to Commissioner of Police, 21 May 1934.

28 KNA PC/CP 8/7/3, District Commissioner, Fort Hall to Provincial Commissioner, Nyeri, 29 Mar. 1934.

29 Presbyterian Church of East Africa archives, St Andrew's Church, Nairobi (hereafter PCEA) I/C/12 and 13, Teacher at Nyeri to R. G. M. Calderwood, 31 Oct. 1930.

30 KNA PC/CP 8/7/3, Commissioner of Police to District Commissioner, Meru, 9 Jan. 1936.

31 KNA PC/CO 8/7/3, Police Superintendent, Nakuru to Commissioner of Police, Nairobi, 21 May 1934.

32 PCEA I/C/12 and 13, Teacher at Nyeri to R. G. M. Calderwood, 31 Oct. 1930.

33 Anglican Church of Kenya Archives, ‘North Highlands Rural Deanery’ file: ‘Watu wa Mungu Description and Ideology’, n.d. (but 1934).

34 Mortimer, F. L., The Peep of Day; or, a Series of the Earliest Religious Instruction the Infant Mind is Capable of Receiving (New York, 1845).

35 KNA DX 21/9/1, Special Branch to Supervisor of Police, 21 Aug. 1956.

36 KNA DX 21/9/1, Provincial Supervisor of Police to Director of Intelligence and Security, 1 Sept. 1956.

37 KNA DX 21/9/1, District Commissioner North Nyanza to Registrar General, 26 May 1961.

38 These events are described in KNA DC/North Nyanza/10/1/1, District Commissioner Kakamega to Provincial Commissioner Kisumu, 9 Feb. 1934; and ‘Enquiry under the collective punishment ordinance into the disturbances at Musanda, Wanga, North Kavirondo’, Feb. 1934. See Hoehler-Fatton, C., Women of Fire and Spirit: History, Faith, and Gender in Roho Religion in Western Kenya (New York, 1996).

39 KNA DX 21/9/1, District Commissioner Kakamega, ‘Unorthodox religious sects calling themselves Dini ya Roho’, 16 Aug. 1956.

40 KNA DX 21/9/1, Special Branch to Supervisor of Police, 21 Aug. 1956.

41 Kenya National Archives, Kakamega depot (hereafter KNA Kakamega) DX/8/10, Kivuli to District Commissioner Kisumu, 14 June 1948.

42 KNA DX/21/9/1, Superintendent of Police, ‘The African Israel Church, Nineveh’, 6 Feb. 1957.

43 KNA DX 21/9/1, Special Branch, ‘Dini ya Israel in North Nyanza’, 4 July 1953.

44 KNA Kakamega DX/8/10, Father Guido Benedicto to D. C. Kakamega, 16 June 1950.

45 KNA DX/21/9/1, Superintendent of Police, ‘The African Israel Church, Nineveh’, 6 Feb. 1957.

46 Makerere University Library, Africana section archives (hereafter MUL) Ms. 276.762 Afr, ‘Annual Report of the African Israel Church, Nineveh’, 1 Mar. 1958.

47 KNA Kakamega DX/8/10, Kivuli to Council of Ministers, 28 May 1963.

49 Spartas's biography is given in Welbourn, Frederick, East African Rebels (London, 1961), 77110 .

50 Uganda National Archives (hereafter UNA) ‘C series’, box 13, C.1002, R.S.S. M. Sparta, 4th K.A. R., Bombo, to Harry Thuku, 20 June 1925.

51 UNA ‘C series’ box 13, C.1002, Commissioner of Police to Chief Secretary, 18 Jan. 1927.

52 BNA FCO 141/5908, File note on Reuben Spartas, n.d. (but 1945).

53 Church of Uganda Archives, Mukono, Uganda (hereafter CoU) 02/Bp 8/1, Bishop Alexander to Mukasa Sparta, 11 Sept. 1929.

