Home Page Homepage
HomeAbout UsNewsinterviewsProfiles of Emergent African WritersFictionPoetryDramaArtReviews

  Jack Mapanje
Niyi Osundare
  Lauri Kubuitsile
  Peter Addo
  Kola Boof
  Nii Kwei Parkes

  Anietie Isong

  Chinelo Achebe-

  Akin Adesokan
  Tolu Ogunlesi

  Adaobi Tricia
  Eghosa Imasuen
  Mpalive Msiska
  Roi Kwabena

  Nnedi Okoroafor-

  George E. Clarke
  Kimyia Varzi
  Uche Nduka
  Amatoritsero Ede
  Obododimma Oha
  Leila Aboulela
  James Whyle
  Koye Oyedeji
  Becky Clarke
  Nike Adesuyi
  Derek Petersen
  Afam Akeh
  Olutola Ositelu
  V. Ehikhamenor
  Molara Wood
  Chime Hilary
  Wumi Raji
  Chuma Nwokolo



Dr. Derek Petersen

A Cambridge Viewpoint

Dr. Derek Petersen is the director of the Centre of African Studies at the University of Cambridge. He has researched and written extensively on the history of language, religion, and political thought in East Africa. He is the author of  Creative Writing: Translation, Bookkeeping, and the Work of Imagination in Colonial Kenya (2004).

On 5th March, 2007, he talked to Wumi Raji in his offices at Selwyn College, Cambridge.

 Derek Petersen

Raji: Thank you very much Derek for agreeing to grant this interview. May be we should start by asking you to give a brief history of the Centre, when did it start and how did it start? What was the vision of the people who started it.

Peterson: Well it started a long time before I came to Cambridge. It was started in 1965 by an anthropologist named Audrey Richards, a very important anthropologist. Cambridge was at that time a major centre for anthropological research about Africa. In addition to Richards, Jack Goody, Meyer Fortes and other eminent anthropologists were all employed here as lecturers and researchers. What made Richards stand out among all these otherwise distinguished anthropologists was his interest in developing a more interdisciplinary approach to the study of Africa. The Centre was thus established as a platform through which different people who were studying Africa in the University could be brought together. In addition, I think the man wanted to use the African Studies Centre to break away from certain aspects of the anthropological tradition. You know anthropology had, in the early twentieth century, been very much a discipline that was in the service of colonial government studies. Anthropologists for example had helped to establish the ‘customary’ legal codes by which ‘rural’ communities were governed. The discipline thus became a tool through which Governments reinforced native authorities’ hold on the people and created a kind of intellectual structure by which colonial governments could work. The 1960s, as you know, was a time of massive political change, with nationalist movements taking over power in dozens of African states. Richards saw the period as an appropriate time to open out the study of Africa to historians, literary scholars, political scientists, geographers and others whose disciplinary approaches could help make sense of the times.

The Centre has never had much by way of a teaching role. It was actually conceived to promote research and scholarship and to help bring scholars who teach and research on Africa at the University together with scholars from African and other European and American Universities to create a kind of bridge between Cambridge and the rest of the world. Well, we also coordinate a seminar series, run periodic conferences and host a forty - thousand volume library.

You’ve already talked about the status of the Centre. You said it is not a teaching Department, so how then do you go about achieving this objective of trying to bring together scholars from Africa and scholars in Cambridge who are interested in African Studies, you know, from different perspectives; historical, geographical, and literary. So how have you been going about this?

Peterson: Well, the main thing we are doing at the moment - in the past five years really - is running what we call the Visiting Fellowship programme, for which we have money from the Fords Foundation every year to bring five scholars from African Universities to Cambridge to conduct research for six months. That is the programme, which of course you’re on. The thing has really been very successful. We’ve had about twenty graduates from the programme since 2003. It was begun by my predecessor, a man named Ato Quayson.

Raji: The Ghanaian?

Peterson: Yes, that’s right. Altogether, we’ve had twenty graduates on the programme, one of whom was Ezenwa Ohaeto, who died here last year just after a few days on the programme. Otherwise, a lot of people had come through the programme in its entirety. Four new fellows have just been appointed, and their programme will run from October this year till March 2008. On the whole, we’ve had about twenty graduates on the programme…

Raji: Together with the four that I hear have just been appointed.

Peterson: Together with the four they will be twenty-three I guess. Remarkably, we’ve just taken a census of the publications pushed out by our former visiting fellows. There have been up to twenty books and articles published by our former visiting fellows who have spent time here in Cambridge in the same capacity as yourself, conducting research; and based on that research they’ve written over twenty books and articles with a lot more work preparation as well.

