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A MacArthur “Genius” Works to Preserve Uganda’s History

September 7, 2018
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When Derek Peterson got word last October that he’d received a MacArthur “genius” grant, he was thrilled. The award affirmed his scholarship and the work of LSA’s African Studies Center, where Peterson is a faculty member. But Peterson was especially happy because the $625,000 stipend that came with the MacArthur grant meant he could further his work saving endangered government archives in Uganda.

Peterson, a professor in LSA’s Departments of History and of Afroamerican and African Studies, is partnering with Ugandan and University of Michigan colleagues and students to rescue, catalogue, and digitize vulnerable government archives in Uganda. Those archives—which are disorganized, threatened by weather and pests, and long neglected—hold irreplaceable information that is vital to the history of the eastern African nation where Peterson, an authority on the infrastructure of cultural and political life on the continent, is increasingly spending his time.

His preservation work began a decade ago, after Peterson spent several months poring over documents in a remote government archive in western Uganda. “As I was working,” he remembers, “it came to me that I could either close up the door when I’m done here, walk away, and write my book—or I could find a way to use the resources I had to make this archive permanently available for Ugandans, outside scholars, and students to use.”

Local officials were eager to work with him, and Peterson was soon able to secure additional support from LSA’s African Studies Center. The MacArthur award, he says, “now helps me extend U-M’s generous resources and take them in other directions.”

Moment of Reckoning

Using MacArthur funds, Peterson recently launched an ambitious new project digitizing radio and television archives of the Uganda Broadcasting Corporation. The archives date back to the 1950s and feature hundreds of historically significant recordings and broadcasts, including materials from the presidency of Idi Amin, the tyrant who ruled Uganda from 1971 to 1979. Peterson is at work on a related exhibition using some of these materials, which is due to open in late 2018 at the Uganda Museum in the country’s capital, Kampala. It will be one of the first public attempts to confront the history of the late dictator, he says. “We want to create a space for people to think through traumas that have not been sufficiently thought through.”

Peterson has also been thinking through the traumas Amin inflicted. Working on a book about Amin’s dictatorship, Peterson is seeking to understand how the Amin government held onto power as long as it did.

“It was a brutal, violent regime in which life was cheap, and yet lots of people found reasons to support it,” he explains. “Where did that commitment come from?” Peterson believes the Amin regime has much to teach us today “about how societies function—but also about how democracies fail.”

Much of the research for his book comes from the kinds of archives Peterson is working to preserve in Uganda—for his own scholarship but, more importantly, to help build an equitable and accessible infrastructure so that others can undertake historical research in Uganda.

The Next Generation

“Had Derek not come to the rescue of these archives, they would have decayed in the attics and basements of old and neglected buildings,” says Evarist Ngabirano, a graduate student at Uganda’s Makerere University’s Institute of Social Research, who is working with Peterson to conserve governmental archives from two local Ugandan districts. The archives comprise the primary source material for Ngabirano’s dissertation research, and he thinks other scholars may want to use the same archives as “a source of knowledge to inform policy.”

LSA graduate student Sauda Nabukenya, who grew up in Uganda, is working with Peterson and others to catalogue archives dating back to 1900 from Uganda’s High Court. “Here are the voices of African litigants, rendered in the first person, arguing over matters relating to marriage, property, and crime,” says Nabukenya, who, like Ngabirano, is using the archives to research her doctoral dissertation. “Nobody’s used these archives before, and no other archive of this magnitude has been used for research in all of Africa. There is so much in this archive that will further scholarship of African legal history, an area that remains largely unexplored. You can imagine how exciting it is to do research that is totally new.”

“These kinds of projects work when you’re at an institution like Michigan where there are lots of people who have mutual interests and connections and who want to get things done,” says Peterson. “Michigan has really great graduate students, scholarly expertise in archive preservation through the School of Information and the Duderstadt Center, and funding through the African Studies Center. If any one of those three pieces weren’t there, this wouldn’t be possible. Ours is an institutional story above all.”

It’s also a Ugandan story. Peterson’s efforts to preserve Uganda’s archives have the solid support of both scholars and government officials, and he has forged partnerships with institutions like Mountains of the Moon University in Fort Portal, Uganda, and the National Archives, which will house the High Court’s archives. “History is a very traumatic and divisive subject in Uganda today,” says Peterson, “but many Ugandans recognize the importance of preserving its archival history.”
Opening Up the Archives

Peterson emphasizes that Uganda’s governmental archives—even digitized materials—should not simply be materials researchers can access online. Instead, he insists, scholars “should go to Africa, read the collection, interact with the scholars and students who act as curators for these materials, and contribute, intellectually and materially, to the places where they’re kept. It’s important that digitization not involve the expropriation of material from the global south to global north.”

Peterson’s own devotion to Africa took root when he was an undergraduate and spent two months on a church trip living in rural Kenya with a Maasai pastor and his family. Peterson had never been out of the U.S. before, and the visit was as exhilarating as it was bewildering, he recalls. “The experience convinced me that I wanted to spend the rest of my life learning about eastern Africa.”

Back in the U.S., Peterson changed his undergraduate major from music to history and political science, and did an honors thesis with a Malawian scholar. After graduating, he went to Kenya on a Fulbright grant and learned Swahili and Gikuyu. Today Peterson travels to Africa once or twice a year, often taking students and U-M colleagues with him.

“He has a heart of gold in his love for African heritage and African scholarship,” says Peterson’s Ugandan colleague Evarist Ngabirano.

LSA doctoral student Sauda Nabukenya, who came to U-M from Uganda in part to study with Peterson, says, in Uganda, “everyone is appreciative of what Derek does. He’s training a cadre of students who are going to continue his work. That is very important for my country, because tomorrow he might not be there, but we will continue doing what he has taught us to do.”

(The story first appeared on College of Literature, Science and the Arts website)

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