It’s another Sunday, and I’m sitting at my ‘desk’, looking out at the night sky while sipping from a mug of rooibos tea. It’s been an intense week of reading archival documents, living in a new place, and making new friends. I find myself once again exhausted, and needing strangely to be alone to recharge and reflect. It’s generally times like this that seem to be ideal processing moments.
If there’s one thing that stands out to me in a very concrete way about the differences between living in South Africa and living in the States, it’s in the notion of ‘doing things by hand.’ This feeling is somewhat difficult to explain, but it is a constant part of my readjustment to being back here. On the most obvious level, it’s the fact that I handwash my laundry in a small basin and dry it on a clothesline each week that brings this point home, but there are other instances. For me, making sure I have enough airtime on my pay-as-you-go cell plan feels a bit less automated, as does having to remember to bring my own plastic bags to the grocery store lest I be charged an environmentally conscious fee, as well as the notion of getting around Durban without a car. Planning for lengthy walks, or thinking through ways to use taxis or khombi buses, is markedly different than the way that I think through the way I occupy space in the States. In short, I feel a bit more connected here with the ways in which my actions require direct labor on my part. In the States, I feel a bit more detached from my labor and the results I want—whether it’s owning a car, owning a washer and dryer, or not taking multiple times a day to boil water for tea (since I rarely drink it at home). I talked about this feeling with my grandmother last week over the phone, and struggled to vocalize it correctly. I told her it felt like my work was so much more necessary to get things done, and it was hard to explain what that felt like. I heard the smile in her voice from the other end of the globe as she quietly replied, “It used to be like that for us here too, when I was young. Things took a lot more time and required a lot more effort. Funny how things change.” Leave it to Grandma to remind the future historian about change over time.
While riding in a taxi this week with my friend Mark Daku, he turned to me at one point and asked, “So what is it you actually do here in South Africa? Like, how do you do the history work you talk about?” We historians-in-training are only a little bit more sure than you are about how all this works, although we’d rarely ever admit that. The majority of my work here, the kind that required me to come to South Africa in person, is archival. What that means is that I spend 4-5 days a week in archives in South Africa, looking through old stuff—settler letters, contemporary travel guides, newspaper editorials, personal diaries, legal documents, and so on—in order to better understand a period and make sense of how the people operated and acted in that time.
One of the most immediate practical things to do is to familiarize myself with the immediate historical details of the period I’m studying. I know the general outline of the history of the British colony of Natal, which lasted from 1843 until it was incorporated into the Union of South Africa in 1910. My work focuses on the early period, starting around 1850 (when 5,000 British settlers arrived under an unscrupulous land scheme) and ending around 1897, when the colony officially annexed the neighboring region of Zululand, creating the boundaries of what is today’s province of KwaZulu-Natal. Starting with settler manuscripts, personal diaries, and reading almanacs, newspapers, and legal reports, I’m getting a deeper picture of the colony—identifying several periods of economic depression in the 1860s and 1880s, two military campaigns against indigenous African peoples in the 1870s, the transformation of the region following discoveries of gold and diamonds in the 1870s and 1880s (after a false gold rush in the 1860s, by the way, which brought a lot of consternation that the ‘wrong sort’ of people were trying to immigrate into the colony), and the development of religious and educational institutions in Natal. It is basically a deeper uncovering of events and transitions that occur—history is at one of its most basic levels the study of change over time—allowing me to get into the human elements that I’m interested in; the stories of men and women who settle and unsettle; resist/collaborate/negotiate/complicate/a
For me, history is the story of people, their struggles, their hopes, dreams, failings and self-deceptions. It is the way that they pit themselves against larger forces, create systems, challenge those systems, and simply live in space and time. Reading in an archive is a creepy feeling of detachment; I get to watch people live, love, grow old, and die in the course of an afternoon or week. Sometimes it’s a great amusement to ‘know the ending’ in advance while reading; it lends a dramatic irony to people’s schemes and hopes knowing how they eventually turned out (although they could have gone a variety of ways). Other times, it’s painful and strange to read through the lives of the people you are encountering in the archive. Nowhere is that more apparent than in the lives of T. Warwick Brooks and Thomas Phipson, two settlers in Natal’s history that were prominently displayed in the Natal Almanac and held considerable positions in the colony. Brooks was the second Superintendent of Education for the Colony, and oversaw the founding of several institutions, including the first public schools in Natal; Phipson was an early sheriff and keen amateur astronomer, laying out the tides, sunrise/sunset, and other observations for the yearly almanac. Phipson in particular is a sassy man, writing ridiculous, stinging, angry treatises on everything from race to religion to farming. Brooks was more reserved, but his presence was constantly felt through the pages I pored over all last week.
