Remembering an Icon in African History: Jan Vansina
For historians of Africa in Africa and beyond, Jan Vansina occupies an important place, space in the study of African History. With a background in Anthropology, Vansina defied the odds, at a time when Oral traditions, African History were despised in the Western world as a discipline and also Oral traditions as a source of History.
Vansina is celebrated as an authority of Central African history. To young historians it is undisputed that when defining Oral traditions, Vansina’s name comes to the fore. Today’s post comes at a time when Jan Vansina passed on a year ago.
Born 14 September 1929 in Antwerp, Belgium and died on 8 February 2017 aged eighty-eighty. David Schoebrun in an obituary described him as the, “founder figure in the study of Africa’s past, early and recent” whilst some regard him as the father of Oral Traditions in Africa. He wrote many prolific works in African History, contributed more to Oral traditions at a time when there was no universal acceptance of its reliability in the study of African history. Some of his important works worth reading including;
De la Tradition Orale: Essai de Methode Historique (1961),
Oral Traditions as History (1985)
Paths in the Rainforest: Toward a History of Political Tradition in Equatorial Africa (1990)
Living With Africa, (1994)
New linguistic evidence and ‘the Bantu expansion (1995a)
Jan Vansina’s name first appeared in my vocabulary when l was an advanced level student under the tutelage of Rev. B. Gawa of B n P Study Centre. With Rev. B. Gawa being introduced to Sources of History, demystifying western racist approaches to African History related to Jan Vansina’s important role in defining Oral Traditions and demonstrating how he played an important role in arguing that Africa had a history prior to the coming of Europeans in Africa thereby challenging the discourse propagated at the time by the likes of Hugh Trevor Roper,George Hegel among other racist western oriented thinkers. It is from this time that the debates on Afrocentric and Eurocentric perspectives in the study of African history became interesting terms to use now and again. Oral traditions has been variously interpreted in terms of definition. Jan Vansina is widely quoted no doubt. For Advanced level candidates in African History it is worth acquainting oneself with this iconic anthropologist and historian who revolutionarised the way Oral traditions have been understood over the years.
Many works have been written by Jan Vansina but l find Oral Traditions as History (1985) & Living With Africa (1994), as a cut above the rest, thanks to Dr. Joseph Mujere who gave me new insights on these books as well as other works written by the same scholar. Joseph Jakarasi, a PhD candidate at Iowa University gave me insights on debates that mature historians can be confronted with in the study of African History using controversies, debates that Vansina encountered in his scholarly works. Topical issues are found in Oral Traditions as History (1985) with interesting aspects of Vansina refining the definition of Oral Tradition from his earlier works, 1961 publication mainly which faced vehement criticisms for various reasons.
Living With Africa (1994) is a simple read for any lover of History which takes one into the History of History in Africa. The book written at time when History as a discipline in Africa was almost half a century old and deals with reflections on the past of the subject. To some readers, the book appears more of a biography as Vansina tells his own story in the writing of African history. However, in his preface Jan Vansina notes that he doesnt chronicle personal life as per se and doesnt follow the “rhetorical rules for that genre”. It is rather a “truncated memoir” in that Vansina own activities are written as they are relevant to the writing of African History.
The book, Living With Africa(1994) with 312 pages, at first glance, appears a big book. However, going through the first three pages, it becomes an unputdownable and irresistible work. Research experiences of the author in Kuba become apparent, the role of other writers in the history of African history like Basil Davidson, Ibn Khaldun, Leo Africanus are well noted. The first academic historians, the Nigerians Kenneth O. Dike and Saburi O. Biobaku are well introduced with the relevance of their works in the study of African history.
In defense of Oral traditions, Kenneth O. Dike (1953) argues that, “there is no reason to discard oral tradition provided it is used in conjunction with evidence from other sources and the possibility of inaccuracy is always borne in mind” [p. 54].
The interventions of other African historians Bethwell A. Ogot are also dealt with as efforts to legitimise Oral traditions has been a struggle. The need for interdisciplinary research was proposed around 1957 due to methodological issues which were being raised at the time.
Caption: Jan Vansina
Experiences at Winsconsin are chronicled, the 1960s which Vansina captures the mood as with, “unbound optimism” for African History. In fact in the 1960s studying African history was viewed as, “an exciting intellectual adventure”. What new discoveries occurred during this time?
Living with Africa remains an important book as a young historian, as it takes me through the experiences that have shaped the discipline from the Western world to the way it has been Africanised and or still going through Africanisation of History as a discipline. Questions who dominates in the writing of African history are appealing as they challenge young historians in Africa and of Africa to play an important role in telling their story.
David Newbury and others have offered critical reviews on Jan Vansina works and he remains an icon in African history as a discipline. To some February is a month for Valentine’s Day, but to historians, the life of Jan Vansina in the study of African History is worth some moments of reflections.
Brian Maregedze is a historian writing in his personal capacity.
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