Locating the individual in collective histories: An approach to oral histories

2019-08-08 15:25:00

In the United States, we often think of history as a collection of stories about individuals. Tropes such as “Columbus discovered America in 1492” and “Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves” are common fixtures in our collective understanding of the past. The lack of nuance in these statements notwithstanding, this view of history allows us to imagine individuals at the center of historical events. Thus, we often narrate the events we lived through from our own points of view, imagining ourselves as agents in those histories. Yet, in societies where history is conceptualized as the experiences of the collective, stories about the past do not center on the actions of individuals but on the community as a whole. I was forced to grapple with these different perspectives on history during my research in Togo this summer. The experience allowed me to refine my approach to conducting and writing oral histories.

I am grateful to have been awarded a Lindsay Fellowship from the Council on African Studies to do research in Togo this summer. This preliminary research serves as an important foundation for my larger dissertation project which examines the role women traders played in shaping the trajectory of Togo’s decolonization movement. While in Togo, I interviewed women in their eighties and nineties about their encounters with colonialism in the region. I was particularly interested in understanding how women navigated the colonial borders that separated Ewe-speaking communities between contemporary Togo and Ghana. But these individual stories proved difficult to access because they required people to position themselves at the center of past events.

When I asked my interviewees to tell me about specific moments in their lives, they would give me a few details but would almost always shift the story toward more familiar histories of their communities. These stories were, of course, fascinating but they were stories I had heard countless times growing up in Ewe-speaking communities. Moreover, these narratives related events that are already well established in the historical literature. What I was interested in, and what hasn’t been well documented in the historiography, is the day-to-day encounters women had with the structures that defined colonialism in their communities. Many of my interviewees, however, did not think of their life stories as distinct from the history of their communities.

Recognizing this, I revised my questions to focus more on the community. I realized that it was easier for people to talk about their experiences if the story positioned them in relation to their community as a whole. For example, people were more interested in telling me a story about themselves if that story somehow highlighted their relationship to someone else in the community. Because most of the people I interviewed were women, I started to ask them questions that focused on major events in a woman’s life cycle in Ewe communities. For example, I would ask them, “tell me about the time your first child was born. What was happening during that time?” I often asked women about the birth of their first child because this event is seen as the marker of the transition to womanhood in Ewe communities.

Asking women about the birth of their first child led to important insights for my dissertation research because it allowed women to talk about their encounters with the colonial boundaries. In Ewe culture, a mother is expected to formally present her child to her extended family shortly after giving birth. For many women this meant that they had to cross the borders that separated their families between different colonial territories. Thus, asking women to talk about topics that illustrated their relationship to their communities gave them the space to tell their stories in the context of larger histories of the region. One of the most important insights that came out of these conversations was the term women used to describe moving across the colonial borders without authorization. Instead of saying that they crossed the border, many of the women used the Ewe term Gba (break)(border) to convey that through their unauthorized movement, they broke the border - thereby undermining the power of the colonial authorities.

My research experience this summer reaffirmed something I have known theoretically but didn’t quite appreciate in practice: in many societies, individual histories only gain meaning when they reaffirm social relations within the community as whole. While many Americans tend to understand the historical past through the actions of individuals, for Ewe-speaking societies, telling individual stories outside the context of their community’s experiences is meaningless. Understanding these different conceptualizations of history has helped me refine my approach to doing oral histories. As I continue to develop my dissertation project, I have become more intentional about examining people’s stories within the context of their relationship with their community as a whole.

Written by Marius Kothor, a PhD student in History and a Council on African Studies Graduate Affiliate.