Weekly Meeting - March 27: British Colonialism's Legacy in Uganda and Eastern Africa

Speaker: Derek Peterson has held joint appointments in the History Department, as well as the Departments of African-American and African Studies, at the University of Michigan since 2009. He was Associate Director of its African Studies Center from 2009-2012, and served as the Interim Director in the 2012-2013 academic year. From 2004 to 2009, he was a Fellow (and Director of Studies in History) at Selwyn College at Cambridge University in England. He was awarded a so-called “genius fellowship” by the John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation in 2017 and, in 2016, was elected a Corresponding Fellow of the British Academy.

Derek Peterson is reshaping our understanding of the African experience of colonialism through close study of local texts and the creativity of their authors. Fluent in Gikuyu and Swahili, important languages in eastern Africa, he draws on a range of vernacular and English-language sources written by Africans, including record books, diaries, religious pamphlets, syllabi and dictionaries, oral histories, and letters. His analyses of these texts extend beyond their content to include the context in which they were created — as well as their intellectual, aesthetic, and material characteristics.

Central to Peterson’s work as a historian of East Africa is his commitment to identifying and preserving historical documentation After discovering several local archives in dire conditions during his research, he spearheaded a long-term partnership with African scholars and universities to organize and preserve endangered government archives in Uganda. This project is based at Mountains of the Moon University in western Uganda. Over the course of eight years, seven archival collections have been organized and catalogued, including the papers of Jinja District, Kabale District, Kabarole District, and Hoima District. These archive preservation efforts are opening new avenues for further research.

Recently, in the archives of the Uganda Broadcasting Corporation, Petersen unearthed a massive collection of previously unseen photo negatives documenting the regime of Idi Amin from 1971 to 1979. He is in the process of curating an exhibition drawn from that material that opens this May at the Uganda Museum in Kampala, the country’s capital. It will be one of the first public attempts to confront the history of the late dictator. His “was a brutal, violent regime in which life was cheap,” Petersen notes, “yet lots of people found reason to support it. Where did that commitment come from?” How the Amin government held onto power as long as it did has much to teach us today :about how societies function — but also about how democracies fail.” Our speaker’s talk will describe that journey of discovery for us.