A Perspective: Continuity and Experience in Periods of Transition
This special issue focuses upon continuities spanning the period of momentous transition from the colonial to the postcolonial age. This focus is not unproblematic. By adopting it, historians place themselves in an oblique relationship to the experience of the people who lived through that transition. Experience and memory of that transition are dominated by change manifested in beginnings, ends, and ruptures. And yet it is on this same terrain of transition that historians seek continuity. They are able to do so, of course, because they apprehend the past not through direct experience and memory, but by performing certain scholarly procedures. They discover continuities by comparing different periods. They explain similarities and parallels in different periods by proposing that certain forms of stability persist through time. This is how they identify the continuities which they see spanning the colonial and post-colonial periods.
Saying that continuities are the product of a particular scholarly operation is not to deny that they are real. For historians who seek to capture past worlds, however, it raises the problem of how to reconcile the historian's perception of continuity with lived experience. Experience and memory are dominated by change, transition and by the encounter with the new, the unaccustomed and often the unwelcome. Historians who rely upon oral sources are acutely conscious of this fact, for they know that continuities are rarely noted in the orally transmitted record of the past. Thus continuity represents an aspect of historicity of which people are often unaware, even as they live through it.
The purpose of this chapter is to explore the relationship between continuity and lived experience, it does so by isolating the experience of a small number of men, a small town, and a brief episode in the midst of Tanganyika's transition to national independence. As we adopt this circumscribed perspective, we ask what happens to continuity when we focus narrowly on individual experience in a brief moment and small place, rather than stepping back from individual experience to survey long sweeps of time. Does continuity dissolve before our eyes into trajectories and changes? Or does this narrowed perspective reveal the moments of stabilization that create what the historian calls continuity? This chapter argues for this second alternative. It attempts to capture the experience of living through the process by which ideology and institutions harden, gaining the quality that appears, from the historian's perspective, to be continuity.
The following pages tell a story about Njombe, a small district centre in the Southern Highlands of Tanzania, at the moment when the political party which led the Tanganyikan struggle against colonial rule, the Tanganyika African National Union (TANU), was poised to take control of the state. Both the circumstances of transition and forms of continuity involved in this episode bring to mind recent reflections of the anthropologist David Scott. Scott is interested in moments such as the aftermath of slave emancipation in the Caribbean, when liberal institutions stabilize understandings of freedom that previously had been contested and unsettled. They become stabilized, he believes, when liberal authority places limits on freedom. Drawing upon a familiar argument of Michel Foucault, Scott argues that liberal states establish a hegemonic interpretation of freedom by demarcating the social and discursive spheres in which citizens may exercise their political rights. Liberal states demand that their citizens confine political activity to limited public spheres of political action and discourse, and require that politically active citizens have competence in particular forms of discourse. Once modern liberal governance became established, argues Scott, participation by competent actors in state-sanctioned political venues "would be the only rational and legal way of exercising influence in what now counted as politics. …