Working with Leroy

Posted on July 12, 2015 in Essays

I first met Leroy Vail when I joined the University of Malawi in August 1969. I met him as a member of a history department that, under Bridglal Pachai’s apparently innocuous leadership, was subversively the intellectual heart of the university. Robin Palmer (The Roots of Rural Poverty, 1977) was one colleague. Martin Chanock (Law, Custom and Social Order, 1985) was another. The history seminars of those days featured Matthew Schoffeleers (River of Blood, 1992) and Ian and Jane Linden (whose Catholics, Peasants & Chewa Resistance, 1974) has never received the recognition it deserves. And, of course, myself, there in Malawi to teach English literature, but drawn to history as the discipline with a brain. Student participants at these seminars included the poets Jack Mapanje and Lupenga Mphande, archaeologist Gadi Mgomezulu and historians Kings Phiri, Owen Kalinga, and Elias Mandala (Work & Control in a Peasant Economy, 1990).

No one has ever spoken of this conjunction of talent as a ‘school’ on the (often denied) Dar Es Salaam model. But I think it is fair to claim that, with important exceptions such as John MacCracken and Megan Vaughan and the founding father George Shepperson, something approaching two thirds of the best books yet written about Malawi derived from this encounter. Further, that what’s been written about Malawi stands up pretty well in comparison with the bibliographies of neighbouring territories. Living under Dr Banda’s tyrannical appropriation of tradition, we had in common a deep scepticism about nationalism as a modernising force, an awareness of the colonial ambiguities of ‘tribalism’ and of the importance of agricultural history, and a search for – well what? The question still hangs. We knew what it was to live under black rule and to work closely with black intellectuals. What we didn’t have was the cosy cop-out of calling ourselves post-modernists. While I spent my time with members of the Writers Group, searching for local idioms, Leroy was travelling up north recording oral testimony for his revisionist account of Tumbuka history. Actually, he was collecting data for his PhD on the Tumbuka verb. The history, that came to be part of his memorial, was a by-product of his linguistic research. As mine was of my literary training and interests.

In Malawi, though, Leroy and I were acquaintances rather than friends. He didn’t drink nightly at the International (later Continental, later Chisakalime) Hotel where the ex-Nazi we nicknamed ‘Baldy’ ruled over a dubious clientele including Chanock, Linden, Mapanje, myself, my girl friend Alice, Oliver the wrestler, and the self-styled ‘anonymous’ composer of the Malawi national anthem. Leroy was rumoured to dine nightly in some style in his large house at the corner of the Midima road, and I never joined him there. Our first serious conversation, about the book I was writing about V.S. Naipaul, took place in May 1972 on the day after I received my 48 hour deportation order. I moved on Fourah Bay College in Sierra Leone, he to London to complete his doctorate.

We met again in October 1974 as colleagues in the University of Zambia. I had heard in London from the freshly deported David Hedges about Leroy’s paper on the Nyasaland railways and visited his office to claim what turned out to be his last copy. That paper, better read in the fuller Journal of African History version, was irresistible, as much for its aesthetic shaping as for the force of its argument. Leroy was a literate as well as committed scholar.

Fifteen months later, at a dinner party in Robin Palmer’s Lusaka house (these continuities matter), I proposed we should collaborate. I had spent the previous summer collecting work songs in Mozambique’s Zambesia province, pursuing a project entitled ‘Forced Labour in Oral Tradition’. Leroy meanwhile had been gathering material in the PRO in London for his ‘Rule of the Feeble’ article, about chartered companies in Mozambique.

So, what was the project? At that stage, all I had in mind was an edition of the songs I had collected with apparatus supplied by Leroy and myself. I had no pretensions to expertise in African languages and history, and I needed a collaborator with a track record. As for why Leroy accepted, I am less certain. He was used to working in miniature, at a maximum of 6000 words, so perhaps the prospect of a book tempted him. I subsequently found that despite his profound love and vast knowledge of opera and orchestral music, his taste in poetry was uncertain. When I sent him volume after published volume of my own work, with admiring dedications, his acknowledgements had an embarrassed edge (though, of course, this could well have had other causes).

What turned our edition of work songs into Capitalism and Colonialism in Mozambique was our joint visit to Zambesia in October 1976, when we were unexpectedly – and literally – given the key to the archive of Sena Sugar Estates Ltd., spending six weeks there, working from dawn till late at night. Here, two points need emphasis. First, that Leroy was the true historian of the partnership, interested in theory and patterns and international comparisons and always up to date with intellectual trends. When, years afterwards, I sent him the manuscript of my Bridging the Zambesi (1993), he responded brusquely that he wasn’t interested in the nuts and bolts. For me, for whom the nuts and bolts were everything, it was maturing to be forced constantly to look up and outwards at the broader picture. Secondly, that he combined his intellectual interests with a deep emotional commitment to the people of whom he was writing, expressed as a persistent concern about poverty. The two are not often found together. His response to my village study manuscript was that he had read it with tears in his eyes: thereafter, until his death, Magomero (1987) was a set book in his Harvard course.