The programme has been successful in promoting research on Africa and giving scholars the time they need to do the kind of research and scholarship that they often find difficult to do in their home Universities due to time squeeze. Also, administratively, it’s given people a sense of a break, an opportunity to get away from that very often, you know, heavy responsibilities in their home Universities, and they’ve gone back with great success. Last year’s group of visiting fellows were here to study African literature and perhaps you know, we had at least three Nigerians - Remi Raji, Isidore Diala and Ezenwa whom I referred to earlier. Isidore Diala is now Head of Department at Imo State University. Another scholar, Omar Sougou, was elected as Dean of his Faculty at Gaston Berger University in Senegal. So the programme has been very successful in that we’ve been able to create platforms for interaction between us and African scholars and we want to carry that forward. We’ve applied for further funding now and I hope we’ll get it to carry the programme through another five years. In the next 5 years, we hope that we would have succeeded in our plans to establish partnerships with African Universities, with certain Universities that have strength in a given area of study, whether in literature, politics, or in other fields. We will invite two scholars from that partner University plus four scholars from elsewhere in Africa to come to Cambridge for six months as you and your colleagues have done. And then after the fellowship is over, all of us, including one or two Cambridge scholars, will go to the partner University to hold a conference and to conduct some teaching, the aim of which will be to sort of create a more firm link between Cambridge and a specific African institution. In 2008/2009, I hope we will be able to inaugurate this collaboration with the University of Botswana. The plan is to put together a research group to deal with what is called Peacemaking and Transitional Government. We’ll bring four or five scholars from elsewhere in Africa plus two scholars from Botswana to Cambridge and then we’ll all go to Botswana in 2009 to conduct a conference on the theme. I hope that will be a way to sort of expand on what we’ve already done and to introduce ourselves directly to partner Universities in Africa.

Raji: That’s great, and I really hope it works out well. Now these scholars who have been coming here, what status do they have in Cambridge? What do they do, really? How do they work? What do they benefit from? What facilities of the University are available to them?

Peterson: You mean the visiting fellows? Oh, they reside in Wolfson College while here. Wolfson is a college located in the western side of the town. They have lodging in the college, they take their meals there. They participate in the college’s social life. They receive a monthly allowance to take care of their needs and are involved in the seminar series of the African Studies Centre. In general, they are made to be part of the programme that we put up for the respective years at the Centre. We organize seminars throughout the whole year that relates directly to the theme of the fellowship group. So the theme for this year is Africa and the Atlantic world. We had four or five seminars late last year to deal with that theme and we’re having six lectures this year on Abolition and the Atlantic History. All of this is meant to help introduce visiting fellows to permanent scholars in their field who come to Cambridge for the lecture or for the seminar series and the lecturer will have a chance to meet the visiting fellows and interact with them. Perhaps I should add that in Cambridge, fellows are given more or less free rein to do whatever they want to pursue their research.

Raji: You said the other time that the Centre hosts a library with a forty – thousand volume of books and journals. Is this the only library that Visiting fellows have access to while in Cambridge?

Peterson: Oh no. Fellows make use of other libraries as well. There are over eighty libraries in this university actually. The University library is one of the biggest in the country, in Europe, infact. There are also specialized libraries where you can go, like the Literature Faculty library which has got specific resources in that field of study.

Raji: In one advertisement, well it’s the one under which I applied. Because part of what was stated was that applications are invited from scholars to take up African research fellowship and out of those who are invited, one would be made a Smuts Visiting fellow; I just want to ask what is this African Smuts Fellowship about?

Peterson: I think you’re mixing things up. Smuts fellowship is a separate one. We have a post-doctoral fellowship that is connected with the centre, which is a 3 year post-doc. To qualify for this you have to have a Ph.D that is not older than 5 years. The successful candidate will come to Cambridge for 3 years and you have basically that time to do research and to write. At the moment we have Giacomo Macola on the fellowship and he is retiring this year. His fellowship is coming to an end. We just opened up the application for the next competition and we are hoping to have a lot of applicants out of which we will elect the next Smuts visiting fellow. The fellow can be from any discipline and we expect to get a lot of applications. We are hoping to appoint someone to start in October this year. Well, unfortunately, we’re only able to elect only one post – doc every three year.

Raji: So when did you start this Smuts visiting fellowship?

Peterson: Well that has begun since, I think, the 1980s.

Raji: The 3 year post-doc?

Peterson: Yes, the University has an endowment which was created on the death of John Smuts who was the Prime Minister of South Africa. So that money is used to fund the Smuts’ post-doc and also other activities to do with Commonwealth history and studies.

Raji: But there is another fellowship, they call it Smuts Visiting Fellowship in Commonwealth Studies.

Peterson: Yes, that’s for professorship. Infact it’s a Smuts Visiting Professorship in Commonwealth Studies.

