The best days in the archives are like Christmas. They don’t come every day, but when they do, they’re worth the wait. This last week was the equivalent of a holiday bonanza from my point of view. What is it, then, that makes an historian’s day, I hear you ask? (Or I’m going to pretend that I did.)
When writing, it’s when things begin to flow, when the story takes shape, when the evidence falls into place (or if you’re as disorganised as me, when you can find the evidence in your notes). It’s when writer’s block is swept aside by a torrent of words, and you stumble away from your computer having strewn thousands of (hopefully coherent) words around in a document , and feeling as though everything is clearer, and you know where to pick up tomorrow.
When in the archives, it’s when you hit the researcher’s jackpot. Sometimes, the jackpot consists of a file or a source that you’ve known or hoped was there, but haven’t been able to find. I had this experience in January, when I was finally able to lay hands on the records of the Nuffield Unit of Tropical Animal Ecology, buried in the University Library at Cambridge.
At other times, it’s when something really useful comes at you out of the blue.
Today it was the case of a latter, when I decided to leave aside my perusal of the colonial government’s newspaper for Africans in Northern Rhodesia, Mutende (most of which I couldn’t read given that large sections were printed in Nyanja, Bemba, and Tonga), and turned to the African Provincial Council Minutes. It turns out that many members of the Provincial Council asked questions or submitted motions which had to do with wildlife, and stumbling across the questions (and the answers provided by the Provincial Commissioner and the Technical Officers), and the minutes of the meetings was a fortuitous find.
They also offer some fascinating insight into the workings of colonial bureaucracy, which I realise might not set everyone’s heart aflutter, but which definitely gets me excited. We historians are simple folk.
The other day in the archives I got to serve as the ‘local reference’ for a Stanford colleague, so I’m apparently becoming a part of the woodwork here (Yes, I’ll admit, I was tempted to claim that I’d never laid eyes on him before, but in an uncharacteristic moment academic loyalty won out over the Berkeley-Stanford rivalry).
My sandwich bread moulded early this week, so I went out the other evening to get a fresh loaf. On my way back I suddenly looked up to see a rifle-toting security guard hurtling himself down the street towards me, his gun flailing in one hand. I gasped with horror and prepared to drop to my knees and sue for mercy, but it turned out he was just running to catch his minibus home for the evening. Private security is big business in Lusaka, as in many African cities, but the guys with the guns do not always inspire confidence!
On Friday, some of the traffic lights were not working in town, and so there was a police officer at the middle of the busy intersection of Church and Independence. In a tidy uniform, he was directing some fifteen odd lanes of traffic coming from all directions with aplomb you would have to see to believe. I’ve seen many a traffic cop in Kampala and Nairobi looking officious, and waving his baton around in a swirling mess of discordant traffic, the movement of the cars bearing absolutely no relation to his directions and frantic whistling, but the poor soul carrying on, too much invested in the fiction of his authority to relent. Not so this gentleman in Lusaka, who was a veritable maestro of the main street. I was so transfixed that I only just escaped being run down by a column of minibuses he sent spinning in my direction with an elegant flick of one wrist.