Operating in some of the most remote lands in southern Africa, historian Emmanuel Kreike collects life stories of people ravaged by war and environmental hardship. Despite what he has seen, he emphatically declares: “I’m an Afro-optimist.”
Concerned with the intersection of violence, environment and society, Kreike studies how events such as slave raiding, colonialism and the wars associated with apartheid forced people to migrate and rebuild their lives in new surroundings. He said that he is “interested in big movements in history but also the agency for change and how things actually do change.”
Much of Kreike’s current research focuses on the border territories of South Africa, Mozambique, Namibia and Angola. What is particularly compelling to him about southern Africa is that it offers a unique backdrop from which to study the long reach of apartheid that so greatly affected South Africa and its neighbors.
Kreike joined the Princeton faculty in 1997 and received tenure this year. He teaches in the history department and is affiliated with the African studies program and the Princeton Environmental Institute. A native of the Netherlands, he earned two master’s degrees in history from the University of Amsterdam and the University of California-Los Angeles. His Ph.D. in history is from Yale University, and this May he will defend his second doctorate — in environmental sciences — from Wageningen Agricultural University in the Netherlands.
Jokingly describing the pursuit of two Ph.D.’s as “an extreme and masochistic road,” Kreike readily illustrates the relevance of studying African issues by connecting history and the social sciences with the environmental sciences. He is the author of “Re-Creating Eden: Land Use, Environment and Society in Southern Angola and Northern Namibia,” which was published in 2004.
His current research, which will become a book, examines the ways in which the apartheid wars, from the 1960s to the 1990s, have impacted southern Africa’s rural society and environment. As part of his doctoral work, he also is completing a manuscript titled “Paradigms and Paradoxes of Environmental Change.”
According to Professor Robert Tignor, who teaches a course on colonial and postcolonial Africa, Kreike is “an Africanist researcher par excellence and a dedicated teacher who takes great pride in recruiting students to do their junior papers and senior theses on Africa. He has been a dynamo in building up interest in the African studies program.”
Gathering life stories
As an undergraduate in the Netherlands, Kreike was inspired by a historian who said that one reason agricultural development programs in Africa often failed was because extension efforts were directed toward men, not women, who actually worked most closely with the land. The lesson for Kreike was that if he wanted to find out how things really worked, he had to see for himself, and he had to know how to ask the right questions of the right people.
Explaining that African history typically is ethnographic because it relies on the stories people tell, Kreike focuses his fieldwork on conducting interviews of residents of the far-flung areas he studies.
Contrasting himself to anthropologists, who usually live in the village they study, Kreike looks at larger regions that include from 20 to 30 villages and can span a couple hundred square miles and cross national borders. “I am usually looking for wider patterns that cannot be represented by one village,” he said.
Features such as type of vegetation, availability of water and presence of roads can be very different within his site of study, and can dramatically impact how the villages function over time. Kreike explained: “For example, if a village is next to a road, it is more likely to be influenced by wider events. With war it’s very clear, since in conventional warfare the main roads are used, such as when the Rhodesian forces crossed into southern Mozambique. Roads are also important regarding what people eat; if you live close to a road you can buy food.”
When he visits one of these rural communities, Kreike usually talks to about four of its elderly inhabitants — half men and half women — who have the longest life stories to share. “I visit their households and see their surroundings,” he said. “I am intrinsically interested in how they live; how they cook, prepare and grow food.”
Kreike describes what he hears as “powerful and beautiful stories about people not giving up and constantly rebuilding.” In each of the villages he currently is studying, almost everyone has lost at least one family member to war. Yet, when he calls himself an “Afro-optimist,” Kreike explains that a lot of his optimism comes from the elderly people he interviews. “They are so strong,” he said.
Backing up the interviews, Kreike does research in district and central archives. He studies files on agriculture and water affairs, as well as court cases. “Witness statements about a murder, theft or inheritance issue provide a rich detail of personal history,” he said.
Working in the field
Understandably, the difficult lives the villagers have faced as a result of apartheid and war give rise to numerous challenges for Kreike in the field.
The first is getting there. Since the villagers have been pushed to remote areas, there is no guarantee of a passable road. To get there, road or not, Kreike drives a heavy-duty pick-up truck akin to those used in construction. Comparing it to his office in Dickinson Hall, which is stuffed to the brim with books and African objects, Kreike uses every inch of his truck, which serves as an office and home when he is on the road.
He typically carries 150 gallons of fuel loaded in tanks and jerry cans, which devour most of the space. He also transports canned food — much of which he gives away — and bottled water. His research materials also travel with him, and on occasion he sets up his tent on top of the truck when the ground is inhospitable.
Of extreme importance is the room he reserves for fellow travelers, including an interpreter and local people. “Giving rides is a small way of doing some service to these communities, and has the added advantage of traveling with people who know the way and the local conditions, such as regarding land mines,” said Kreike. It is also crucial to make space for up to six spare tires; according to Kreike, who has blown two tires within 10 days, “you can never have enough.”
