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Of Mice and Manuscripts: A Memoir of the National Archives of Zimbabwe

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  13 May 2014

Extract

Readers of Leslie Bessant's article in HA 24 (1997) on the National Archives of Zimbabwe (NAZ) might have been alarmed by one of the photographs opposite the opening page, which depicted an archive in a state of advanced decay. If they had expected the photograph to be a pictorial representation of the current condition of NAZ, they would have been disappointed. The photograph was taken in the Sāo Tomé e Príncipe archives and accompanied a short note detailing the recovery work undertaken in those archives to make them usable. NAZ is a flourishing national archive which is a pleasure to work in, staffed by professional and conscientious personnel, but it is also bearing the brunt of cuts in funding and government suspicion of researchers. I worked intensively at NAZ for nine months in 1994-95, and again for five months in 1996. This paper is by way of an informal engagement with Bessant's article; in it I aim to sketch out my own reminiscences of NAZ and also address some of the issues which face overseas researchers in Zimbabwe.

Bessant spent a sizeable part of his article discussing tea, and the notions of privilege associated with tea at NAZ. Tea under the flagpoles became an institution for me. Not only was the tea absurdly cheap (Z$0.40/US$0.04 in 1994, rising to Z$1 a few months later), but the break was a useful refueling exercise during grueling days looking at dusty files. Rather than fading in significance as Bessant suggested, tea was extremely prominent in the day of the typical researcher. Tea was also the best way of networking with other scholars in the Archives, and almost all the useful conversations I had there revolved around the tea break—which sometimes became the lunch break if debates were intense. I made many professional contacts and personal friendships over tea at the Archives.

Type
Research Article
Copyright
Copyright © African Studies Association 1998

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References

1 Or indeed, even a hobby or pastime: I cannot think of another library or archive which has a relaxed enough atmosphere to allow me to follow the strip cartoons in old newspapers without feeling guilty.

2 Incidentally, the growth in the use of laptops has increased competition for the power outlets in the reading room. There are only four, and two of those are used by the security cameras.

3 This affection can be partly explained by the fact that black Zimbabweans blamed the Rhodesians for the iniquities of colonialism. Britain was seen as a guarantor of liberty, sophisticated and moderate. Not so many Rhodesians, who blame Britain for selling out to “terrorists.”

4 For an excellent discussion of being a foreigner in Zimbabwe, specifically a white male, see Rob Pattman, “Becoming a White European Male Lecturer at a Teachers' College in Post-Colonial Zimbabwe,” paper presented at the Gender and Education International Conference, University of Warwick, April 1997.

5 This information is mostly as a result of private conversations with journalists, exarmy personnel, and academics. In early 1996 The Herald, the main state-controlled daily newspaper, also carried reports on large pay increases for the President, senior ministers, and Members of Parliament.

6 The bureaucratic obstacles in the way of the researcher are a post-Independence phenomenon, but the Immigration Act our TEPs are linked to was passed in 1979 during the very last days of white rule.

7 The lack of black scholars from outside Africa working on African history is a regretable state of affairs, especially considering the historical linkages between Europe, the Americas, and Africa.

8 Jan Vansina and Roland Oliver both write eloquently about the struggle to establish African history as a discrete discipline. See Vansina, Jan, Living with Africa (Madison, 1996)Google Scholar; Oliver, Roland, In the Realms of Cold. Pioneering in African History (Madison, 1997).Google Scholar

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