Making Uganda’s Intellectual History Digital: Knowledge Preservation and Ethical Considerations

As a historian of Africa and the colonized world, my research continuously pushes me to consider the unequal power relationships that govern the preservation and presentation of knowledge about the past in these places. Asking questions about how the history is being done and by whom and with what sources are necessary for undertaking ethical scholarship. How does the academy’s presentation and consumption of sources shape their historical meaning? How can digital tools be used ethically to develop/enrich our fields of study? Are the Digital Humanities neo-colonial?

My name is Samantha Stevens-Hall and I am a 5th year PhD student in the History Department and a returning Graduate Fellow/Resident at the Sherman Centre this year. I am a historian of Africa, more specifically the intellectual history of the kingdom of Buganda, the predecessor to modern day Uganda, in the 19th century during the transition to British colonial rule. My dissertation research took me to several continents over the course of 2 years during which I visited a variety of libraries and archives. It was my experiences in these archives that have brought me to the Digital Humanities. The pertinent materials to doing this intellectual history are not housed within one country, let alone one continent. While Britain, as the metropole, has fairly rich archives on this period, Uganda itself holds only mostly fractured and poorly preserved copies, if they even have any, of the intellectual works of some of the key figures in their countries’ past. And so, I began to consider how to make these materials more available, both within Uganda, and elsewhere outside of Britain, so that this history was no longer restricted to those with the monetary and institutional support needed to undertake long distance fieldwork research.

My dissertation deals with networks of knowledge and knowledge transfer during the period of transition from oral to written culture in Uganda, which coincided with the transition to British colonial rule. I am interested in what happens to knowledge and sources when they are transferred between mediums, from oral to written, typescript to microfilm, catalogued in physical archives to uploaded to the web as digital sources. In the case of the sources used in my dissertation, from oral to hand written in the vernacular, and from written to typescript translated into English, and finally partially digitized in the contemporary period. Digitizing some of these pieces of intellectual history offers the opportunity for discussion about what happens to sources when they are transferred from one medium to another. As much of my thesis deals with themes of translation and the transition from oral to written culture, I am also interested in what happens to the colonial archive and the dissemination of colonial knowledge when sources are made available digitally.

My DH project is an open access digital archive of primary sources and supplementary materials in African intellectual history.This archive would serve as a repository for endangered documentary materials and as an exhibition to curate and display the intellectual history of Uganda. The materials incorporated come from the archival work done for my dissertation; these include biographies of a few key Ugandan intellectuals who are the focus of my dissertation, with appended excerpts from their works. This archive will bring together scattered sources into one easily accessible online resource. For my dissertation digitizing some of these pieces of intellectual history offers the opportunity for discussion about the life cycle of documents, and what happens to sources when they are transferred from one medium to another. As much of my thesis deals with themes of translation and the transition from oral to written culture, I am also interested in what happens to the colonial archive and the dissemination of colonial knowledge when sources are made available online. Further, it would make a contribution to the DH community through its mandate of decolonizing the archive and attempting to bridge the “digital divide” between the West and Africa in computing access and capabilities.

Last year my proposed project was a prototype digital archive containing documents and other materials pertaining to the history of Uganda from the 19th century collected during my dissertation research. While this has not changed significantly from last year, the goals of the project have shifted somewhat, and what is hypothetically possible to complete in 12 months, and the steps necessary to meet these goals, has become much more well-defined. Last year I proposed building an online archive and exhibition that was structured around three portfolios of Uganda intellectuals from the period of transition to British colonial rule in Uganda in East Africa during the last decades of the 19th century and the first decades of the 20th. While I am no longer sure that organizing the exhibition biographically makes the most sense, it will definitely be divided into folders arranged along thematic, temporal or biographical lines with each containing document files and appended relevant information and analysis. The excerpts would come from materials collected during my archival work over the past three years. Some of these materials have been published and others are from unpublished manuscripts. The excerpts would be selected to show the dynamic character and variety of intellectual activity in Uganda in a way that supports the key arguments in my thesis that these intellectuals were multidimensional figures engaged in a vibrant culture of knowledge exchange and debate over representations of the past. The archive will bring together materials that are now held in disparate and distant archives across several continents and not digitized, prohibiting their study without extensive funding for travel. Creating an Open Access archive would make the materials available much more widely. This will foster new study’s of Uganda’s intellectual past from within the country’s own institutions and contribute to both the preservation and dissemination of knowledge about the country’s past.

On a final note, most of the documents I am working with are not easily accessible outside of archives or university libraries in the West. The archives that do house some of these sources in Uganda are in poor condition; if not catalogued and digitized soon risk complete destruction. Beyond my dissertation work I am deeply interested in the tenuous relationship between history and politics in contemporary Uganda. History if often a “dirty” word and no national histories are taught in primary or secondary school. The study of history is overshadowed by disciplines with more applicable career skills at the nation’s universities. That being said, there is an interest among some academics and politicians in preserving the region’s history and are willing to undertake the massive project of preserving the archives and turning the tides of public opinion back towards valuing history. My hope is that this project will be a step in the right direction and provide a possible template for future archival repositories, community engagement and ethical knowledge preservation and dissemination.

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