Assistant Professor of History Laura Ann Twagira presented the semi-annual “In the Archives” lecture, sponsored by the History Majors Committee, on Thursday, April 17. Twagira’s lecture, entitled “Rice Babies and Other Embodied Histories of Development in Mali,” was based on archival and oral research that she conducted in West Africa and focused on her experience developing an oral archive.
Shannon Welch ’14 serves on the History Majors Committee and explained why Twagira was chosen for the lecture.
“We asked Professor Twagira because she’s newer to the department but did fascinating work with oral history, something many upper level history majors are interested in as a component of their senior thesis,” Welch wrote in an email to The Argus. “There are a lot of challenges to using interviews and oral history as part of academic work, but also a lot of advantages.”
Twagira began the lecture with an introduction to her project and process. Her research is focused on the Office du Niger, a rice agricultural scheme in Mali. The surrounding area experienced a series of droughts in the 1970s and 1980s that led to a severe food shortage, and the Office du Niger was one of the most stable sources of food in the country. The shortages led the government to promote food security, which placed a particular focus on the stability of the Office du Niger.
In addition to two months doing archival research in Senegal and France, Twagira spent a year working in the archives at the Office du Niger and conducting interviews with members of the surrounding communities who lived through the drought.
Twagira explained how she originally became interested in this particular topic.
“My initial interest in Mali comes [from] more than 10 years ago,” Twagira said. “When I graduated from undergraduate, I decided to go into the Peace Corps. I was assigned to work in Mali and I worked with different women’s groups in the town, [and] became really interested in women’s labor and women’s agricultural work while I was posted there. I was in a region near where the Office is now, but I wasn’t actually working where the Office is.”
Her lecture focused specifically on men and women who cultivated the land for the Office but received limited food supplies because of government policy. Each family was given a permission slip with the amount of food it was to receive, regardless of how much rice it cultivated in the fields.
These often did not provide enough food, and the families subsidized their supplies by taking rice from the field during the night. Women often hid food from the guards by wrapping it in cloth and tying it around their stomachs or on their backs so as to appear to be pregnant or to be carrying an infant on their backs.
Twagira recounted a conversation she had with one woman who had used a rice baby to retrieve rice from the field.
“[She] emphasized to me that what she did was not stealing….” Twagira said. “She said ‘I only took what I could gather from the ground.’ And so she was taking what she believed she had a right to take, no matter the political situation.”
The lecture also focused on Twagira’s use of interviews in her research process. She explained that she chose to focus on rice babies because she felt the topic emphasized the effects of practicing oral history.
“I wanted to tell a series of stories as a way of thinking about the oral history process and how the histories that produce these stories are connected to other ethnographic observations but are also connected to different pieces in the archive,” Twagira said. “I felt that the story about rice babies helped me to connect to some of those methodological issues and that…all of those methods converged together really well.”
Allison Cronan ’17 attended the lecture and felt that the oral history aspect helped her relate to the material.
“I have always found telling oral histories to be the most interesting and compelling way to learn about the past,” Cronan wrote in an email to The Argus. “The oral history [was] definitely the highlight of the presentation for me; although I knew nothing about rice babies or the rice industry in Mali when I entered, after listening to these women’s stories, I felt a really strong empathetic connection towards them. I think that may be the best part about oral histories: they create empathy instead of just conveying numbers and figures.”
Twagira stated this was her first experience conducting interviews for an oral history, and that she enjoyed the social aspect of the process the most.
“History is really fun; it is like detective work because in the archives, you get to know different characters….” Twagira said. “But when you’re doing oral history research, you don’t just get to see people on paper, you get to interact with them, you get to have a social experience with them that I think really brings history to life in some way. Social interaction with people is really rewarding in terms of doing research. You can also be attached to people from the archives, but there’s something really nice about making that personal connection in the field.”
Twagira also spoke to the challenges of interviewing and making sure that the personal bias of the interviewees does not affect data.
“Doing oral history is like creating an archive,” Twagira said. “It’s very labor-intensive and you have to do a lot of planning ahead of time and give yourself enough time to do the oral histories and to give people the luxury of the time to really tell you their story, rather than doing it too quickly…. Of course, you need to interrogate them; sometimes the memory can be flawed, or people are filling in. To me, that actually makes it even more exciting because it’s more challenging to unpack what you can take out of a history and what maybe is a faulty memory or something else.”
Welch felt that the lecture brought together students of different interests.
“I find it fascinating, as someone who worked with seventeenth century British imperial documents on my thesis, to learn about such a completely new area of history and the different academic arsenal required for this area of history,” Welch wrote. “I hope that students will both learn about the history of that area of West Africa, and more broadly about the work of a historian. I think that this kind of talk is great because it attracts both those interested in the topic and in the broader study, and both groups can learn from each other!”
Twagira emphasized that oral history has the potential to bring a social aspect into research and paint a more vivid and diverse picture of the past.
“I think that it gets at social history as an important component of the broader field, because you’re talking to people who have memories of a particular period,” Twagira said. “It’s really challenging, but it also gets at an aspect of life that sometimes the documents can’t get [to]. You get the stories from people, and that’s what I like: those stories.”