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The Historian Who Fell in Love with Africa

The medieval churches of Lalibela, Ethiopia, are carved into a rocky mountain range and appear almost dreamlike as the sun sets on them. Merrick Posnansky looked at them in awe. He had never seen anything like it. When the ABC network consulted with the historian and archaeologist years ago for advice on which new places could be included in a new list of the Seven Wonders of the World, he suggested the rock-hewn churches at the heart of Ethiopia.

Posnansky is 87, which makes him the oldest member of his family there has been. He is known for telling humorous or interesting stories about renowned archaeologists: we spoke on the phone about the time he came from Olorgesailie, Kenya,to escort the anthropologist Jane Goodall to a theater in Nairobi where she could attend a play. Posnansky was running late. Goodall had left for the play with others. As he arrived at the theater, he rushed in through what he thought was an open doorway. Instead he was greeted by a plate glass window and went crashing through, injuring himself.

Once he found Goodall, she helped get him to a hospital to treat his arm – he had cut a vein and was in the hospital for 10 days. Posnansky and the woman he was going out with at the time were charged 10 British pounds for having broken the window and created a disturbance. 

Strange things happen while doing work in oral history and archaeology, he says. In Ghana, a man was teaching him the local language and customs and later decided to name his eldest child Posnansky. “People did funny things like that.” 

“I remember a French colleague of mine went on several visits to different parts of the Sahara and I was very impressed. He would go with about three camels and two assistants, and he found a site in 1950 and then went and re-found the same site, 10 years later. I just don't know how he did it! He knew the area so it wasn't a danger for him. It was just an adventure.” 

Born and raised in Manchester, England, Posnansky is the tenth of 11 children. Schoolwork drew him to history. A history teacher, Marjorie Wood, taught him about ancient history, art and archaeology and introduced him to material culture from the Mycenaean, Minoan, and Mesopotamian worlds, inspiring him to visit ancient sites and appreciate them within their environmental and cultural contexts. 

He originally wanted to be a numismatist -- a specialist in the study of coins -- but he later turned his gaze toward archaeology, and first practiced the discipline when he worked at a Mesolithic site in 1948. After World War II, his home country of England was “in a very fragile state.” Rationing lasted until 1953, a few years before he got his PhD in archaeology at Nottingham University. He received a letter from his former professor, Grahame Clarke, asking if he’d be interested in a job as a warden at the Royal National Parks of Kenya. Posnansky accepted the position and arrived in Africa in 1956, where he worked with Louis Leakey. 

He recalls receiving the same training that park rangers get. He was advised to never have a gun on him because “it was an encumbrance”; if someone experienced a threat from a wild animal, they should know what to do so they weren’t exposing themselves or anyone else to the danger. 

Posnansky never regarded game as dangerous. “A fellow person at the national parks used to have a lion as a pet! I remember the last time I was in Kenya, a rhinoceros came up to a fence and one animal that I didn't have danger from was large buffalo, the sort that could charge at you. I was never charged at.”

Digging Africa

By 1958, he was curator of the Uganda Museum at just twenty-seven years old with a staff of 18. The focus of his archaeological research was the recent African past as he tried to reconcile oral traditions with information uncovered through excavation.

“In Africa, you have to recreate past society using a minimum of evidence,” he says. “People who live in mud houses, the walls collapse and decay and it's very difficult to account for the size or form of the house. They use biodegradable materials and so very often, all that survives from textiles are spindle whorls (which have been found during archaeological digs around the world) used for spinning cotton. The heddles used for weaving are little and you have to reconstruct handicraft from the minimum of resources. This is where skill and imagination come in. On many of the sites I worked on, we didn't have the money to do a large-scale excavation but that's changed quite a bit. The biggest grant I ever had for research was for over 5 years, which was 20,000 pounds from the Leverhulme Trust in England. Now it is quite possible to get 100,000 pound grants from different organizations in America or Europe for one or two years of work.”