Raji: The address is 4 Mills Lane or something.

Peterson: Yes, that’s right. Smuts’ Memorial Fund Secretariat is in 4 Mills Lane. The African Studies Centre has no direct control over it. The Visiting Professorship in Commonwealth Studies is open to African scholars who want to come to Cambridge for research as well as scholars from any other part of the Commonwealth including Australia, New Zealand and India.
Raji: It can only be open then to scholars from African countries that are part of the Commonwealth.
Peterson: That’s right. You apply through the Smuts Fund directly and this year I think they elected two Smuts professors and each now has the whole calendar year to spend in Cambridge utilising their Sabbatical. Last year’s Smuts professors were Ike Achebe, the son of Chinua Achebe and one Professor Heywood who is in History. This year I think there is only one Smuts professor. It’s Christine Opong who is an Anthropologist from the University of Accra in Ghana. The Smuts professorships are usually given to senior scholars, who have published a lot and are quite eminent in their fields of study.

Raji: So that means that there is a variety of opportunities for African scholars to conduct researches in Cambridge.

Yes, I think.

Raji: Well Cambridge is a highly hierarchically structured place, so what is the status of the Centre of African Studies? Is it a Department or a unit of a Department?

Peterson: It is not a Department.

Raji: What then is the status of the director?

Peterson: The director is a volunteer basically, and is fully appointed by the relevant faculty. We don’t have any academic staff that work full-time in the Centre. We have one administrator who is there to take care of the record of all administrative work that is carried out there, and we have one librarian who is there full-time as well. We don’t normally have any academic staff because we don’t have students. We are thinking at the moment of creating a Masters programme in African Studies which I hope we will be able to start in 2008/2009; and it will be open to any applicant who wants to come to Cambridge and do a one - year Masters degree course in African Studies. The idea would be that there will be a core seminar that will sort of introduce students to different disciplinary approaches to the study of African history literature, geography and other such topics. Students will also take courses in any one of the Faculties that offer courses relating to Africa. I hope that that will be running for the first time in 2008. If that happens we will likely have to hire a full time teaching officer. But that, as you know, from your own university, is quite difficult. It is difficult to get universities to hire new people. So I have to do a certain amount of lobbying. If it works, I hope that the Centre will be able for the first time to have core students who we will be teaching directly.

Raji: So the directorship is absolutely voluntary. You mean he doesn’t have the status of Head of Department?

Peterson: I have the status of a Head of Department but I am not compensated in any way. I don’t get any remuneration for what I do.

Raji: Does the Centre have any official organ? Does it publish a journal or may be occasional publication?

Peterson: We used to have a journal at the centre called the JOURNAL OF MODERN AFRICAN STUDIES. We used to have as well a book series in the 1980’s that has since kind of died out because we found it difficult to sell the books. We couldn’t find a market for the books. We are just now starting, I hope, a new book series that should see its first publication later this year. It will be co-published by us and the Ohio University Press. The first volume will be titled RE-CHARTING THE PAST: HISTORY, WRITING AND POLITICAL IDENTITY IN 20TH CENTURY AFRICA. It derived from a conference that we organized in the Centre last year before you came, about Ethno-history. That is about the kind of ideas that inform historical work that scholars in local African societies engage in in an effort to write their history. We held the conference in May last year and we brought two practising Ethno-historians from Africa, one of them being a core historian on Western Uganda. We brought them to Cambridge. We had a number of scholars who came and spoke about Ethno-history and we’re going to have a publication that will come out of that conference. The second volume I think will also be a collection, an edited collection of papers coming out of a lecture series that you’ve been attending this year. We hope we’ll be able to publish these lectures so that scholars will be able to read what these eminent people have been saying here at Cambridge.

Raji: That’s good. Which leads us to the Bi-centenary celebration of the abolition of slave-trade which is going on now and which you have just touched upon. I see that it is being coordinated by the African Studies Centre. Was it entirely a programme of the Centre, or was it that of the University? Whose idea was it originally?

Peterson: Cambridge is a very decentralized place - I think you know that already. So, basically different parts of the University was developing separate programmes to celebrate the Bi-centenary and we ended up sort of co-ordinating them and putting them together to create a unified focus. We printed those flyers that you saw circulated and of course the comprehensive programme. Our main contribution at the Centre is to hold these lecture series you’ve been attending. It’s on Slavery and Abolition in the Atlantic world.

