Academic journal article History In Africa

Fieldwork, Orality, Text: Ethnographic and Historical Fields of Knowledge in Colonial and Postcolonial Gabon

Academic journal article History In Africa

Fieldwork, Orality, Text: Ethnographic and Historical Fields of Knowledge in Colonial and Postcolonial Gabon

Article excerpt

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I can claim no direct pedigree from African Studies at Wisconsin, but one of my own graduate school mentors, Robert Harms, benefitted from David Henige's and Jan Vansina's influence; all three have profoundly marked my own approaches to the historical anthropology of equatorial Africa.1 In this paper I draw on David Henige's illuminating and still relevant insights into the problem of "feedback," in light of a key methodological preoccupation in my own discipline of anthropology - "fieldwork." In particular I want to suggest how ethnographic fields are formed over time through a layering process that involves ongoing cycles of intertwined oral and written traditions.

Henige's 1973 article, "The Problem of Feedback in Oral Tradition," prefigures by a full decade Terence Ranger's highly influential essay on "The Invention of Tradition in Colonial Africa."2 In that 1973 article, Henige argued that given traditions were "dynamic over time." British Indirect Rule had led the Fante of the Gold Coast to devise new oral traditions in order to take advantage of opportunities of British Colonialism. In particular, he cites the ways printed sources, especially the Bible, but also the Qur'an, colonial sources, publications, and later scholarly works, have all found their way back into oral accounts. Henige also suggests that pre-colonial oral traditions also would have been continually reworked; present practices suggest considerable adaptability and flexibility in the past.

In a grad school seminar in African Historiography in 1986, Robert Harms and the late Leonard Thompson assigned Henige's Oral Historiography, which provides a more general, methodological discussion of feedback in oral traditions. I later drew on these insights in my own dissertation fieldwork on the historical anthropology of northeastern Gabon. In Oral Historiography, Henige raises a number of crucial points. For example, he asks, what does one do if in reply to a question an informant pulls out a book - including the Bible, local histories, papers, government documents, newspaper clippings, or even academic publications?3 He also argues that much testimony obtained from informants is really feedback, sometimes the result of missionary or colonial administrator writings, sometimes the result of a fieldworker's visit, "just as the historian himself is likely to be the source for further feedback."4 Finally, he argues: "Uncontaminated oral tradition simply does not exist anymore."5 Some scholars might object to the term "uncontaminated," as it implies an older, golden age of pure, stable, unadulterated orality. But this is not really Henige's point. He concludes that oral traditions are dynamic over time and again suggests that pre-colonial traditions were surely reworked as well, in part as a political tool by the powerful.6

Here, I consider the role of feedback in creating and recreating the ethnographic terrains or "fields" where anthropologists and oral historians do "fieldwork." In part, this is a response to what I see as ahistorical anthropological critiques of ethnographic fields as sites of power dominated by western fieldworkers. Below, I examine several examples of the ethnographic genealogy that have shaped both my fieldwork and "the field" as I encountered it. The first is the ethnography of controversial but influential French missionary ethnographer, Henri Trilles. Trilles served in Gabon at the turn of the twentieth century, wrote prolifically, and, in spite of his controversial views, continues to influence the Gabonese ethnographic field today. The second turns to a number of ethnographic encounters with nonacademic Gabonese fieldworkers interested in the history, culture, and politics of northeastern Gabon. I also detect signs of Trilles's influence in their narratives about Fang culture and history. Together, these ethnographers significantly shaped "the field" before I ever ventured into "it;"their ethnography has thus profoundly marked my own. …

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