The distances and rugged terrain between points means that Kreike does not have the luxury of alerting villagers to his visits. As a tall, blond man with a Dutch accent that echoes Afrikaans, the language most directly associated with apartheid, Kreike has a lot of explaining to do. Then, there is the matter of mutual understanding; even with an interpreter, translations can be tricky.
According to Kreike, who speaks intermediate Ovambo, Tsonga/Shangaan and Swahili, even an interpreter can have difficulty understanding a shared language that can morph across borders due to different colonizers. For example, in South Africa and Namibia there may be English and Afrikaans words mixed in, while in Mozambique there may be Portuguese. With his first-hand experience, Kreike has become adept at what he calls the “vocabulary of agriculture and cooking.” Sometimes, he even comprehends more than his interpreters, who may be less familiar with the domestic words favored by the elderly interviewees.
Relying on oral history has further challenges, most notably that people typically do not remember the past chronologically. “For historians, we get very psyched about knowing what happened when,” said Kreike. “For the interviews you need to build up local chronologies, but people tend to remember things by events, not dates.”
Kreike’s field experience and the enthusiasm he has for his subject infuse his classes at Princeton. “What is striking about Professor Kreike is his passion for Africa and its people,” said Rada Leenders, a senior from Brussels, Belgium, who has taken two of his courses and currently is participating in a graduate-level reading group Kreike is leading on African environmental history.
“He always draws on his extensive travel and experience in Africa to make its diversity palpable to his students, most of whom have never been there,” said Leenders. “He uses music, videos, artwork, tools, photographs and first-person accounts to bring a glimpse of African reality to us right here in Princeton.”
In order to bring the “African reality” to his students, Kreike has to undo a web of myths about the continent. “I start with the premise that what the students might be thinking is that Africa is a lost cause,” he said. “They may have heard things like: Africa is a dark continent; a continent without history; a continent of tribalism; a continent that is isolated; a continent that is an economic wasteland.”
Using examples throughout history, Kreike shows how this “primitivist image” of Africa is itself a historical construct, often reinforced by colonial agendas. In the class he is teaching this semester, “The History of Southern Africa,” he describes how the region was a major supplier of gold to Asia from the 11th to the 15th centuries; how the ancient civilizations of Great Zimbabwe and the Zulu spanned the landscape; and that the archaeological findings in the Sterkfontein Caves in South Africa point to this part of the world as the “Cradle of Humankind.”
Junior Olivia (“Kim”) Kamarebe, who is taking the class, said that Kreike is very effective at placing southern African issues into “historical, cultural, ecological and political contexts.” A native of Kampala, Uganda, she explained that his teaching method “puts her into the shoes of the people of southern Africa” and helps her to “form an argument about wider African issues from a more knowledgeable perspective.”
Judging by the popularity of his courses, Kreike is inspiring to many students. Currently, the southern Africa course has an enrollment of 70 students, up from 50 previously. Last fall when he taught the course “Precolonial Africa,” which examines ethnographies and archaeological discoveries across the continent, enrollments also jumped. And the course “Africans and African Worlds,” which Kreike calls a “buffet” because students are introduced to Africa through presentations by Princeton faculty representing many disciplines, is always well subscribed. In the spring, Kreike will teach the course “Comparative Environmental History,” which examines the processes and causes of environmental change in Africa, the Americas and Asia.
Suzanna Reiss, a preceptor for “The History of Southern Africa,” said that students seem particularly interested in the modern politics and society of South Africa. She underscored an observation made by Kreike that Princeton’s exchange program with the University of Cape Town prompts many students to take the course before or after studying in South Africa.
To aid his teaching, Kreike is developing a database of aerial photographs and Global Positioning System data that show how the southern African landscape has changed over time. Through this “virtual museum,” he will be able to accurately map how population movements impact the environment. Included in this data are the results of a household survey he organized with students at an agricultural college in Namibia.
Beyond the classroom, Kreike has, according to Leenders, “made clear that his lectures are a launching pad to an African journey.” She explained that he has organized field trips to Africa-related events in Washington, D.C., helped to revitalize Akwaaba, the African students association, and led the weekly African discussion group Indaba, when he served as director of the African studies program.
Senior Amaka Megwalu, who is from Enugu, Nigeria, agreed: “Professor Kreike is arguably the most approachable teacher I’ve had at Princeton, encouraging students to learn more about Africa through out-of-class chats with him as well as engaging in African-related events on campus.”
This summer, Kreike will rejoin the truck he refers to as a “big, heavy monster,” and return to Angola to interview more households — research that previously was interrupted by war. He will be collecting more life stories from the people he meets, as well as gathering information about the environmental repercussions of warfare. Certainly, he will bring his discoveries, and his optimism, back with him to Princeton.