Military history

Preface and Acknowledgments: Decolonizing Area Studies

FOR MUCH of my life, I lived just over a hundred miles from the Uganda-Rwanda border. Only once can I recall going to colonial Rwanda. When I was a child of four, my maternal grandfather came to Masaka, which is where we then lived, and announced that he had come to take my mother and her two sons to Bujumbura (Burundi) for his daughter’s wedding. The drive over and back took us through Kigali and Astrida (contemporary Butare).

As we grew up, mostly in Kampala, less than another hundred miles from Masaka, Rwanda was seldom a part of our lived reality. That was until the genocide of 1994. Following reports of mass killings, we heard of bodies floating into Lake Victoria. Evidence of gruesome torture could be seen from the shores of the lake. Often, peasants would bring the bodies on shore, followed by periodic mass burials. I remember one occasion when busloads of people went from Kampala to a lakeside village, to attend a large burial and honor the dead. When they returned, word spread that several peasants involved in bringing and burying the bodies on shore had gone mad.

In the next few months, the Council for the Development of Social Research in Africa (CODESRIA) called a major Africa-wide conference in Arusha (Tanzania) to reflect on the tragedy. I was asked to write a paper, and decided that I must go to Kigali before doing so. I had little idea whom I would meet in Kigali. Imagine my surprise when I found a number of my former Makerere University (Kampala) students—whom I had always assumed were Ugandan like the rest—holding important positions in the Rwanda Patriotic Army (RPA), the Front (RPF), and even in the reorganized gendarmerie and police. I met them individually, and as a group. The times were difficult, and the road ahead not easy to see. I was someone they knew from a comfortable past, and yet I was a safe outsider. The more we talked, the more they shared doubts and anxieties with me.

That was in 1995. I visited Kigali, Butare, and the church at Ntarama. It was a short visit, roughly ten days, but one that I could not and would not easily forget. Rwanda turned into a preoccupation. Most obviously, it was a metaphor for postcolonial political violence. Less obviously, it was a political challenge, a vantage point from which to think through the postcolonial political crisis. Even though the conference was over, and I had no immediate academic agenda in which Rwanda would feature, I kept on returning to Rwanda, usually a couple of times a year. When the RPF crossed the border into Zaire in 1997, I too went to Gisenyi, and then crossed the border with an RPA commander into Goma, to go and meet Laurent Kabila, the head of the anti-Mobutu rebellion.

Later that year, CODESRIA asked Jacques Depelchen, a Congolese intellectual then in Kinshasa, and me to undertake a research trip to eastern Congo. The object was to speak to non-governmental organizations about the citizenship crisis that had become publicly identified with the plight of the Banyamulenge. By then, the name Banyamulenge had ceased to identify simply those Tutsi living on the hills of Mulenge; instead, it had become a generic term for the Kinyarwanda-speaking minority in Congo. Depelchen was an old friend from the 1970s when we had both taught at the University of Dar-es-Salaam, and we traveled well together. We went from Kinshasa to Goma, Bukavu, Kisangani, and then back to Kinshasa. I was pleased to find out that Kiswahili was a popular lingua franca in the whole of eastern Congo, and that I could talk directly to those I met. Yet, the language of academic discourse was French, and I did not speak it. Jacques was fluent in French and was patient enough to translate for me so I could take notes every time we had an extended discussion with someone in French, which turned out to be often. When I returned to the University of Cape Town, which is where I had started teaching in 1996, I sought out a French teacher, to pick up from the one year of French that I had learned during my undergraduate years. Thus began the slow and laborious task of learning a new language in middle age.

The move to South Africa for the first time put me in an academic milieu in which Africa (which is how South Africans tend to refer to the continental land mass to their north) was defined as an “area” to be studied by “area” specialists. The move to Columbia University in 1999 both thickened the experience of area studies and brought me into conversations with postcolonial scholars increasingly critical of it. Finally, as the encounter with Rwanda gradually turned into one with Rwanda experts, it fed my own growing discontent with the methodological underpinnings of area studies.

