Archives, Oral Histories, and Narratives of Rhodesian Identity
In the summer of 2021, we sat down with Dr Diana Jeater, an Emeritus Professor of African History at the University of the West of England and Associate Dean (Education) at the University of Liverpool to discuss her thoughts on oral history projects and her work on “’Why did you fight?’ Narratives of Rhodesian identity during the insurgency 1972-1980”, a project funded by the AHRC. This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity and concision.
Kate McNeil: Thank you for taking the time to speak with me today! Would you mind getting started by telling me a bit about your background as a researcher, and how you came to work on this project?
Dr Diana Jeater: My background is in Zimbabwean history, with a focus on African rather than imperial history. Obviously, however, if you study Zimbabwe, you have to be aware of the history of the Liberation war – it underpins everything you do in the present.
There was a collection of materials from the Rhodesian Army Association that had been deposited at the British Empire and Commonwealth Museum in Bristol, and Professor Jocelyn Alexander – who was then at Bristol but is now at Oxford – became very interested in getting the collection catalogued digitized. She could not find the funding for the project, so she asked Dr Kent Fedorowich to look for funding, and he in turn got me involved. I worked hard to put a funding bid together, and we eventually got the funding!
While putting the funding bid together, I became interested in the shape of the overall archive, and what this can tell us about archives, how archives are created, and what kinds of material ends up in what kinds of spaces. I became interested in how this material ended up in a museum, rather than an archive, and what that tells us about this post-imperial moment. I also became interested in how this history was understood by the people who had fought, and I decided I wanted to get these people involved in the archives, which resulted in us requesting additional funding for a parallel oral history project.
Of course, after we had gotten started on the project, we ran into difficulties with the British Empire and Commonwealth Museum’s director, and that museum eventually closed after a great deal of controversy. At that point, the oral history collection we had put together became a standalone project. I am immensely grateful to the people who contributed to that oral archive, which we then donated to King’s College London’s Centre for Military Studies.
How has that project influenced the research you have conducted since?
I am now working on a British Academy funded project under their Heritage, Dignity and Violence stream. While the project has been impacted by the covid-19 pandemic, the project’s goal was to work with the Zimbabwe national peace and reconciliation commission to identify the long, deep history of grassroots forms of reconciliation, and to learn about what is happening with grassroots reconciliation now. We want to help the commission to define a set of traditions that could be used as traditional forms of reconciliation in the present, because much of what was done in the past has been buried and we want to disinter it. We want to rediscover a heritage that works for the present.
That project has involved collecting material about the use of the power of spirit mediums and learning about spirit beliefs in the conduct of war and making peace. Like my earlier project on the Liberation war, this project involves an oral history component which will almost certainly involve talking to people who have unsettled grievances from the war.
What type of value do you think this research provides?
I think it provides all kinds of value at different levels! One of the most important things for us was that it provided an opportunity for the group who lost the war to demonstrate that their narratives were complicated, and that there were plenty of diverse justifications for the Rhodesian position within the war. I think it is really important to have the stories from all sides of a conflict heard as part of history, because we cannot fully understand a conflict from a historical perspective if we only have recorded the stories of the victors. I hope that adding these recollections to the historical record will help to shed light on why the war went on so long and got so nasty, as well as how and why it came to an end.
I also believe that oral histories have the power to shed light on archives, and archives can in turn shed light on oral histories. By putting the two together, we have been able to deepen our understanding of why people fight, what kind of loyalties they have, and how those loyalties work. I think that is important for our understanding of how you end wars.
What sort of advice would you have for early career researchers who are embarking on similar projects?
This can be very emotionally charged work, and I think you need to be upfront from the start that you are there to listen to people, to hear what they have to say, and not to judge them. You may not agree with what they are saying, but you are not there to have a debate. You are simply there to record their memories. There are times where I find myself wanting to disagree and debate, but when you are simply there to capture someone’s memories and perspective you cannot stop halfway through and challenge people, asking ‘don’t you think this would have been a better way of doing things?’. There is a place for those debates, but that is a different type of project, and a different type of conversation.
Meanwhile, from a project mechanics perspective… Make sure that if you are partnering with other institutions, that those institutions are trustworthy. As well, ensure that you have a paper trail for everything, keep proper records, and have a robust ethics clearance. It is worth it up front to take the time to think about how you are going to keep records, and how you will futureproof your project. Make sure that your records and recordings are transferred to a format that people will be able to access in future. One of the best forms of futureproofing is still to have things on paper, but if you use an electronic format, make sure that it will not disappear as the fashions in software packages change.
Finally, when you are trying to create an academic analysis that will be useful to other people, it is a good idea to jot down your thoughts right away, while it is still fresh in your mind, then to put it to one side and come back with a different perspective. I think there is a lot of value in getting your fresh thoughts down as soon as possible, then leaving the analytical, critical reflection for later.