Posnansky was good at taking something like 5,000 pounds and then putting it to work in Africa where it would go much further; “you get people coming from America who needed to have more facilities, more transportation; the money wouldn't go as far for them but we knew what we were doing.”

He was the Assistant Director of the British Institute of Archaeology and History in East Africa between leaving the Uganda Museum and joining Makerere University in 1964, where he assisted with the teaching and organizing of a training school for East African students and also helped to found the first center of African studies. He saw the same problem in many parts of Africa: history was being written solely by the people who were doing the research. “If you go to a new area, often there is no history, no archaeology. Normally, you go and see the chief and his elders and find out about the oral traditions and the oral traditions lead to the history. You are getting history provided from oral history rather than from written text,” he said.

Posnansky joined the Department of History at the University of California Los Angeles as a full professor in 1977 until his retirement in 1994. He has been back to Africa practically every year from the time he left in 1976 until 2013. “I was the first person to really teach archaeology and develop a department which went from BA to MA to PhD. We were the first teaching department in tropical Africa to deal with archaeology and also integrated much more history rather than with anthropology.”

His main field research took place in central Ghana at a large town called Begho, located in the interior of what became the Gold Coast when the Portuguese arrived in 1471. He conducted a 30-year study of the village of Hani.

He met and married the late Eunice Lubega in 1961, a Ugandan and the first African woman to graduate from a university in East or Central Africa. They had three children: Sheba, Tessa, and Helen. His wife, who passed away 15 years ago, was a great lover of politics. As Posnansky and I spoke, he said he was looking across the table at a shortwave radio his wife bought 35 years ago. “It’s still working!” he said. “She used to love getting different African stations on the radio. Many people in Africa are better informed about the world than people are in America because they listen to the radio a lot.”

One of the amusing things about coming to America was noticing how people drove in 4-wheel drive vehicles when they didn't really need them, he says. In Africa, many people drove in non-4-wheel drives and without air conditioning. “After a journey of 50 or 60 miles, you would be sweating and your shirt would be full of dust from the open windows to keep the car cool. You would have to have that shirt washed straight away. 

It's a bit hot in Los Angeles at times, he says, but having worked for over 20 years in Kenya, Uganda, and then Ghana, he adapted to the high heat and humidity in the states. “When doing research, I was never in a place where there was running water and only I think once did I have electricity, so those sorts of conditions you just got used to.”

The Continuous Africanist

“I’m 87, going on 88. You often have health problems but I feel quite well, although I get very tired easily.”

He can’t travel to many places and doesn’t drive anymore. This is problematic, he says, but one of the things he does enjoy as he gets older is seeing his former students. “Last Sunday, one of my first students from 1966 at UCLA when I was a visiting professor there came to visit me. He's now a distinguished Africanist historian, Peter R. Schmidt. He has written 10 books and many articles and it was a joy to have him visit me. Just today, I had a nice postcard from Barcelona from another student of mine who teaches at a university, telling me about the visit there and the conference he was attending. I intend to keep in touch with them.”

Christopher DeCorse, an archaeologist specializing in African archaeology and history, has called Posnansky “the quintessential Africanist.” Schmidt, Posnansky’s former student and I spoke on the phone and he agreed with DeCorse’s assessment. 

“Posnanskyis the quintessential africanist in the sense that he has had an abiding and deep dedication to Africa and trying to redress misconceptions about Africa,” Schmidt said. “He has never wavered in that commitment and that's what I would call a quintessential africanist… someone who is in it for the life run, in it for constant engagement. There are some people who just go off and do nine months of research and come back five years or 15 years later and periodically dip their toes in the waters of Africa. Those are not quintessential Africanists -- no. It is deep, continuous, dedicated engagement. Merrick has that.”

Schmidt describes Posnansky as someone who has always been an example and has given guidance over the years. “He has an enormous degree of patience and in the business of being a student of Africa, one has to have a lot of patience, because things in Africa do not run according to the same schedules as they do in our society. Things operate differently; logistically it's sometimes exceedingly difficult to move around. People are confronted with frustrations from a variety of perspectives, but a person who is as deeply imbued in Africa as Merrick, they are never going to let those little daily kinds of confusion and frustrations bother them. They are going to be patient, accept them, and move within the milieu of comfort. I think that typifies Merrick. He also has a great degree of stick-to-itiveness and he does not give up on his writing responsibilities. 

