Dust and Documents

**Warning—for all of you who snoozed through history class, you may want to just scan this post. I’m going to nerd out.

I love crime shows.

I could spend all day in bed watching everything from Dateline to British detective shows on Netflix. I also love social studies, particularly history. I think the link between my two loves is the procedure both fields take–focusing on evidence, context, witnesses and figuring out what happened. I mean, are historians that different than detectives? (OK, so most historians aren’t packing heat but hey, they both love coffee and donuts!) I think the current climate of the United States reflects the ever-growing importance of understanding and engaging in social studies.

As a history teacher, I often tell my students that they are historians. While they typically don’t believe me, if you are reading, interpreting, analyzing and writing about history, then you are a historian. My time in Botswana is finally letting me put my money where my mouth is. Over the course of the last few weeks, I have transformed into a working historian, albeit a self-professed one who definitely needs a refresher, but—still, a working historian!

One of the many reasons I developed a project specifically for Botswana is because I don’t know jack squat about the histories of Africa. I took plenty of American and European history courses and a few on Latin America, but I know very little about the African continent. I don’t even remember learning about countries in Africa during school (this could/probably is totally my own fault). I believe many Americans face the same dilemma. Sure, students study the geography of Africa and everyone has watched Lion King but many still refer to Africa as one country, believe that everyone is living in mass poverty and that the only African history worth noting relates to European conquest, AIDs epidemics, extreme Islam and unruly dictatorships. While Botswana is just one country of many on the continent, learning about its history from the perspective of its people has engaged me in a whole new way. Since I’ve arrived, I’ve read as much about Botswana’s history as I can get my hands on. My reading materials have largely included secondary materials (think academic journals and textbooks…don’t fall asleep yet!) but last week I spent my time digging through dust and documents in the National Archives of Botswana.

Now, for those of you who didn’t spend all of your time in college in the library (AKA–not history majors) than you probably are wondering what the big deal is. Woot woot, you get to go to the Archives. Well, the simplest explanation I can give as to why it is a big deal is that feeling I got when I read sources that shaped Botswana’s history, its identity.  I touched and read (or at least tried to read…the handwriting was brutal) documents from the 1890s and beyond. I looked at images of the first political parties forming in Botswana and I read mannnnny dissertations and articles the scholars before me conducted on various aspects of life in Botswana. It’s also a big deal because you can’t just prance into the National Archives in DC to conduct research. Aside from the fact that most of their catalogue is now (thankfully!!!) online, it essentially costs you an FBI background check and an orientation powerpoint to be able to do “limited research” in person. So, you can see why I was pretty pumped to be able to work IN PERSON in a country’s NATIONAL ARCHIVES. Let me take you back to last week.

First, I had to once again have a formal letter from the CDE and then I had to be formally introduced to everyone in the Archives building. While I understand Botswana is a face-to-face society, this formality has British left-overs written all over it. Once inside the Archives, I saw dozens upon dozens of thick catalogue cases. Through a process of trial and error (emphasis on error), I learned a few things:

  1. The National Archives of Botswana is a bit old-school. The catalogue cases break down alphabetically and you must go through them to see what you are interested in pulling, and then write down its reference number.
  2. Once you have the reference numbers, you bring it to the archival team and they pull the documents (if they have them, which often was not the case) for you. Then, you must register your personal info plus the documents you pulled, EACH AND EVERY TIME.
  3. You only get four items at a time. Unfortunately, some of the things I had pulled had absolutely nothing to do with my project.
  4. I treated it as a game, like “how fast can I find the needle in the haystack?” It required a lot of time. Like, sooooooo much time.
  5. I’m going to have to go to the Archives at least once a week for the rest of the time I am here, and then I probably still won’t cover everything I’d like to look at.
  6. I’m pretty sure the archival team hates me. When they saw my sheets of paper filled with reference numbers on both sides, they began rolling their eyes and laughing at me. The rest of the week, they would pass me off like a hot potato to a new member of the team to search for my items.
  7. They also requested to interview me for a monthly newsletter the Archives and Records Department puts out on their happenings and what researchers are working on. So, maybe they don’t hate me that much.
  8. Nineteenth-century English handwriting by dip pen is extremely hard to decipher. I’m going to need some help on that one.
  9. I felt a bit like my students, unsure as to what is in front of me, how to interpret it and how it might be useful in my project.
  10. The Archives really isn’t dusty, I just like that both words in this post start with D.

Beyond visiting the Archives on a regular basis, I also hope to go to the University of Botswana’s library. Most individuals I have talked to said it’s the best library in the country (and its catalogue is digital!!!!) It is my intention to find a plethora of primary sources that students in the United States could use to analyze this period in Botswana/African history. European sources are pretty accessible (at least in country) but finding sources that show how the Batswana felt are a bit more challenging. I’m up for the challenge!

For you fellow nerds, I’m also planning to pen a few words on what I’ve learned regarding Botswana’s colonial history. It may not be what you expect.

Over the course of the next two months, I’ll spend most of my time in schools. I get to observe history teachers and students in their prime. Stay tuned for the post on my first school experience: Molefi!

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