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Gender and Empire


Intimate Decolonization: Strategies for Reconceptualizing and Teaching the End of European Empires

Timothy N. Nicholson


     In recalling her time as a student in India in the late 1960s, Adeline Akoth Opondo shared the experience of her classmate and friend, stating: "Mariam got pregnant and the man was very happy; little did he know that the family would never approve of their union. Before long the lady [Miriam] started getting threats from the family to a point where she was told to abort or else be thrown to jail or deported from the country….The family wanted to know why their son could sleep with and decided to impregnate an inferior species…"1 Scattered throughout East Africa are small numbers of families, like those of Opondo, consisting mostly of African men and non-African women, now in their 70s, and mixed-race offspring, now in their 40s or 50s, who are physical reminders of East Africa's contact with the outside world during the waning years of colonial rule and the first years of independence. As students in the 1950s and 1960s, African men and women travelled in increasing numbers to diverse areas such as India, the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom and the United States in search of a university education before returning as nation-builders of their nascent states. These experiences provide important case studies that contemporary students can relate to and obtain a different understanding of the decolorizing world than offered by traditional, politically focused narratives.

     While abroad, many of these students dated, fell in love and started families with members of the local population—all actions that were largely condemned by the host societies. Consequently, East African youth experienced alienation from the populations they encountered, especially Indians, who mimicked colonial anxieties regarding alleged uncontrollable African sexuality and worries over the place of mixed-race offspring. By demonstrating the varied connections between formerly colonized groups, this paper examines understudied aspects of decolonization and questions the supposed unity of the formerly colonized peoples.2 In particular, it shows how the fear with which many Indians viewed Africans, especially their alleged sexual promiscuity and racial otherness, drove the two populations apart, thus reaffirming racial and, ironically, national boundaries. In examining the movement of and controversies associated with East African students, this paper works to highlight decolonization 'from below' and show the importance of race and gender in this process. It also aims to relate these topics to pedagogical techniques by utilizing illustrative texts and research methods that will add to the undergraduate learning experience.

     Analyzing the connections and limitations of Third World unity during the age of decolonization and provided by oral histories allows for a more complex and nuanced understanding of the postcolonial world, especially the importance of youth and the intersection of race and gender. Ultimately, this paper raises questions about normative behavior, citizenship and being "recognized as fully human" as fundamental aspects of post-imperial worlds and global exchanges.3  Thus, this examination of the racial and gendered aspects of decolonization complicates traditional historical narratives by highlighting how embedded notions of race and gender influenced postcolonial states and societies.

Transnational Networks and Debating Traditional and Non-Traditional Sources

     Like many other colonial and postcolonial peoples, African youths combined existing late-imperial and post-imperial networks with new Cold War connections to serve as an example of how people, ideas and even controversies circulated throughout these connected worlds in varied ways. The results of these circulations "complicate our understanding of recent world histories and counters the tendency of the bird's eye view to flatten and totalize the diversity and contingency of the human experience."4 Over the long process of decolonization, recent scholarship has emphasized how strategies of protest travelled between anti-colonial agitators, with tools of hunger strikes and political bombings moving around the empire. Even after decolonization, imperial networks continued to exist and could be utilized by determined groups, but now these connections were coupled with the dynamics of the global Cold War and frequently circumvented the metropole as much as they travelled through it or to it. In doing so, groups of African youths, who were searching for new educational opportunities, demonstrated their importance as historical actors by leveraging existing connections and forging new ones among formerly colonized peoples.5