These two men, their discordant, shrill voices, became my companions last week, until they vanished from my sources on Thursday. I’d been advancing through the 1870s in my sources when suddenly I noticed Brooks and Phipson were both absent. Further digging on Friday led me to the revelation that they had both committed suicide in 1876. I sat back in my chair in the heavily air-conditioned archive, and pulled my sweater a little tighter around me, suddenly cold and self-conscious in the small academic space. Dead? Brooks and Phipson? Well of course they’re dead, I thought to myself. You do nineteenth century history. I understood that logically, but the suddenness, the abrupt nature of their passings, hit me through the dry pages of the archive. These were two men whose lives were ended, in moments of deep despair, dark desperation, one hundred and eight years before I was born. And here I was, voyeuristically following the life tracings they had left in these collected printed pages, aware that each typed letter and scrawled penmark was leading me closer to that fateful lacuna, that empty space that showed me where fellow people left this earth. I remembered in that moment of dark discovery that history is still the story of people, and of their lives (and deaths). And I think of the fact that the archive, despite its claims, is always imperfect, biased, and incomplete. These were ‘special’ men, whose words were privileged and saved for me to read, safe in their climate controlled rooms and preserved for ages to come. How many men and women, from the Zulu local induna (minor leader) to the lowly Indian migrant woman, failed to take up the same privileged berth in the archive paper? How do I follow their lives? How do I find their spaces in the words, left faintly and briefly, like the slight impression upon a pillow or lingering warmth of a chair since abandoned?
And this is what I do. I follow people’s stories and lives, recognizing that they are imperfectly unevenly observed and recorded. I try to make conjecture, to draw ideas, to propose theories to explain how our fellow people occupied space, contested those spaces, imagined their lives. And I’m humbly reminded in small moments, like the empty pages in the archive, that I can’t know everything, and that to even attempt such work is a strange prerogative that the living like to take from the bones of the dead.
Perhaps it’s the awareness of the very deliberate way that I take from the lives of the dead leads me to critically think through the ways that I live through space with others currently in South Africa. It’s a strange land, and I’m trying to understand my way around it as best I can.
This month, the country is conducting a nationwide census; the advertisements for it are intriguing. Print ads all over the country, tacked up to utility poles and streetlights, boast a variety of people in different settings, telling us how they will ‘be counted’. The word plays on ‘count’ are very deliberate, while being counted, the men and women in the photographs tell the reader that they chose to be seen by the state because ‘they count’ or ‘you can count on me’ to be recognized. It’s weird to think of the census itself and the politics of counting people, identifying them, and giving them numeric value that will then be rendered in countless government data plans and the dissertations of well-intentioned developmental studies graduate students from around the world, providing background on class, race, gender, access to health care, schools, and the like. It’s also strange to think of the immense psychic value of an ostensibly post-apartheid state telling its citizens that they ‘count’, and that this value can be understand by being assigned a numeric value through a government institution. Perhaps I’m making too much of it, but I find it fascinating how state power, individual identities, and the ability to name all intertwine with each other constantly and unceasingly, like a Mobius strip.
I thought I’d end this missive tonight with a bit on my landlord, Joe. Joe is a spry eighty-five year old man, who favors baseball caps and occasional track suits or jean shorts. He is warm, inviting, and yet equal parts diplomatically taciturn and disarmingly gregarious, a completely unexpected combination. Joe has three sons, two of which are living abroad in North America, and one that remains in Durban. He is a widower, and you can sense just in our conversations how much he misses his wonderful wife. We see each other often, seeing as I live on his property and all, but we specifically see each other on the weekends. On Saturday mornings, Joe drives us both to the supermarket for weekly shopping; on Sunday nights, we watch “Carte Blanche” a ridiculous yet compelling television news program aimed at middlebrow, middle class viewers through a predictable combination of stories highlighting government corruption, individual perfidy, human interest stories, and an inevitable triumph over the odds tale.
I did not have extraordinarily deep relationships with my grandfathers; my mother’s father, a former West Point instructor turned aerospace engineer, died when I was ten, and my father’s father, a gregarious former security guard and city employee who moved to California from segregated Texas, shared a loving albeit more superficial relationship until his death this year. As such, it’s mildly surreal and incredibly comforting to have a ‘local grandfather’ in Joe. He gives me advice, gossips about the neighbors, tells me about his life experiences, and genuinely seems to look out for my welfare. I’m grateful for him, and for the snatches of insight we get from each other over television, or in the backyard chatting, or in the grocery aisle. I am reminded of how lucky I am to live here when I see Joe, and I think of him as he lives at the later parts of his story and I wonder how he will be read in the future.
Well, it’s a bit late, and I am pretty tired. This has been a far less cohesive entry than I would have liked, but I wanted to write some things while they were still in my mind. I hope you all are well—feel free to say hi. I miss you all.