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This side and that. (02/2023)

Voyager through the history of Africa.

Text: Christoph Dieffenbacher

Africa's written history contains many a blank page. At the University of Basel, historian Julia Tischler studies the continent's history of colonization and missionary engagement in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Back in the late 1950s when the Kariba Dam was built in Southern Africa, it was the world's largest dam. The electricity it generated was intended to supply Northern and Southern Rhodesia – today's Zambia and Zimbabwe, respectively – thereby bringing about peace and prosperity. Yet for the people in those countries, the construction project was a nightmare: Forced laborers worked under appalling conditions to build the enormous dam, which was subsidized by the British colonial government and the World Bank. In fact, more than one hundred workers lost their lives. Fifty-seven thousand people were forcibly resettled by authorities along the Zambezi river because their villages and fields would later be inundated by flood waters.

Julia Tischler
Professor Julia Tischler (Photo: Christian Flierl)

Julia Tischler has a jug of water waiting in her office for visitors. Her expression is open, her gaze attentive. She vividly describes the dam project, which was the subject of her doctoral research. To complete her study, she scoured local archives for documents, conducted research with the Italian construction company and spoke with workers who were there at the time. “Today, the project stands as an alarming example of the negative consequences of major construction projects,” she explains. The dam has been in dire need of repair for years now. “I wanted to learn more about the concept of development at the time and about local resistance to the project,” says Tischler.

She would later explore similar questions in her study on South Africa, a nation once divided by strict racial segregation. Most of the Black population there were only allowed to own land in the so-called reserves. In the early 20th century, these constituted just eight percent of the country's entire land area. Year after year, young men would migrate to mines and white-owned farms while their own agricultural production suffered the consequences of land scarcity and labor shortages. In order to counter these challenges, Black farmers began promoting new agricultural techniques from the United States, offering people advice and training and holding presentations on improved seed, vegetable farming and poultry breeding.

Visit to a partner church in Tanzania.

Tischler, who grew up alongside her two brothers in Germany's Rhineland region, developed ties to Africa early on: She made her first trip to the continent as a teenager, participating in an exchange program with a partner church in Tanzania.

Later, at university, she studied African literature. Her curiosity deepened: “People seemed to have the most preconceptions about this part of the world, even though they knew almost nothing about it. This is what sparked my interest in African history.”

Receiving the professorship in African history in Basel, one of the few of its kind in German-speaking countries, was a stroke of luck. Tischler appreciates being surrounded by experts from disciplines such as anthropology, urban studies, sociology and public health and having access to collections and archives in her field. Seeking to reconcile her duties as a professor with her obligations as a mother of two young daughters, she reduced her working hours from a full-time position to 80 percent. A decision like that is still a rarity among professors, she says.

When Tischler describes her process as a historian, her style resembles that of a field ethnologist or a journalist on the ground: She likes to take on the role of an active observer, she says. She wants to look closely, get her own impressions and start real conversations with people. After that, she begins her in-depth research and analysis – with the goal of tracing how a particular historical event came to pass.

On the trail of the missionaries.

Tischler travels frequently for her research. She recently spent three months with her husband – who is also a historian – and their two daughters in Ghana's capital, Accra. For 2024, she is planning two field trips for her students in which they will trace the paths left by Christian missionaries: The first will take them to the hospitals, schools and churches of the former Basler Mission in Ghana and the second to the hometowns and seminaries of the missionaries themselves in Basel and Southwest Germany.

On their journeys “in both directions”, students from Ghana and Basel will work in pairs. Tischler intends to redirect their attention away from the colonial powers and today's western industrial countries and back to the people of Africa. It’s a difficult task since most of the source material from the colonial period was penned by Europeans. On top of that, many sources are full of gaps, particularly those in local archives, not least because the colonial powers systematically destroyed archives as Africans struggled for their independence.

“Inequality rooted in history."

Can and should research from the comparatively prosperous universities of the Global North be used to solve Africa's problems? This continent, which is still impacted by colonialism, oppression and exploitation, needs historians more than ever, says Tischler: “We cannot understand the present if we do not look into the past.”

She is pleased that her discipline is far more international, diverse and open-minded than many others. But one problem with her profession is that most researchers come from the Global North and few from Africa itself. Yet the history of the continent goes back much further, to long before the ships carrying the first White people arrived, says Tischler. So, what about Africa's future?

One way to shape that future would be, for instance, to combat the inequality rooted in Africa's history by questioning current trade relationships. From the other perspective, innovations from the Global South, such as developments in organic agriculture, novel technologies and healthcare, could also set the bar for industrialized nations. As Tischler sees it: “We have a lot to learn from Africa.”

joined the University of Basel as Assistant Professor of African History in 2015 and was promoted to Associate Professor three years ago. Born in Stuttgart in 1982, she studied History and English in Cologne, Germany, and Stirling, UK, and traveled to numerous African nations. She later conducted research projects at Bielefeld University and the Humboldt University of Berlin. Her works focuses on social and environmental history as well as the history of knowledge with an emphasis on Southern Africa. Tischler lives with her family in Riehen, Switzerland.

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