We collaborated three times and each experience was different. Writing the Quelimane book, we worked in close harmony. Our offices were a floor apart and his house was a short drive from mine. Scarcely a dozen pages of that text were written without previous discussion – the talk before the writing – and, with due allowance for our lecturing timetables, we interrupted each other constantly with problems of evidence and interpretation. These arguments were continuous and, after a week’s gap on other business, would resume as though there had been no interruption. Periodically, we would have to visit the UNZA library’s special Portuguese collection – he striding purposefully, me trying to keep up – in search of the answer. Leroy, for instance, had a note that in 1908 Sena Sugar employed 36,540 workers at its Caia plantation alone. I pooh-poohed this as preposterously high, and off we marched to the library. It transpired each worker was employed for 29 days, a monthly labour force of just 3,045, making graphically clear the failures of the prazo system and highlighting the importance of the 1920 Hornung Contract, the first to engage migrant workers for 6 months (p178 foll).

Our second collaboration arose from Leroy’s seminal 1983 conference at the University of Virginia, published as The Creation of Tribalism in Southern Africa (1989). His paper, about Malawi’s northern region, developed his influential theory of culture brokers in the manufacture of local ethnic traditions. Mine, about the Shire Highlands, argued that indirect rule with its manufactured tribal divisions was the administration’s response to the 1915 Chilembwe rising. His interpretation was original, mine old hat, but both had supporting evidence. The task was to combine them in a chapter on tribalism in Malawi as a whole. I’m not sure the arduous stitching, conducted long-distance in correspondence between Harvard and York, was finally successful though, as one commentator afterwards observed, it did predict with uncanny accuracy the results of the 1994 Malawi general election.

The problem with long-distance collaboration is that it begins with words on paper and once the words are there one’s instinct is to defend them. Unlike me, Leroy was absolutely free of any vanity in this respect. He fought for his ideas, but never over the incidentals of their expression. By the time we were working on Power and the Praise Poem (1991), our writing styles had evolved differently. His first drafts were diffuse, as though dictated on to paper, and required cutting and sharpening. Mine were dense and compressed, over-composed and needing to be relaxed and opened up. What made the partnership continue working, over and above our respect for each other, was that our different perspectives continued to be not merely compatible but mutually stimulating. My focus on detail, in this case on the intricacies of the ‘texts’ under discussion and their levels of local meaning, was again matched by Leroy’s capacity for seeing the larger context – with a strong input from the arguments of The Creation of Tribalism. It was he, for example, who spotted the long inheritance of the oral/written dichotomy in the anthropology of such figures as Levi-Bruhl, and its convenience for apartheid’s apologists.

In my own intellectual biography, the period when I was writing history corresponded with the period when I was collaborating with Leroy. Since it ended, I have returned to my first love, poetry. Whatever may have been my influence on him, his on me was self-evidently enormous, extending beyond the writing of books to the career options those books made possible. Listening to students’ tributes to him, I can recognise the same effects. There was never any meanness of spirit about his scholarship, and both as a colleague and as a friend, I took his absolute integrity for granted.

That said, he was an intensely private man and certain fences remained intact. On one of my visits to Harvard, he drove me around south Boston. We turned without explanation into a cul-de-sac of unpainted clapboard houses and we parked. A man, bare to the waist fixing an old car, came up and asked if we wanted anything. Leroy said, to me as much as to him, ‘I grew up in that house’. But he declined the invitation to look around and we drove off without further comment. The road back to Cambridge seemed a measure of the distance he had travelled via Africa, Europe and rather too many American universities. But this was not something to be discussed.

Another incident, to me equally revealing. One evening in Maputo in 1976, after a day at the archives, we were drinking at a pavement café with Alice and our infant son. Playfully, Leroy gave him a push and Martin fell over and banged his head and sobbed. Leroy’s blush was like a tropical sunset, spreading from his hairline to his bare knees, and presumably encompassing all the bits in between. You didn’t know Leroy unless you recognised that despite his size and his unfailing courtesy, his emotions lay close to the surface.

That integrity and unfailing courtesy are my most abiding memories. Even the letter warning of his impending death was so considerately written I missed its real import. His grave is in Concord, Massachusetts. His lasting memorial is his admirers.

First published Social Dynamics, Summer 2000.