54 MUL Ms. 276.761 Afr., Matalisi, 22 June 1932.

55 BNA FCO 141/5908, Nicholas, Pope and Patriarch of Alexandria and All Africa, to the Governor of Uganda, 6 Feb. 1939.

56 Rubaga Cathedral Archives, Kampala, Uganda (hereafter Rubaga) D.99 f.2, ‘Synopsis of comparative list of Catholic and Protestant chiefs in Buganda’, 1935. For scholarship on Anglicanism and Buganda's political identity, see Hansen, Holger Bernt, Mission, Church and State in a Colonial Setting: Uganda, 1890-c. 1925 (London, 1985); Twaddle, M., Kakungulu and the Creation of Uganda, 1868–1928 (London, 1993); Peterson, ‘Politics of transcendence’.

57 CoU 02 Bp 8/1, Reuben Spartas to Archbishop of Canterbury, 26 Sept. 1933.

58 MUL Ms. 276.761 Afr., Spartas Mukasa, ‘History’, 1946.

59 CoU 02 Bp 8/1, Mukasa Spartas to Bishop Willis, 16 Feb. 1931.

60 CoU 02 Bp 8/1, Spartas to Bishop Stuart, 21 Apr. 1935.

61 CoU 02 Bp 8/1, Spartas to Willis, 17 Nov. 1929.

62 My thanks to Dr Ben Fortson for help with Spartas's Latin.

63 British National Archives, Kew, United Kingdom (hereafter BNA) FCO 141/18239, British Embassy, Athens, to Foreign Office, London, 24 Feb. 1961.

64 See (http://orthodoxmission.org.gr/country/uganda/), accessed 28 Mar. 2016.

65 BNA FCO 141/5908, L. Sharp, Director of Security and Intelligence, notes on Leubeni Spartas, 4 July 1945.

66 Jonathon Earle discusses the ‘Sons of Kintu’ in Reading revolution in late colonial Buganda’, Journal of Eastern African Studies, 6:3 (2012), 507–28.

67 UNA ‘C series’ box 23, file C.2462, Resident of Buganda to Chief Secretary, 29 May 1941.

68 Discussed in Kodesh, N., Beyond the Royal Gaze: Clanship and Public Healing in Buganda (Charlottesville, 2010).

69 UNA ‘C series’ box 23, file C.2462, Spartas Mukasa, I. K. Musazi and others to Governor, 20 Oct. 1939.

70 UNA ‘C series’ box 23, file C.2462, Descendents of Kintu to Kabaka, 19 Sept. 1938.

71 UNA ‘C series’ box 23, file C.2462, Reubeni Spartas Mugimba and others to Governor, 29 Sept. 1939.

72 UNA ‘C series’ box 23, file C.2462, Spartas, Ignatius Musazi and 328 others to Governor, 13 Mar. 1939.

73 Summers, C., ‘Grandfathers, grandsons, morality, and radical politics in late colonial Buganda’, International Journal of African Historical Studies, 38:3 (2005), 427–47.

74 Peterson, Ethnic Patriotism and the East African Revival, 89–90.

75 RH MS Afr. s. 1825/106, J. Sibly, ‘Diary of the riots in Uganda, 26 Apr. to 1 May 1949’.

76 CoU 02 Bp 181/20, Cyril Stuart, circular letter, 17 May 1949.

77 Peterson, Ethnic Patriotism and the East African Revival, 102.

78 Thompson, Witness against the Beast, 5.

* This article was presented at the workshop on ‘History after E. P. Thompson’ at the University of Michigan (Nov. 2015), at the conference on ‘African Intellectual History’ at Yale University (Apr. 2016), and at the Interdisciplinary Center for the Study of Global Change at the University of Minnesota (Oct. 2016). I thank the participants at each of these occasions for their helpful comments. Author's email:

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  • ISSN: 0021-8537
  • EISSN: 1469-5138
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