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“The sort of education we want”: Akiki Nyabongo and Black History Month

16 December 2021

The Africa Answers Back: Prince Nyabongo at The Queen’s College exhibition ran in Michaelmas Term 2021 and will shortly be available online. In a new blogpost (below) US researcher Caitlin Monroe explores who Prince Nyabongo was and why - and how - his impact has been felt.

On January 22, 1934, a Ugandan student named Akiki Nyabongo criticized Jesse Jones of the Phelps-Stokes educational fund for giving African students “gratuitous advice” about their education. Nyabongo was one of the first Ugandan students to study in the United States when he arrived at the Tuskegee Institute in 1922 with support from Jones. Yet he wrote that the fund had no right to carry out “subsequent interference in [their students’] personal affairs.” He continued: “We African students are quite capable of knowing what sort of education we want.”[1] As it turned out, pursuing the sort of “education” Nyabongo wanted would lead to a number of accomplishments and various intellectual projects throughout his life. However, it would not earn Nyabongo a well-known place in international literature on African history, anti-colonialism, or histories of African students who – often against great social and political obstacles – pursued their studied abroad. Why not?

Nyabongo’s relative historical marginalisation is at first surprising given his impressive and wide-ranging career: After studying at Howard and Yale in the United States, he attended Queen’s College at Oxford. While there, he studied anthropology, collected Ugandan pottery for the Pitt Rivers Museum, and wrote a dissertation about religion in Ugandan as one of East Africa’s first doctoral students. As some of the material in the Queen’s College exhibit show, he didn’t stop there: Nyabongo wrote Uganda’s first English-language novel, published a children’s book of African folk tales, and later researched a former method of communication in western Uganda, which used flowers and twigs, while working at the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens in New York. He also advocated for his educational vision in Uganda and abroad – breaking with trends of the era by synthesizing agricultural training and a liberal arts education. Nyabongo’s obituary notes how instrumental he was in restructuring Ugandan towns in the postcolonial period and in working towards improved education for Ugandan students. Nyabongo corresponded with W.E.B. Du Bois about global race relations, attended small lunch meetings with pan-African leaders George Padmore and Paul Robeson in London, and participated in conferences with future leaders of newly independent African countries, including Kwame Nkrumah and Jomo Kenyatta. He toured American diplomat and scholar Ralph Bunche and American civil rights activist Eslanda Goode Robeson around East Africa. The “sort of education” Nyabongo wanted to pursue – and provide for others – was eclectic and expansive. In this expansiveness, Nyabongo’s research offers important insights into education, diasporic networks, the careers of African scholars abroad, and Ugandan urban history – among other topics.

In pursuing these projects though, Nyabongo regularly challenged a colonial world order that dismissed African history, culture, and intellectual independence. He faced racist restrictions, marginalisation, and skepticism as a result. Some of the obstacles he encountered are reflected in the materials on display at Queen’s College now. The colonial administration banned his main novel. An American publisher rejected a collection of folktales, saying that unless Nyabongo was willing to “sell them for a song to a second-rate publisher of juvenile books,” there was “small hope” for the collection.[2] Nyabongo was never able to publish a book for which Paul Robeson agreed to write the introduction. Records show that Du Bois had asked Nyabongo to contribute to his Encyclopedia of the Negro project. Still, that project, too, was famously denied funding – in part by white scholars in the African Studies community intent on gate-keeping the academic discipline. Racism and colonialism restricted Nyabongo’s life, the reach of his scholarship, and the opportunities to establish a more long-lasting legacy abroad. As a result, Nyabongo’s career appears in footnotes and passing references, lingering at the margins of accounts of well-known pan-Africanists, anti-colonialists, American civil rights activists, and African nationalists.

Yet crucially, Nyabongo’s legacy remains mostly intact in western Uganda, raising questions about how African history scholarship determines its margins and centers. People who grew up in western Uganda in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s remember legends about Dr Nyabongo circulating frequently. Stories about the celebrations that ensued when he arrived, or about his widespread acclaim, or about his ability to seemingly show up out of nowhere --welcomed whenever he did appear -- continue to circulate today. Nyabongo remains important in his home region, yet today’s intellectual history scholarship has ignored that legacy, focusing instead on themes of nationalism, ethnic nationalism, or pan-Africanism. Those were never primary interests of Nyabongo’s, who defied these categories and thus remains somewhat out of step with current scholarly trends and priorities. 

45 years after Nyabongo’s death, there are many lessons we can draw from his life as exhibited at Queen’s College about the kinds of research he pursued, restrictions he faced, and the academic community he moved in and out of. In applying to schools and funding agencies, he emphasised his prestigious educational background, highlighted his elite status back home, and wrote flattering letters to school administrators despite disagreeing with their policies. Often, likely in an attempt to silence skeptics, he began his scholarly work with extended justifications of his “fitness for the task” at hand. He was sometimes punished for those choices: some educational leaders wrote about Nyabongo in particularly critical or dismissive ways, while others questioned his qualifications, background, intellectual aptitude, and motives. Just as some of his contemporaries disliked what they saw as “exaggerations”, today’s scholars sometimes deem his research as more of “a triumph of rhetoric rather than scholarship”. Taking Nyabongo’s marginalisation seriously shows how he had to adapt, sometimes imperfectly, to these restrictions. It also underscores the past and ongoing systemic inequalities against which he operated.

The letter in which Nyabongo chastised Jesse Jones for interfering in African students’ education was part of the Queen's College papers, which a library archivist found in a dusty closet in 2015. Historians of Africa and beyond often lament how “archival silences” – a result of white male colonial officials, government officials, and scholars in positions of power constructing most archives – continue to distort or obscure many aspects of the past. The discovery of Nyabongo’s papers was an important addition to a global archive of African intellectual thought, enabling more scholars to learn about his life and scholarly endeavors. Yet even then, the material left behind prioritised his life in the western academy, which was in fact only one part of his legacy. When I researched his life, oral history interviews in western Uganda provided additional important information about his longstanding reputation in his home region.

Nyabongo’s life can therefore contribute to a number of important conversations about how African Studies prioritizes its subjects, whose knowledge the academy values, and how race and power shape the archives used to study the African (and African diaspora’s) past. Though situated in western Uganda, this story has broader relevance: Nyabongo was certainly not the only African intellectual whose career was restricted or challenged because of the racist publishing practices and intellectual gatekeeping. He is also not the only intellectual whose interests may not fit into the preferred categories of academic historians working in universities in the Global North. In both the United Kingdom and the United States, Black History Month was initially intended to rectify some of the historical silences surrounding Black history. It is thus fitting that the Queen’s College Nyabongo exhibit launched in celebration of Black History Month. Nyabongo’s life – and its ability to raise questions about what histories get studied – is one fitting example of an important first, but far-from-final, step in thinking through this process.

[1] Akiki Nyabongo to Jesse Jones, January 22 1944, Box 1, Nyabongo Papers, Queen's College Library, Oxford University.

[2] "Jungle birds," Folder 2, AN Papers.

Caitlin Monroe, Department of History, Northwestern University

Caitlin develops these thoughts further in her article ‘Searching for Nyabongo: An Unconventional Ugandan Intellectual and the Limits of Global History,’ forthcoming in Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East in 2022.

The Upper Library exhibition case containing the Nyabongo exhibition