Raji: But there was also this reception that was attended even by the University Vice-Chancellor…

Peterson: Yes, we’ve got a lot of things going on in Cambridge in relation to that. Several other colleges in Cambridge put up one thing or the other just to mark the bi-centenary. One major conference that held in February was titled MODERN FORMS OF ENSLAVEMENT IN THE WORLD, and our aim in putting it up was to draw attention to contemporary forms of inequality in our world. That conference was held in St. John’s College and it was quite successful. The Deputy Secretary-General of the United Nations spoke and it drew a lot of crowd. In a way the Bi-ceneinary celebration is a kind of ambiguous occasion for me. As you would have seen, it has to a certain extent become an occasion in which British political leaders want to beat their chests about their roles in bringing slavery to an end. And about what they did in the past to help advance liberty. I don’t think myself that that is how this occasion should be remembered. We’ve tried to organize this lecture series so that it can be shown that the period of abolition of slavery wasn’t a moment of profound transition in the real sense of the word. Rather it marked the beginning of a different form of inequality and political exploitation, particularly colonial imperialism. That is part of the theme of these lectures that you’ve been listening to in the past four weeks. The lectures are about the intersections between Abolitionism and Imperialism.

Raji: Thank you very much. Briefly, I don’t know if you can remember the names of some of the beneficiaries of the African Studies Visiting fellowship scheme from other countries. You mentioned quite a number from Nigeria: can you remember the names of the fellowship winners from other parts of Africa?

Well there’s been quite a number from other countries. Last year’s team was a literary group and I mentioned the names of Isidore Diala, Remi Raji and Ezenwa Ohaeto.

Raji: Those are Nigerians, I mean from other African countries.

Peterson: From next year, a group of scholars will be working on the theme of Religion and Public Culture in Africa and there is a man named Kenneth Kibala, who is an expert in Kiswahili language and literature. He teaches at a University in Kenya. There is also a womancoming from the same country. -Anyway, two years ago we had a group of scholars; Geoffrey Asiimwe who is Head of Department of History and Development Studies in Makarere University, Uganda. There also were Babere Chacha, a historian from Egerton University in Kenya and Angela Impey who is from the University of Kwa Zulu Natal working on Musicology. In 2003/04, we had Kenneth Ombongi who teaches in the History Department at the University of Nairobi, Leslie Bank who is of the Institute of Social and Economic Research, Rhodes University, and Lovemore Togaressi from the Department of Religious Studies, University of Zimbabwe. So really, we ‘ve had quite a number of interesting people who have come to be part of the fellowship scheme.

Raji: I need to clarify one point, just for the record. Unlike the African Studies Fellowship, the three - year Smuts Visiting Fellowship isn’t solely for scholars who are based in Africa. It is for scholars in African Studies generally, irrespective of whether they are based in Africa, Europe or America. I just thought it’s necessary to clarify that in the context of this discussion.

Peterson: Yes, that’s right. It’s for scholars of African Studies generally, and they don’t have to be Africans, even. As you know Giacomo Macola who is currently on it is Italian.

Raji: Thanks for that further clarification. Now let’s goto the names of some of the former directors of the Centre. You mentioned the first one, and your predecessor.

Peterson: Ato Quayson is my immediate predecessor. He was director for four years. Before him there was a man named ( name not clear) who was here for many years in the 1990’s and who now is based in the University College, London.

Raji: Is he British?

Peterson: He is British. Oh, he may be an Australian actually – I’m not sure.

Raji: What’s his area of specialization?

Peterson: He is an anthropologist. Before that there was another anthropologist named Ray Abrahamson who is also British, worked on East Africa and was here for a very long time. Before him, … I don’t know.

Raji: That’s okay. The current director, can we have some information on him, his educational background, research interest, when he became director, etc.

Peterson: I’m an American, I had my Ph.D in History from the University of Minnesota, United States. I wrote my first book on the History of Language and Literature in Central Kenya, Gikuyu land. It may be of interest to you that I did my dissertation and wrote my first book on, among other things, Ngugi Wa Thiong O, the Kenyan author and novelist. I’m now writing a History of what is called the East African Revival. It is a Christian conversion movement that started in the 1930’s in Uganda and spread through East Africa in the 1940’s and 50’s, and my interest is on the tension between this revivalist movement on the one hand, and political nationalists on the other hand. Nationalists saw the revivalists as being unpatriotic. The christians had a habit of confessing their sins in public. They would stand out in public meetings or in bus-stops or in market places and talk out loud about the things that they had done secretly. It became a very sensitive issue and throughout East Africa there have been very deep tension between the revivalists and local political organizations at different times. I have spent quite some time researching into the issue and it’s really been interesting. I came to Cambridge two years ago and was elected Director of African Studies in 2005.

Raji: Thank you very much for this interview.

  Wumi Raji
University Lecturer, Wumi Raji, was a cambridge researcher during the interview. He is a prize-winning writer, poet, playwright and author of Rolling Dreams; Poems
Copyright © Fonthouse Ltd & respective copyright owners. Enquiries to permissions@african-writing.com.