The area studies enterprise is underpinned by two core methodological claims. The first sees state boundaries as boundaries of knowledge, thereby turning political into epistemological boundaries. Even when radical area studies linked developments in the colony to those in imperial centers, it did not cross boundaries between colonies. It soon became clear to me that just because the genocide took place within the boundaries of Rwanda, it did not mean that either the dynamics that led to it or the dynamics it unleashed in turn were confined to Rwanda. The second methodological claim is that knowledge is about the production of facts. This view translates into a stubborn resistance to theory in the name of valorizing the fact. From this point of view, the claim is that theory is deadening: instead of illuminating, it manipulates the fact. The assumption is that facts speak for themselves. But facts need to be put in context, and interpreted; neither is possible without a theoretical illumination.

This dual methodological underpinning highlights two ways in which this book breaks out of the constraint of area studies. One, the book breaks through the rules of area studies where every “expert” must cultivate his or her own “local” patch, where geography is forever fixed by contemporary political boundaries. Thus, we have experts on Rwanda, and others on Uganda, but not on both. Instead of breaking free of this intellectual claustrophobia, the radical impetus in area studies has linked local outcomes to colonialism historically, but not to broader regional developments. The book breaks through this constraint by historicizing geography. In doing so, it combines a critical appropriation of existing literature—particularly historical literature on Rwanda—with original work (on post-colonial Uganda, Kivu, and lived experiences in the genocide). I assert the critical nature of the appropriation in two instances in particular. In the first instance, I show the ways in which history writing has been complicit with imperialism, particularly innaturalizing political identities, Hutu and Tutsi, and in considering facts about place of origin (migration) as key to history making. Second, I show the ways in which key texts on the 1959 Revolution failed to problematize the object of their analysis; instead of addressing critically the ways in which the postcolonial state reproduced and reinforced colonially produced political identities in the name of justice, they ended up once again treating these identities as if they were natural constructs.

The book also breaks out of a second limitation of area studies. This is the profoundly antitheoretical thrust that links expertise to the search for new facts. The area is mined over and again in the ongoing hunt for the new fact. Every new book is read for evidence as to what new fact, if any, it contributes. In the process, the empirical is detached and set up in opposition to the theoretical. And yet, it is self-evident that the more you go beyond the local—without necessarily letting go of the local—the more you will need to appropriate secondary material. But this appropriation need not turn into a mindless reliance on others. To the extent you rely on others, better to stand on their shoulders than to lean against them, the more to see beyond the horizon where their sights came to rest. Thus, my claim that the theoretical framework of this book—particularly as regards colonially generated political identities and the crisis of postcolonial citizenship—goes beyond a simple critique to a reinterpretation of, if you will, borrowed facts. This book is more than just an attempt to dig up new facts by expanding the scale of investigation; rather, it is an attempt to rethink existing facts in light of rethought contexts, thereby to illuminate old facts and core realities in new light.

My knowledge of the enterprise called “area studies” did not really begin until I moved from Makerere University in Kampala to the University of Cape Town, and then to Columbia University in New York. To the extent the enterprise of area studies was driven by a search for the latest empirical facts, it needed native informants—not native intellectuals—in the area of expertise. The result, at best, was a polite coexistence whereby local intellectuals and area study experts acknowledged one another through what has been called benign neglect in a different context. This was not simply because local intellectuals would appear as competitors to an outside expert claiming empirical expertise of an area. It was even more the outcome of a fundamental difference in the methods through which locals sought to produce knowledge and the method of the area experts, a fact that did not really dawn on me until I moved out of the area. Whether at Dar-es-Salaam or Makerere, we were never really practitioners of area studies. In the pursuit of knowledge, we knew no boundaries. It never occurred to us to translate political boundaries into boundaries of knowledge production. Our reach extended to the whole world, from China to Nicaragua, and from the Soviet Union to South Africa. The only difference was that we never lost sight of location: we looked at the world from within Africa.

