African History at Makerere in the 1960s: A Further Perspective

By Bridges, Roy; Posnansky, Merrick | History In Africa, January 1, 2004 | Go to article overview
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African History at Makerere in the 1960s: A Further Perspective

Bridges, Roy, Posnansky, Merrick, History In Africa


As two expatriate academics who taught at Makerere in the 1960s (RB 1960-64; MP 1964-67), we were naturally interested in the article, "Building an African Department of History at Makerere, 1950-1972" in HA 30(2003), 253-82. The story Carol Sicherman has to tell is an important one and she has produced a well-documented and forcefully delivered account. It is to be hoped that she will be able to bring out a complete history of Makerere, which is something that is badly needed. We do, however, have some reservations about the picture of the early 1960s that emerges.


Our criticism of the impression given of what was happening at Makerere in the History Department in the early 1960s, before the arrival of J. B. Webster in 1968, is in two main respects. First, it may not be fair to judge everything in terms of how far an African syllabus taught by Africans had been established; the Department and the University might have had legitimate aims in addition to this. second, even granting that moving towards an African syllabus was an aim in the 1960s-and we think it was-Sicherman tends to underestimate on the one hand the difficulties which then had to be overcome, and on the other the extent to which the aim was realized and the essential basis laid for Webster's work.

To consider the first point, one of us (RB) believes that the emphasis in the University generally was in creating Makerere as a world-class university, whose research and teaching would have credibility with academics in universities in the UK and the USA, with public figures, and with governments or other agencies who might provide funds. This seemed to be part of the essential task of nation-building for all three East African territories. Arguably, it was a reasonably successful policy: our students were accepted for Ph.D studies in British and American universities (as well as for a variety of key administrative posts in the new independent states) and there was considerable scholarly and administrative interchange between Makerere and major universities in the 'developed' world.

As far as Africanizing the syllabus is concerned, it surely has to be recognized that although the will might have existed, neither the necessary research monographs on African history nor suitable textbooks existed in 1960. Despite this, attempts were made, especially in the wake of the detachment of Makerere from its "special relationship" with the University of London, to produce a more African-centered syllabus. Bridges recalls that, as a result, he ceased teaching Medieval English History (incidentally, to some excellent honors' students who had responded splendidly) and began to teach courses, inter alia, in east African history. Admittedly, what he taught remained attached to a framework provided by the history of external activities in the region in a way that would soon be seen to be inappropriate. It is worth observing, however, that much early research on indigenous African history set out the story of how Africans in the nineteenth century opposed, avoided, or cooperated with external forces, history which became validated when termed resistance history. At any rate, the attempt was being made to focus on Africa and Africans rather than the external influences as such.


Where there undoubtedly was extremely significant input to the development of African history in the 1960s was in the archeological field. This work informed both "prehistoric" developments and the study of periods of African history for which other kinds of evidence also existed. One of us (MP) observes that in 1962, as a guest lecturer from the British Institute, he taught the first class on prehistoric Africa for the History Honor's class to students like M.S.M. Kiwanuka and P.M. Mutibwa. From 1959 Makerere students participated in archeological digs at such sites as Bweyorere and Bigo, the first such African student involvement in either eastern or central Africa.

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