For scholars of African history, anthropology offers a number of valuable and invigorating methodological avenues, from engaging directly in ethnographic fieldwork to analyzing anthropological data compiled by others. Given the asymmetries of written documents and the biases of archival material for Africa, anthropological methods and sources offer a different type of access to those who, for various reasons, tend not to appear in other forms of documentary record. The materials of past ethnographic research—texts and material objects, produced and collected by anthropologists and their assistants as well as by missionaries, government officials, travelers, and others—constitute one of the largest categories of written source material. However, the contexts in which such research was conducted can present certain challenges when using these materials as sources. For example, the complex entanglements between colonial governance and the making of anthropological knowledge make it imperative for historians to be aware of the discipline’s intellectual history and how its ways of seeing and ordering have shaped portrayals of Africa’s diverse cultures.
Methodologically, historians are also experimenting with field methods that draw heavily on ethnographic techniques. The emergence of historical ethnography has developed a rich, syncretic approach, in which communities’ own relationships with, and understandings of, the past are brought to the fore. Although ethnography is known for its immersive and long-term fieldwork, elements of the technique can also be incorporated into other historical methods. This is in part a matter of approach, rather than of different source material. For example, engaging ethnographically with archives can offer different insights into issues of governance and the production of knowledge.
The Horn of Africa has an exceptional cultural heritage, starting with its manuscript sources, which are among the most important on the continent. It is a heritage that is rich but scattered throughout the region and not always easily accessible, prompting researchers to rely on cutting-edge technology. Since the 1970s, photography and microfilm have been key for preserving this especially valuable heritage. In the Horn of Africa, the “digital turn” has been the latest development in the close relationship between technology and research. For Ethiopian manuscript studies, the advent of digitization has meant more than simply improving old techniques. A new generation of projects is experimenting with innovative methods of research made possible by digital technology. The purpose is no longer just to provide digital copies of manuscripts but to explore the possibilities that computerization offers to study documents and other historical sources.
Increasingly competitive prices and low operating costs have made the digital revolution attractive even for African institutions, which, in recent years, have sought answers to the pressing needs of preserving and enhancing their historical sources. These technological developments have significantly broadened the range of sources investigated. While important, manuscripts represent only a part of the documentary heritage of the Horn of Africa. Numerous archives and a long-overlooked print culture offer equally interesting access points for studying the region.
The experience gained, though temporally circumscribed, has highlighted a number of more or less predictable problems. The projects to date, although they have often yielded only partial results, have highlighted the wealth of sources still present in the Horn of Africa and the way in which digital technology is making a valuable contribution to their preservation. Access remains perhaps the most critical issue. In the Horn of Africa, as in other African regions, digitization does not necessarily lead to Internet access.
Amidu Olalekan Sanni
Of central interest here are the historical sources on Islam and Africa, the role and contributions of manuscripts to the narrative, and how the new cyber world has become a domain for those sources as instruments for the generation and utilization of knowledge. Africa came in contact with Islam right from the birth of the faith in the 7th century. Although Judeo-Christian, Late-Antique, and pre-Islamic materials provided the earliest historical sources on Islam and its people, the Qur’an, hadith (statements of the Prophet Muhammad), and the sira/maghāzī (biography/expeditions) were the first original sources on Islamic history on which later writings, including those from Africa, drew.
The manuscript tradition in Islam is as old as the faith itself; it was one of the earliest material sources on Islamic sciences, and in the case of Africa, it provided a treasure trove of materials. At the beginning of the 21st century, the approach to scholarship and utilization of manuscripts changed radically, as digitization, creation of online databases, interconnected portals and links to universal portals, catalogs of manuscripts and published materials, among other innovations, redefined the ways knowledge of Islamic history is generated, accessed, and utilized.
Over the last couple of centuries, there has been a profound shift in the things which Africans have around them, or in other words their material culture. At differing speeds and to different extents, depending on the part of the continent and the political and religious positioning of the people concerned, the goods of the globalized world have penetrated to the farthest reaches of Africa. Belongings, and thus identities, have taken on new forms. This, however, is not a completely new phenomenon, as Africans have been absorbing things from outsiders to the continent for as long as there have been humans outside Africa. Understanding these shifts, and analyzing the causes and consequences thereof, requires the study of a wide variety of types of sources, many of which are dealt with by historians of Africa with a rare degree of sophistication, so that the fascinating stories of material change can be fully examined.
Robert Gordon and Jonatan Kurzwelly
Much has changed since photographs were used simply as apt illustrations and depictions of reality. The field of visual history has now become an important and legitimate area of rigorous enquiry. Photography and photographs as source material for research is now a widespread practice in history, anthropology, sociology and other social sciences and humanities. Both the historical trajectory of this medium in Africa, as well as some important theoretical and methodological issues which Africanists should be aware of, are introduced here. Photography is heavily imbricated in the rise of modernity. Different visual eras are delineated as technology and accessibility of the medium became easier to use and more accessible, moving on a continuum from daguerreotypes featuring mostly portraits and landscapes done by professionals largely for the elite to carte d’visite to postcards and stereoscopic-cards which decline with the introduction of spool photography epitomized by the inimitable Kodak, led to access by the broad middle class. After several innovations featuring 35 mm cameras and slides, digital photography arrived and made the medium even more accessible with smartphones leading the proverbial gaze to be turned into a glaze.
Alongside the historical development of photography, it is necessary to understand the different theoretical and methodological implications in the study and uses of this medium. Photography in itself can be understood through materialist, idealist and social constructivist ontological approaches. Whereas the latter is predominant in history and social sciences, a complementarity of different perspectives should be applied when using and assessing photographs as sources. For purposes of historical research the meaning of a photograph is established largely through contextual information about the image, its making, its different uses, and distribution. It is also important to consider how meaning is established in relation to other photographs or texts (i.e., through intertextuality). Issues include the assessment of images, ways of evaluating their credibility, and the questions scholars might ask in interpreting the meanings of the images, including identifying the provenance of the image, as well as the context in which the image appears. Was it intended for public or only private distribution? Was it in an archive, album, used in a publication, as a postcard and how might it be captioned? What affective meaning might it convey? How might one detect a fake? Besides using archival images, photography might also be used for photo elicitation and other experimental or participatory research methods.
Accounts written by foreigners—especially Europeans—about what they saw in Africa constitute one of the major sources for African history between c. 1450 and c. 1900. Some were published, while others remained in manuscript form. Unlike the ethnographic monographs of the early 20th century, they were generally written in a spontaneous and unsystematic manner, usually with a narrative structure, although in some cases an implicit “questionnaire” seems to have lain behind what was recorded.
Historians of Africa must apply the rules of source criticism to such material. These include an obligation to examine the extent to which the material is really “primary” (rather than derived from sources that already existed and still exist today); what stereotypes and fixed ideas may have shaped the author’s perceptions and writing; how the expectations of the intended readership—including a desire for exoticism or sensationalism—may have influenced the content and style, in some cases even resulting in straightforward fabrication posing as authentic description; and whether the author’s personal background—for example, financial interests, ideology, or gender—could have led him or her to perceive and write about Africa in a certain way. Certain types of data contained in travel accounts, such as quantitative or linguistic information, require cautious analysis. Some travel accounts were accompanied by engravings or other iconographic material, and although it is tempting to use these simply as illustrations, they must be subjected to the same kinds of source criticism as are applied to the written accounts themselves.
Despite these caveats, travel accounts are an indispensable source, whose full potential still remains to be discovered.