The single-most important failing of area studies is that it has failed to frame the study of the “third-world” in broad intellectual terms. If the “area” in area studies was perceived through narrow colonial and Cold War lenses, then the end of apartheid regionally and the Cold War globally offers us an opportunity to liberate the study of Africa from the shackles of area studies. To do so, however, we need to recognize that decolonization in one sphere of life does not necessarily and automatically lead to decolonization in other spheres. If dependency theory taught us that political decolonization did not automatically lead to decolonization of the economy, postcolonial studies brings home the fact that intellectual decolonization will require no less than an intellectual movement to achieve this objective. I hope this can explain to the reader why this book, immediately the result of an endeavor to make the Rwandan genocide thinkable, is also guided by a broader quest: What can the study of Africa teach us about late modern life?

IN WRITING this book, I have incurred several intellectual debts. The funding that made it possible for me to put together the research base of this book came from the South-South Exchange Program for Research on the History of Development (SEPHIS), a government-funded body in Holland which is dedicated to promoting research-related activities in resource-constrained “third world” contexts. For the generous three-year grant from SEPHIS, I am indeed grateful. The preliminary effort that preceded this book-length project was funded by a grant from the MacArthur Foundation. My early research in Rwandan politics and history was carried out at the Centre for Basic Research in Kampala. I continued the endeavor at the University of Cape Town, where I was A. C. Jordan Professor of African Studies from 1996 to 1999, and completed writing at the Department of Anthropology in Columbia University, which I joined later in 1999.

People are often reluctant to reveal the identity of their financial debtors, but not usually of their intellectual debtors. Not withstanding the tendency of area studies, which translates the endless search for the new fact into a prejudice against borrowing, could it be that the effect of intellectual debts is more likely to be enriching than impoverishing? It is thus with pleasure that I acknowledge those who read through earlier drafts of this book and helped me identify and address some of its shortcomings, even if I did not always accept every advice that came my way: Robert Meister at the University of California in Santa Cruz; David Newbury at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill; Carlos Forment at Princeton University; Abdullah Ibrahim at University of the Western Cape; Mamadou Diouf at CODESRIA and then the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor; Michael Ignatiff at Harvard; Ruth Iyob at the University of Missouri—St. Louis; Nick Dirks and Andreas Huyssen at Columbia University; Tom Keenan at Bard College; Ian Shapiro at Yale; Justus Mugaju at Fountain Publishers in Kampala; and Mary Murrell at Princeton University Press.

From the wise and patient editorial guidance of Mary Murrell, to the copyediting of Alice Calaprice, I have benefited greatly from support at Princeton University Press. Augustine Ruzindana and Wafula Oguttu in Kampala, friends for decades, acted as reliable and fearless critics. Jacques Depelchen was a friend and guide in Kivu, Kisangani, and Kinshasa. Faustin guided me on my first visit to postgenocide Rwanda and explained every detail patiently as I groped for meaning. Christopher Brest produced the maps I needed; and Sofian Merabet, Ravi Sriramachandran, Poomima Paidipathy and Ngozi Amu, students and assistants at Columbia University, provided invaluable help: from bibliographical support to translations to compiling the index and reading the proofs late into the night. To all of them, my thanks.

The writing of this book marks a different transition in the confines of our family, a time when our son Zohran crossed the boundary from a fascination with the image, whether on the video or the computer screen, to familiarity with the written word. The more Harry Potter he read, the more curious he became of what I was writing, and whether I would read some of it to him as he retired in the evening. When my efforts to explain that my kind of writing would not make ideal bedtime reading were unsuccessful, I looked for portions that could be read to an eight-year-old without harm. It was not always easy. I dedicate this book to Zohran—and of course to Mira—in the hope that he may one day choose to read it for benefit.

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