Zeb Dingley Discusses Research in Africa

Assistant Professor Zebulon Dingley travelled in Kenya this Summer for research. He discusses his research below & the challenges he encountered sorting through archival collections there.

I was in Kenya for 10 weeks this summer, conducting archival research at the National Archives in Nairobi and its coastal branch in Mombasa. The research in Nairobi was focused on colonial-era judicial systems on the coast, which included Magistrate’s Courts which tried cases under the Penal Code, as well as what were called “Local Native Tribunals” (which tried cases under what was known as “Native Law and Custom”) and, on the coast, “Kadhi’s Courts” which could rule on matters of personal status under Islamic law. The problem was that it wasn’t always clear who had standing in what court, what court had jurisdiction, and which set of laws should be applied in a given case. So I was looking at arguments over just those sorts of questions among litigants, administrators, and members of the judiciary in and around Mombasa in the first half of the last century.

In Mombasa, research was made a bit complicated by a national election, but also by the condition of some of the archival collections themselves. The coast archives have acquired a huge trove of government documents in recent years, but because the archives are understaffed and underfunded, these have yet to be properly catalogued. The collection is housed in three different buildings scattered across the city, and there’s no list of which files are stored where, and in some cases the storage is inadequate to the needs of the archive.

In one of the pictures, I’m in a storage room to which I was given access only because the staff were afraid to enter the room, given the leaning stacks of crushed boxes threatening to fall any moment. But it’s a problem that’s not limited to the coast branch of the National Archives. The Mombasa High Court faces an even worse problem with the storage and cataloguing of its files, and has resorted to stacking them in bundles in corners of the court’s parking garage (as seen in another of the pictures).

The third picture was taken by my research assistant, Chiryauta, during some salvage work we were doing at a chief’s office in a rural area south of Mombasa. Beginning in the 1990s, as a result of International Monetary Fund and World Bank-imposed policies, government chiefs lost their clerks, and with them the capacity to deal with the mountains of paperwork that pass through their office. Old records can be neglected out of necessity, as was the case here, where they had been stuffed into bags and stuffed into closets. I hired a carpenter to build a set of shelves and we spent several days drying out and un-crumpling these old files, but I had to leave before I had an opportunity to read through this new archive in a serious way.


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