Johan Fourie's blog

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Experiencing history

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The South African Economic History Annual, a new publication by the Economic History Society of Southern Africa, was published today. The Annual brings together news of recent and upcoming events, ideas and research by scholars across several disciplines (and hopefully this will expand in future), and one or two personal accounts and interviews.

2012 was a great year for economic history research in Africa. The World Economic History Congress was held in Africa for the first time and, as Sophia du Plessis writes, shifted the focus to African economic histories neglected for too long. New data sources are being unearthed and digitised, more South African universities are offering undergraduate or graduate programmes in economic history, and several South African students are enrolled in economic history programmes abroad.

As Africa’s future prospects brighten, so does the interest in African economic history.

But, as regular readers of this blog would know, economic history is not only about things that happened in the past. Development is a process – a non-linear, staccato process of trial and error – that fits the mercury-in-the hand cliché very well: as soon as we seem to be closer to describing it, understanding it, explaining it, the development process inevitably changes, affected by time, terrain and technology. It is constantly changing, and although our past affects our present (and there are several reasons to understand this), our present will in all likelihood affect our future in very different ways. Which is all the more reason why economic historians can ill afford to cosily hide in ivory towers, sneaking out for a quick trip to the archives. Or to only travel from comfy conference to conference, presenting our work to (predominantly) Western scholars with the (exclusive) aim of publishing in the top journals. (Not that it’s a bad thing to publish in those journals, given the increasingly important tenure and/or ratings incentives.)

But Felix Meier zu Selhausan’s fascinating account of his experience at Mountains of the Moon University in Western Uganda is a reminder that economic history – in addition to its research and teaching component – should also be experienced. Felix has spent the last two years at MMU, a seven year old university funded by the local community, teaching various undergraduate courses and, over a few beers in Stellenbosch a while ago, he explained to me how he has seen the difference tertiary education has made. Not measured, not surveyed, not deduced from national census data. Seen. Isn’t that more gratifying than any journal publication? Incidentally, by physically being there, Felix also stumbled upon some very unique datasets that will help his own research – and begin to shed new light on Uganda’s colonial (and, potentially, pre-colonial) period.

Not everyone has two years to spend in the Pearl of Africa. But perhaps we – and I’m actually referring here mostly to economists like myself – should make an effort to engage more with the communities we investigate. I suspect the learning curve will be much steeper, and more rewarding.

PS: The Mountains of the Moon University would appreciate support, in whatever format. Books, exchanges, funding. Send Felix a mail if you have any ideas.

Written by Johan Fourie

November 29, 2012 at 20:16

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