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East African History through the Lens of Colonialism

Edward Onaci, Assistant Professor of History, encourages his students to work cooperatively and think critically about who is writing historical texts. Unearthing the authors’ perspectives in his course on colonialism in East Africa helps students understand motivations, and sometimes, bias.

Kenya’s Mau Mau rebellion was the topic of conversation in an Olin classroom recently. Students taking a course on comparative history were gathered in the class of Edward Onaci, Assistant Professor of History. Discussions included the role of the Kenya Land and Freedom Army (better known as the Mau Mau), part of the independence movement active during the 1950s.

But in addition to the history lesson, Onaci wants his students to work cooperatively and think critically about who is writing the history. Unearthing the authors’ perspective in all of the literature helps the students understand motivations, and sometimes, bias.  While exploring Kenya and Tanzania, students compare and contrast each countries’ experience with colonialism and independence placing an emphasis on culture, language, economics, gender, and international relations. The course looks at both countries from precolonial through post-colonial times.

Ranging from freshman to seniors, students are grouped together to analyze the texts that provide an overview of colonialism, struggles for independence, and these countries’ postcolonial realities. One question Onaci asks while the students discuss  R. Mugo Gatheru, Kenya: From Colonization to Independence, 1888-1970.; ‘does the author’s ethnic or clan identity play into the writer’s tone?’  As the class progresses, Onaci asks if the author’s use of sarcasm is effective in engaging the audience. 

“In this class it has been interesting to discuss how the different perspectives of the authors have shaped the way they write about and present history,” said anthropology major Leona Cicone  ’16. She was eager to learn more about African history and has found a great fit with Onaci’s course.

Students are learning what made these countries what they are today, as well as, what political and cultural struggles have shaped their identities and made their countries distinct from others around the world. “I believe that is one of the unique points of Dr. Onaci’s teaching. He tries to get the class to see the big picture, but also understand the differences of opinions within the writing. Through our group discussions outside of the classroom, the other students and I are able to relax from the constraints of the classroom and really discuss what we found interesting about the reading. I feel better enabled to contradict and question people about their opinions or findings when in the smaller group.”

At the moment, students are learning about the colonial phase of Tanzania (more accurately Tanganyika & Zanzibar for now), says Onaci.

“Through their engagement with current events, the students are beginning to learn about modern-day issues in the two countries,” he said. “I hope that through critical engagement with scholarship about the histories of Kenya and Tanzania, students will develop a greater appreciation for cultures and politics outside of the United States,” said Onaci. His course also provides some analysis that reveals the daily lives and struggles of the people who have populated Kenya and Tanzania.

Rachael A. Carter ’18 said she was drawn to this class because there aren’t many opportunities to study colonialism.

“In general, many people know that it is a part of world history, but we don’t really know how it influenced people’s lives,” said Carter, International Relations major and Peace and Social Justice minor. “So far, we have really gone into depth about how colonialism influenced the personhood of women and how the political entities of colonialism destroyed traditional ideas of leadership and community.”

Working in groups allows for more specific discourse with the text, said Carter. “It also allows for a more intimate discussion as well as opinions that sometimes cannot happen in class. I really like how the class is structured and I am so happy that we have such diverse course types available on campus.”