By Tom Cunningham (Staff Writer)
Since January 2016 I have been working on a British Library-funded project to “protect” and “preserve” the “endangered” archive of the Presbyterian Church of East Africa in Kenya. For most of our team of seven (two Brits, four Kenyans, one Zimbabwean) this has involved many hours and many days wearing face-masks and dust-coats, cleaning, sorting, and copying piles of old documents. These documents are kept in cardboard boxes, in a 15 x 25 foot stone-walled room located up eight flights of stairs (about 100 steps), in the bell-tower of St. Andrews Church, Nairobi.
Most of the documents with which we have been concerning ourselves were produced by the colonial-era Church of Scotland Mission, and date back to the early twentieth century. They include photographs, annual reports, daily timetables, hospital records, marriage and birth registers, and correspondence. The archive is a rich and useful resource for reconstructing histories of Kenya. Only a handful of scholars are aware of it. It was over a decade ago when anyone last undertook research in the archive.
Archives are interesting and important not simply for the information they contain. As a material means of ordering, arranging, and displaying particular kinds of knowledge, an archive is a means of governing the past. Archives are in a sense themselves documents. We can “read” an archive – its architecture, its system of arrangement, its files and boxes and codes, the rules that govern access to it, the people who use it – as a way of inquiring into a particular people’s relationship with the past.
When we started our project the “archive” was more like an abandoned storage room. It was dark, dusty, and damp. The careful order that had once upon a time been imposed upon the documents – the codes on the boxes, the file reference numbers, the type-written catalogue – was totally disrupted. Most of the cardboard boxes were torn or were decaying, and had spilled their paper contents onto the ground. Rotting paper was strewn across the floor.
Over the past months our team has “rehabilitated” this colonial archive. We have dramatically transformed the physical space, bringing order to it. In its current state, the room, more-or-less, resembles “an archive”, in the conventional sense. The boxes are coded and physically arranged on new shelving in a logical arrangement that corresponds to a newly typed, printed, and bound catalogue. We have started to create a digital version of the archive and this will soon be accessible online.
It is difficult, perhaps impossible, to escape an imperialist discourse that construes our project as one of disciplining and “saving” an African space conceptualised as dark, dangerous, and disorderly. And the irony is not lost on us that we are restoring and resurrecting the material remains of a forgotten colonial past, at a time when the dominant impulse across the continent is to take colonial monuments down. But if the essence of these concerns is that the colonial past is not fully “past” - that the idioms and practices of empire are active and repeated in the present - then it is imperative that we try to engage seriously with our complex colonial histories, and delving into dusty neglected archives might be the best way to do this.
For more information about the project visit: http://eap.bl.uk/database/overview_project.a4d?projID=EAP847;r=5705
I have been tweeting about the project https://twitter.com/tomlefylde