UC Davis Faculty Explore African History through Gender and Sexuality

Tuesday, April 14, marked the one year anniversary of the kidnapping of over 200 girls from their school in Chibok, Nigeria, by Boko Haram, an Islamist militant group.

The scholarly works presented at Tuesday’s Brown Bag Book Chat, the second event in the DHI’s new series, was particularly well suited to commemorate the anniversary, since both scholars explore the complex and freighted topic of gender and sexuality in post-colonial Africa. Two faculty members were invited to speak about their work, Corrie Decker and Rachel Jean-Baptiste, both associate professors in the history department here at UC Davis.

Faculty respondent and moderator Amina Mama, professor in Women and Gender Studies, began the event by asking Jean-Baptiste about her methodology for her book Conjugal Rights: Marriage, Sexuality, and Urban Life in Colonial Libreville, Gabon. Conjugal Rights explores the history of marriage and other forms of partnership in Gabon, examining how these partnerships affected and were affected by economics, culture, empire, and even urban development.

Jean-Baptiste spoke about the rewards and challenges of working with a small archive, since there are few primary source texts for the short period of time she wanted to study. Gabon’s colonial history further complicates the matter; Jean-Baptiste explained that she had to “fight against the documents, to a certain extent,” in order to provide both the official imperial history and the voices beneath the imperial story.

She also discussed her ethical struggles in combining historical and anthropological research. Personal interviews were essential to Jean-Baptiste’s project, but she then had to negotiate how to present very personal, intimate information about people’s sexual experiences.

“I had to acknowledge the emotions of what was going on,” Jean-Baptiste explained.

Corrie Decker’s book Mobilizing Zanzibari Women: The Struggle for Respectability and Self-Reliance in Colonial East Africa also explores the history of gender and sexuality in a specific part of Africa, and also relies methodologically on a mix of archival research, fieldwork, and interviews. In the book, Decker presents the history of girls’ education in Zanzibar, under both Arab and British rule.

Decker described figuring out the position that the book would take, first imagining that she had to write the oral Zanzibari women’s narrative against the colonial archival narrative, then realizing that the two stories were in dialogue and should be presented that way.

The influence of anthropology in the study of African history forces scholars like Decker to think about the nature of subjectivity and, more specifically, layered subjectivities, or, as Decker put it, “how people shape and reshape their identities over time.”

Amina Mama reminded attendees, after a moment of silence for the Nigerian schoolgirls, that Boko Haram translates approximately to “Western education is forbidden.” The tragedy of April 14 last year should remind us of how vital the understanding of the intersections of gender, sexuality, and education truly is.

– Katja Jylkka, DHI Graduate Student Researcher and doctoral student in English