Network for Historical Research in Zambia

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What follows is the text of the speech given by Prof. B.J. Phiri on the occasion of the official launch of the Network for Historical Research in Zambia, UNZA Senate Chamber, 29 March 2003.

"In this brief talk, I will make a few introductory remarks of an historical nature and then, with the aide of our Constitution, move on to outline the principal aims of our newly born organization and the practical means by which we intend to achieve them.

The sorry state of historical research in south-central Africa, in general, and Zambia, in particular, is far too evident to require great elaboration. Lack of resources and ideological drive; restricted access to the relevant international literature; reduced opportunities for scholarly exchange within Zambia and between Zambia and the outside world – these are the principal factors which have contributed to bring about the current crisis in Zambian historical studies.

The present, unsatisfactory situation is compounded by the almost complete lack of coordination which has affected Zambian historiography from the 1980s onwards. It is this aspect which, more than anything else, distinguishes the period in which we live from the late 1960s and the 1970s, a time in which Zambian historiography was undoubtedly informed by a beneficial sense of urgency and unity of purpose. To be sure, the boom of Zambian historical studies in the 1960s and 1970s must be placed in a broader intellectual context, for it had obviously much to do with the emergence of African history as an accepted academic discipline in Western universities and other institutes of higer learning. Yet – and this is the point I wish to stress – it was also the result of the existence of local networks of support and coordinating agencies.

Think of A History of the Bemba (London, 1973), possibly the best book ever to have come out of Zambia. Would Andrew Roberts have been able to write it without the practical assistance and intellectual stimulation provided by the then Institute for African Studies, the History Department of the University of Zambia and the now defunct Historical Association of Zambia? I doubt it. The fact that all these institutions have in the past twenty or so years failed to live up to their early expectations and achievements has had a negative effect on the quality and quantity of historical research stemming from local scholars. It might also be deemed responsible for the increasing detachment between Western and African historians. While struggling African and expatriate historians have been increasingly forced to limit their research agenda to short-term consultancies, the works of Western and Western-based academics have generally failed to address regional needs and have not shown that deep understanding which only a prolonged familiarity with local realities can grant.

The aspiration to rectify the haphazard nature of the efforts by which historical research is presently being carried out in this country is shared by all members of the Executive of the Network for Historical Research in Zambia and must be seen as the principal rationale for its establishment.

I have made a few comments on the current crisis of Zambian historical studies. But how does the Network for Historical Research in Zambia expect to make a difference? It is now time to say something about our aims and future activities.

Our first objective, as outlined in Article 2.1 of our Constitution, is

‘To foster the cooperation and exchange of information between researchers and institutions with an interest in Zambian history.’

The maintenance of a specialized website and the publication of a yearly newsletter – the first issue of which is due to appear before the end of this year – will doubtless go a long way towards achieving this aim. The newsletter, which will also be made available in electronic form, will provide the Network with a visible identity and will hopefully revive the tradition of History in Zambia, the former bulletin of the long inactive Historical Association of Zambia. It will contain information about ongoing historical research in Zambia – including UNZA final year and graduate students’ projects – and recent scholarly publications and initiatives. The newsletter will keep subscribers in touch with each other and will help to overcome the critical informational gap between Western and African historians

Unlike the newsletter, which will be funded through registration and subscription fees, funds for the organization of seminars and workshops, another obvious sphere of activity of the Network, will have to be sought on an ad hoc basis. In this latter respect, the Network will try to make available to its members a comprehensive database of grant-awarding bodies and funding opportunities. The establishment of good working relationships with donors and funding agencies will be a constant preoccupation of our organization. While it is true that the donors’ own partialities and preoccupations have played a major role in the growth of consultancies or applied research and the ensuing relegation to a secondary position of purely academic work, we do not believe this trend to be irreversible. Our experience suggests that, when approached by an accountable organization with a serious research proposal, donors are willing to pay due regard to the reasons of culture and history.

These latter remarks form the background to Article 2.3 of our Constitution – namely, that the Network for Historical Research in Zambia undertakes

‘to lobby for and facilitate the channeling of resources into historical research in Zambia.’

Equally self-explanatory is Article 2.2 of the Constitution, which states the Network’s ambition

‘to expand the focus of research activities within Zambia by increasing the accessibility of relevant publications and other scholarly literature.’

As many of you know, since about 1990, the Library of the University of Zambia has not been able to purchase new publications or keep up its subscriptions to academic journals and magazines. Given that the functioning of the libraries of the National Archives and missionary organizations is often plagued by similar problems, resident historians face the prospect of complete exclusion from ongoing scholarly debates and cannot therefore be expected to contribute to international journals, conferences and other academic fora. In turn, this lack of international exposure reduces the chances of improving the quality of scholarship in Zambia. This is a vicious circle which the Network will seek to break by approaching the editors of several reputable historical journals with a view to getting free or heavily discounted subscriptions. This strategy has already begun to bear some tangible results, and I am happy to announce that the Journal of Southern African Studies, together with any other journals that the Network will receive in the future, will be made available for consultation to our members.

While talking of publications, we might want to say a few words about the difficulties of the book industry in Zambia. The Network is disturbed by the near impossibility to publish works of history locally and is currently seeking funds to embark on an initially very limited publication programme. What we envisage is the publication of a series of about 10 autobiographies by nationalist leaders or other prominent Zambians. Edited by the members of our Executive Committee or other local historians with relevant expertise in the subject concerned, these booklets will form a welcomed addition to the limited number of primary sources for the study of Zambia’s most recent history.

Let me conclude by stating very firmly that what we are embarking on today is the attempt to put Zambian history back on the academic map. I hope that other suggestions about how best to do that will be raised in the course of the discussion."