Archival Research

Tanzania National Archives

All
historians who have worked in the Tanzanian National Archives talk
about how impressively unstructured the holdings are. The initial
process of accessing the archives is deceptively simple: just fill a
slip of paper, leave your bag in a locker, and proceed to the reading
room. The reading room has only one reading area; several tables
pushed together at the centre of the room in a U-shape. And if you
expected to be seated on a computer, somewhere where you can enter a
“keyword” search term and get multiple hits all with succinct
abstracts and links to other related topics – well, you were
mistaken. All the catalogues are held in an eight-by-twelve feet
shelf and are arranged perhaps by size to prevent things from
toppling over. They are your only hope of knowing what is in the
archives. I stood in front of the shelves, bewildered. I pulled one
log book out: “The Northern Province 1922 -” I turned it over, a
yellowing counter book; hard-bound on the outside. I opened it to the
last page – blank – the paper felt like it was about to flake in
my hands. As I placed it back, I noticed that the edge was sewn
together. A few stitches on the binding to prevent ordered history
from falling apart.

I
pulled up a chair. It would take more time than I could stay standing
to just to figure out how to best find something without having to go
through every single log book. The danger was not so much in the time
wasted, but in the potentially overwhelming excitement as the list of
things I want to look at gets longer and longer. That could only lead
to frustration.

A
loud thump startled me – someone placed a tall pile of files on a
desk in front of a researcher and started coming towards the catalogs
shelf. The researcher leaned forward in excitement, ready to engage
with a long-gone present; but a cloud of dust from the thump threw
her back with a force that was almost physical. The guy walking
towards me was tall and lanky with a bald-shaven head. The dust that
issued from the files he had just paged explained his ash-grey lab
coat and similar colored clothes. Light-colored clothes, practical in
the scorching Dar-Es-Salaam heat would lose all their glory in about
a day at the archives. I looked at my white shirt and quickly decided
that I'd rather stay cool than clean. “Niwae-ri?” he called, with
that South-Tanzanian lilt that corrects the “l” sound to an “r.”
I instantly recognized his voice – he is Mr. Mwinyimvua, an
archivist I had talked to multiple times over the phone. James
Giblin, a long-time Tanzania historian had put me in touch with him,
highly praising how well he knew the holdings. I sighed with relief.

He
was an amazing search engine, only better since he answered
everything with a jolly smile. Occasionally, he gave tangential
suggestions –

“How
about colonial records?” He asked, smiling.

Unless
you know a specific one with forced resettlement in Arusha then no. I
said.

“Co-operative
Unions?”

 No.

“District
files?”

No.

After
saying too many “No-s,” I started to wonder why he was suggesting
what seemed like tangents from ujamaa villages.
We had discussed what I was looking for, and since he has worked at
the archives for nearly thirty years, he just knew which catalogues
to go to. There was no aimless pulling and returning of log books
with him. Perhaps the suggestions were not aimless either. I went
back to some of them. “Why district files?”

The
answer involved a complicated tale of scarcity of storage space and
their hard to follow system of record-keeping; a tale that simply meant that the documents I was looking for were not held in the main archives. I would have to travel 400 miles north to Arusha to find the records that I needed.

It
turns out that the national archives have nowhere near enough space
to store all the records generated by the government, institutions,
media, etc. The godowns at
the headquarters in Dar are full and the regional ones are nearly
full. What the archivists do, therefore, is to go to each region,
visit its departments or divisions, close the files, box the records
and leave everything locked in humid and dusty rooms scattered across
the country. Looking at district log books, therefore, might give me
a hint about what was going on in a particular area; even though it
may be just a list of visiting government officers; their comings and goings. 

When I left that afternoon, with hands textured from flaking paper and dust, I started to wonder whether there was more archived information in individual's memories than we would ever be able to find in written documents. It certainly seemed to be the case with the Tanzanian National Archives, where the archivists were the most invaluable source of knowledge around.