“He has got backlogs of research and God knows I've got them too. I've just taken retirement five months ago and I look at the amount of writing that I have to do yet. I embrace it but it's a bit daunting. I think he approaches it the same way; you keep at it, you move forward, and you do it piece-by-piece, even though you may not be in good health (and his health has been variable) and you get it done. That's exactly what he's doing; I have great respect for that,” Schmidt said. 

The most recent conference Posnansky attended was in Kenya in 2013. “I had done my work in Kenya from 1956 to 1958 when I went to Uganda and at the time in the 50s, people like Louis Leakey said there would be no African archaeology because there were no people training to be African archaeologists. He felt that Africans weren't very interested in their past. It was rather fascinating to go to a conference where there were 100 people and 68% of them were all trained Africanist archaeologists,” Posnansky said.

“I was a keynote speaker, the person who led the conference, and many were quite surprised because they thought that I must have died. I worked there in the 1950s and there I was, turning up in 2013.”

He was also impressed by the training that had gone on in Africa during his absence. “I was the only person showing slides. All the Africans used PowerPoint!”

Posnansky finds that the field of African archaeology is expanding. “I heard from colleagues that in Ghana, there is a university of about 35,000 students. When I went there in 1967, they were about 2,000 students. The combined number of students in history and archaeology was probably less than 300. Now the combined number of students studying history and archaeology is more like 1,500. In 1990, as president of the Society of Africanist Archaeologists, we held a conference in Los Angeles and had the record number of participants, 120. We had the same type of conference in France two years ago and they had 650 participants.

“All the time, parts of archaeology are expanding. Take one of the things that we believe in, which is that human beings or hominids developed in Africa from about four or five million years ago and then Homo sapiens did rock painting and invented tools, beginning perhaps 200,000 years ago. All these things we didn't know 50 years ago. At that time, people sort of talked about Homo sapiens beginning in Europe and then spreading to Africa. Now we know it's the other way around.”

Because of his deep love for Africa, he says, he was successful, and he was also pleased to have an extended stay on the continent. “Many of my fellow Africanists never spent more than about a couple of months in Africa and they didn't go to visit many other parts. They were mostly just “Americans in Africa” rather than being acclimatized to the African condition or close to their students. Living on a campus of an African university with colleagues and students who are from there teaches you a lot about the continent. Sometimes, students used to say they couldn't understand the English that American scholars taught or they spoke too fast. You needed to get to know Africa to get to know Africans, to feel at home in Africa.”

One of the differences between American historians and African historians, Posnansky says, is the latter tend to be involved in many different disciplines which help them reconstruct the environment, trade, and industries, whereas historians of Africa in America tend to rely far too much on recent documents which may not take them back so far.

On Tolerance and Changes on the Continent

By being an Africanist historian, Posnansky says, one becomes more tolerant. One realizes that people in underdeveloped areas are people just like everyone else. Being there for a significant amount of time provides insight into other peoples’ experiences. 

“The more one delves into Africa, the more they realize that American exceptionalism is exceptional in itself. Many Americans don't understand the problems of the third world or differences between the developed world and the developing world. That's one thing that you get used to as you deal with a different continent.” 

In a 2010 interview with Jonathan Walz in African Archaeological Review, Posnansky shared that Africa changed and shaped his world view, making him recognize that everyone is very basically human, similar to people he knew anywhere else. “In Africa, what you have is not as important as who you are …. In recent years, when people tend to disparage Africa, they say there's no democracy, too many dictators, and corruption. One of the things I've been impressed by is by the number of countries in Africa where democracy is working. We've had a series of peaceful changes of government, like in Ghana or more recently in Nigeria to a certain extent, and in places like Botswana, there are real -- rather than phony -- elections.” 

