Working with Histories that Haunt Us

Togolese Women Mourn President Olympio, 1963 (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

When I first began to conceptualize my dissertation project, I knew I wanted to write about an iconic group of textile traders in Togo called the Nana Benz. These women are the stuff of legends in my native country and although many think of their wealth and political influence as a contemporary phenomenon, I sought to historicize their political activism in Togo by highlighting the instrumental role they played in the nation’s anti-colonial struggle. While I didn’t know the exact contours of this history, I knew I was going to end the dissertation in 1963. That year, a group of disaffected soldiers who fought in France’s colonial army assassinated Togo’s anti-colonial nationalist leader and first president, Sylvanus Olympio. A few days later, one of the soldiers, Etienne Eyadema, confessed to firing the shots that killed Olympio. Exactly three decades later, Eyadema forced my family into exile.

In the early 1990s, the people of Togo staged a series of demonstrations pressuring Eyadema to institute democratic reforms. Eyadema—who had at that point ruled Togo for over 25 years under a single party system—refused and instead began campaign terror that left tens of thousands of people dead and forced at estimated 300,000 into exile. The conflict forced my family into refugee camps in Benin were we lived with other displaced Togolese families for seven years.

In a recent essay for The New Republic historian James Robins asks: can historians be traumatized by history? Robins offered a number of heartbreaking examples to highlight the devastating toll research on historical atrocities can have on scholars. Yet, Robins doesn’t take into account the fact that a scholar’s response to their work is as much a product of who they are as it is about the topics they study. As a Togolese refugee, the depths of my mourning for what Togo could have been if Eyadema had not come to power in 1963 is so deep that, for a long time, I feared I would lose myself in the abyss if I looked at the history of Eyadema’s rise to power too squarely in the face.

Thus, the year 1963 was my Pandora’s Box and I designed my dissertation so that I would never have to open it. Not only would this allow me to conform to disciplinary fantasies of “objectivity,” I thought, it would protect me from the emotional toll of writing about a history that haunts me. The Covid-19 pandemic and the disruptions it brought to my research schedule forced me to rethink this approach.

Like much of the world, my plans for the latter half of 2020 were upended by the pandemic. Unable to travel to Togo for research, I began to look towards the limited sources on Togolese history in my university’s archives. In the fall, when the libraries were briefly opened, I requested a few boxes containing pamphlets, brochures and speeches from Togo, looking for anything that could inform my dissertation writing. In the archival reading room, I worked through the folders jotting down notes and taking pictures of the documents. When I reached the last folder, however, I was jolted out of this rhythm. There, in bright red colors, was a front page newspaper article documenting the violence that would eventually force my family to flee Togo.

L’ARMEE N’A PAS A TIRER SUR LA POPULATION. August 23rd, 1991. This was coverage of the political turmoil that made me stateless two years later. I stood up, my eyes struggling through the French text and feeling suddenly betrayed by the archivist. I wasn’t supposed to see this, I said to myself. I felt set up. Of course, this was irrational. The archivist could not have imagined my affective relationship to the histories I worked on, nor do they have any reason for “setting up” researchers. Their job was to give me the boxes I called for and, it turns out, I had not paid enough attention to the fact that the box went beyond 1963. I remember my hands shaking as I put the folder back in the box but I don’t remember leaving the library or any part of my walk back to my apartment.

That evening as I looked through the images I had taken in the archive, I realized that I had taken several pictures of the newspaper. Out of habit? Perhaps. I have grown accustomed to my standard archival research process: I order a box of documents, look through each folder, and identify documents that may be relevant to my research, take a picture, and write quick descriptive notes. Move on. But this newspaper wasn’t pertinent to my research. My dissertation ends in 1963. Why did I take this picture? Surrounded by the comfort of being home in my apartment, I thought back to my response to the newspaper in the reading room and slowly allowed myself to admit that I could not keep running away from this history. I can’t write Togolese history as a detached, aloof observer.

