The Tanzanian university lecturer had to overcome several challenges during his field research – and now has some advice for history students.
On hot summer day in Stellenbosch, South Africa's second oldest city, Tanzanian researcher Hezron Kangalawe greets us outside on the university campus. His paisley-patterned shirt is a welcome contrast to the gravity of the historic buildings around us.
"You can see in the world of nowadays, whatever we are discussing is all about history," he says, pointing to the old courthouse. The emphasis given to Afrikaans as a second teaching language next to English struck him as special – a reminder that it was here, in the Western Cape, that Dutch settlers first set foot in the 17th century. "It fascinated me to study history, to know all these developments in the world."
Kangalawe has recently completed his doctoral thesis at Stellenbosch's Graduate School of Arts and Social Sciences on a scholarship from the Gerda Henkel foundation. Getting to know the South African context inspired him to pursue a subject related to his home country: the history of plantation forests in Tanzania.
It might seem an odd choice, but Kangalawe is interested in the human factor: How do people today perceive plantation forests? "They are planting their own woodlots now, so now they are competing with the government by having their own farms, it's becoming a lucrative business," Kangalawe says.
"People are suspicious"
While he profited from the academic network in Stellenbosch, he remained attached to his Alma Mater, the University of Dar es Salaam. To get first hand information, Hezron also conducted field research in Tanzania's Mufindi district. Getting funding and overcoming bureaucracy were two major challenges. Being named a "007 in disguise" after the famous film character of a British secret agent was another hurdle:
"People are very suspicious when you say you're doing research. They sometimes think you're a spy. They won't understand, so you must produce your clearance to everyone and tell them clearly who you are. They can't separate a spy from a news reporter and a researcher."
The scientist's practical know-how
Soon Kangalawe will return to the University of Dar es Salaam. The 37-year-old asserts that his research won't end up on the shelf: "I am also a small farmer. I'll use the knowledge I've gathered through this thesis on my farm and I can lecture my students on natural resources."History to him is something that permeates our daily lives and cannot be separated from the presence it has shaped.
So how does one build a career in academics? The advice Kangalawe has to offer for history students echoes the path he himself has chosen: "They'd better start by knowing something on the ground and then connect the dots. One can write a history of computer science, but I urge the student to get to know the technology of computer science first, and then compose its history narrative."
Historical studies and practicality – Hezron Kangalawe is living proof that they don't have to rule each other out.
This article is part of a special series "African Roots" investigating historical dimensions of Africa, a project in cooperation with the Gerda Henkel foundation.