“Things are changing in Africa,” he says, “and when these changes take place, you tend to be awed by the fact that people who only 25 years ago knew about corrupt government are seeing changes come about. It is very encouraging and inspiring. The old-time leaders, people like Mugabe in Zimbabwe, Kenneth Kaunda in Zambia; people like Hastings Banda, and the present time in Ethiopia and Eritrea which now have open relations again … you get a sense that there is change taking place. In a place like Ghana, it used to be one of the 18 poorest countries in Africa. Now it's been moved up into the middle group of countries, on par with places like Jamaica because it's being much more efficiently run and there is less corruption.” 

“One of the sad things about Africa is that many countries, for instance, like Saudi Arabia, which don't have much arable land, tend to buy areas in Africa where they can grow foodstuffs which they can export to their own countries. This has happened in quite a few cases. I hope that in the future, Africa will be able to manage more of its resources and it should slowly become able to manage some of its problems.”

Posnansky, like others in his field, believes there is a need for more African historians who teach about their own history and not about imperial history. 

“When I first went to Africa, there were no courses dealing with post-1750 events, yet many of the states in Africa began after 1750 or began before the slave trade. What’s been happening with an increased number of departments with African historians is that they have a much better grasp of what was happening in the slave trade and during imperialism. Peoples’ perspectives on their African homeland are changing over the years very rapidly,” Posnansky said.

His former student, Schmidt, dedicated the last 10 years of his life to community archaeology, working with people who try to preserve their own heritage as a way of decolonizing the whole practice of history and ancient history in Africa, which has been a marvel for him to behold, he says, “because, really, a top-down approach with Western investigators going in and studying the research agendas simply is a perpetuation of the colonial paradigm. It doesn't help provide a grassroots perspective of how local people see and represent their own histories, and Merrick was a leader in that in the sense that he listened to people and their oral traditions and this legacy is one that we are trying to amplify. It's an upward hill battle right now, a sisyphean task, but a worthy task, and Merrick led the way.”

A Man of Kindness

“In the end, I ended up as a wing chief in the village where I worked as an archaeologist,” Posnansky said, “and everyone in the village was entitled to come to the chiefs council and people used to debate and discuss and they didn't have [political] parties. They’d argue about different events, so all conflict was settled by unanimity, by the whole group agreeing to a particular stance or history. Once you know more about Africa, you tend to be more understanding. I tended to believe that in the African village, you had truer democracy than anywhere else in the world.”

“In other countries like in Nigeria, one of my colleagues, Thurston Shaw, became a chief. In southern Africa, many people have become white chiefs in the places where they lived and so you have a bridge between traditional culture and history and between written history written by the imperialists and colonialists who came in after about 1600.”

It’s important when people know about their own past, Posnansky said. They can compare their own past with other pasts and try to explain why there's a difference. 

“He’s a very kind man,” Schmidt said. “You can ask anybody in our discipline what five words typify Merrick Posnansky and amongst those would be 'kindness.' He is an extraordinary person. He's a prince. Every time I'm in his presence, I'm in awe. He's a very, very dear friend and someone whom I constantly keep in contact with. We've done a couple of projects together recently. I've encouraged him to do a retrospective on his research in communities, which at first he was reluctant to do but then embraced with vigor and I think he is very happy with the outcome and that was nice. I keep him up-to-date with my books and publications so we maintain those ties of friendship and collegiality. They've been enduring over this period of 52 years -- and counting!” 

“He also is a person who is deeply loyal. He's loyal to his students, he's loyal to the memory of people with whom he has worked, he's loyal to the sensibilities of the African people with whom he has worked and I think those are all traits that are the envy of all of us.”

Yes, he’s grown old. “He walks with a cane but it's just kind of a prop to steady him. He's spry and active and looks wonderful. He's now sporting long hair like a retired Oxford don and hasn't looked this good in years; his health issues have stabilized some and he’s completing a couple of books on Begho, the area where he worked in Ghana, and he feels upbeat about that. I just see kind of a fresh spark and spirit and that's wonderful.”