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The Rise and Fall Of the African Past?

October 8, 2013

History and historians in the making of modern Uganda

The public and professional significance of pre-colonial History as a discipline has declined markedly across much of sub-Saharan Africa over the last forty years: History has been both demonised – depicted as deeply dangerous and as the source of savagery and instability – and portrayed as irrelevant when set alongside the needs of economic modernisation and ‘development’. This paper explores this trend in the context of Uganda, chosen for its particularly rich oral and literary heritage and the thematic opportunities offered by its complex and troubled twentieth century. The paper aims to explore how ‘the past’ – with a focus on the pre-colonial era – has been understood locally in the course of several distinct periods. These include the era of imperial partition and the formation of the Uganda Protectorate, between the 1880s and the 1910s; competition for political space within colonial society down to the 1950s; decolonisation and the struggle to create new nationhood in the mid-twentieth century; and political crisis and partial recovery since the 1970s. Ultimately, the paper seeks to assess the role of History in a modern African society vis-à-vis the developmental agendas and notions of economic growth against which African ‘progress’ and prospects for ‘stability’ are currently measured.

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