Admitting this allowed me to ask a simple question: am I ending my dissertation in 1963 because that was the natural ending to the story I am telling or because 1963 marked the beginning of the Eyadema years? I knew the answer but the question freed up space in my mind begin to embrace a new periodization for my dissertation that ventures into the turbulent years of the Eyadema regime.

As I consider a longer view of my dissertation, I am now faced with new methodological questions: can my affective response to this history constitute a source of historical knowledge? Can it be a form of evidence that informs my writing in productive ways? If so, what is it evidence of? Moreover, how do I embrace my subjective relationship to my work without getting lost in the navel-gazing that can accompany autobiographical accounts, thereby pushing my historical actors out of the frames of my analysis?

Historian Moses Ochonu has proposed that historical knowledge about Africa can come from “smelling, feeling, tasting, seeing and hearing,” arguing that “the smells and tastes of Africa in the present can provide clues to the past and vice versa.” Building on Ochonu’s methodology, I propose that, like sensing Africa, there is a unique epistemological orientation that comes from our affective responses to specific historical processes and events. I call this embodied evidence to foreground the fact that unlike, archival documents, food, and scents, embodied evidence cannot be touched, smelled or tasted. It is felt. And in my case, that feeling is traumatic.

In a recent talk, sociologist Oyèrónkẹ́ Oyěwùmí introduced the concept of Pandemic Epistemologies which she uses as a framework of analysis to explain the multiple and varied ways of knowing that the Covid-19 pandemic has brought into sharp focus. The disruptions that the pandemic has brought to my research has forced me to pause and consider how my positionality as a Togolese woman in exile shapes the ways I understand and write Togolese history. Without the limitations that the pandemic has brought to my research, it is unclear if I would have allowed myself to fully embrace the implications of this relationship.

So, how can I use my affective response to Togolese history as a source of evidence? For me, it is an embodied evidence of the terror of growing up in what Achille Mbembe calls the postcolony. It is evidence of how that terror continues to orient Togolese people towards silence. We dare not speak or write Eyadema’s name because we might be forced to remember all the people we have lost to his reign and all the possibilities his reign foreclosed. This terror is a way of knowing this history that shapes how I understand the lives of the Nana Benz and the choices they made during Eyadema’s regime. By embracing my complex relationship to this history I hope to write a history of Togo that is much closer to how Togolese people felt it.

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Marius Kothor

Marius Kothor is a Ph.D. candidate in the department of history at Yale University. She has broad research interests in 20th century African history, gender, and Black internationalism. Her dissertation project has been awarded fellowships from the Fulbright (IIE) program, the Social Science Research Council (IDRF), and the Fulbright-Hays (DDRA) Program. Follow her on Twitter @Mariuskothor.

Comments on “Working with Histories that Haunt Us

  • I don’t see how one could reasonably make recollections of a personal experience representative of something collective/general in a work of nonfiction but very interesting to try and make explicit how one’s inevitable (reminds me of Isabelle Stengers’ work on the interests of scientists) pre-judices might be shaping the form and content included (or not) of the text, but how does one know/evaluate/test such things and how should readers evaluate the import/impacts? thanks for raising these issues.

  • Fascinating research

  • “As I consider a longer view of my dissertation, I am now faced with new methodological questions: can my affective response to this history constitute a source of historical knowledge? Can it be a form of evidence that informs my writing in productive ways? If so, what is it evidence of? Moreover, how do I embrace my subjective relationship to my work without getting lost in the navel-gazing that can accompany autobiographical accounts, thereby pushing my historical actors out of the frames of my analysis?”

    Yes. See the intro to my book on academia.edu, Jennifer Denetdale book on indigenous history, oral history canon on trauma and subjectivity, and Rolph Touillot silencing the past.

    Finally – a word on historians and academia. They avoid discussing power and perspective. Detachment assumes that epistemologies are not at work when they are. I’d suggest challenging that.

    • The illusion that there is EVER real detachment from ANY topic of study is just that: an illusion.

      Much more honest and responsible to acknowledge one’s reason for interest in the subject and go forward from there.

      There is no such thing as unbiased social study/research.
      Please continue. Compunction free.

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