     The desire for access to higher education can personalize the topic of decolonization, as African students studying abroad possessed similar goals to college students today (the hope for better employment, higher standard of living and middle-class status) that a university degree promised in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Thus, paying secondary school fees and fighting for a scholarship were seen as important investments for the individual, family and community. Also providing some relatability to contemporary students is the idea of how personal connections are needed; East African students quickly discovered that the ability to attend university abroad required ties to the wider British world. Help came in the form of teachers or, frequently, missionaries, who often went against colonial regulations to help students travel abroad. In addition to serving as the primary connection between local communities and the outside world, teachers helped disseminate information regarding new educational and scholarship opportunities. Finally, examinations of rising nationalist politicians raise important and relevant classroom questions regarding the politicization of education (that also can be further connected to the development of nationalist narratives) and the funding of education. Kenyan leaders such as Tom Mboya, Oginga Odinga and later Jomo Kenyatta worked to expand their political base and foster their international connections through the provision of international scholarships. In Tanzania, local politicians did largely the same, although much more of their effort went to helping students reach secondary school and developing local institutions. For those lacking these connections, the students established their own transnational networks—writing to any politician or group at the local, national and international level that might provide some assistance. Thus, East African students epitomize the transnational mobility of colonized or formerly colonized populations as they circumvented colonial and postcolonial travel regulations and forged new connections that pushed global integration.

     Highlighting the agency of African youths works to develop the importance of youth as a conceptual category of analysis, demonstrates their importance in forging transnational networks and raises relatable issues for contemporary university students. For example, the increasing availability of education in both Africa and India during the 1950s and 1960s led to greater female involvement in schools and new concerns over premarital behavior. Additional questions can be raised—could the students, like other student activists of the 1960s, leverage their rising importance in the decolonizing and postcolonial states to challenge existing generational or gender constraints? Could their youthful optimism and energy overcome colonial legacies of underdevelopment and other structural limitations plaguing their nascent nation-states? Thus, as the departing colonial state denied or limited access to schooling, students responded in creative ways to obtain further education, often moving to new places and creating new and lasting connections that had important effects on the various metropoles and colonial societies.

     In addition to the utilization of imperial networks, students developed networks based on alternative visions of a post-imperial order supported by rising non-aligned leaders such as Jawaharlal Nehru of India, Sukarno of Indonesia and Egypt's Gamal Nasser. These leaders stressed a common theme of unity and cooperation against Cold War paradigms of authority and as an alternative to imperialism. With their appeals resonating throughout the decolonizing world, these new visions attracted emerging African leaders who desired to limit the influence of former colonial and Cold War powers.

     World history students at the introductory level can debate the realistic possibility of Third World unity as an alternative to imperial or Cold War paradigms of authority. Instructors can develop a primary-source based brief simulation or debate over which leader possessed the most legitimacy or best credentials to speak for the formerly colonized peoples and how the rising elites of newly independent nations could impact global processes during the age of decolonization. For example, I have students use primary sources to develop arguments regarding if Nehru, Sukarno, Nasser, Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana or Zhou Enai/Mao Zedong have the strongest claims to act as the leader of the Global South and most convincing vision of an alternative vision for the future of the developing world. These debates raise questions about the practicality of unity for the Global South as well as the difficulty in escaping imperial legacies and Soviet/American influences.

     From the 1950s through the 1960s, African students went to such diverse locales as Algeria, Tunisia, China (after 1960 but limited by the Cultural Revolution), as well as countries throughout the British and French worlds and the Eastern Bloc. Those who provided these scholarships worked to maintain or increase local influence through invitations granted to recent high school graduates with potential to play an important role in their respective country's future. The establishment of ties that traversed imperial divides or were based on precolonial geographical connections, such as religious ties, are under examined topics that students can research to highlight alternatives to the American and Soviet centered Cold War narrative.

     The establishment of networks were not limited to East African students. For example, Filipino students created networks between their country and the US mainland, moving back and forth, allowing newspapers, letters, goods and ideas to move through this circuit and resulting in contestations over national identity.6 As Susan Bayly argues, French colonial students also moved throughout the French world as well as the USSR. Here, Bayly complicates the idea of a simple colonial or neo-colonial educational regime and an experience not easily categorized in a colonizer/colonized relationship but through socialist unity.7 In this case, the political leanings and intellectual connections that were established between groups triumphed over existing racial prejudices. Additionally African students, inspired by the romanticized actions of Che Guevara and the increased role of Cuba on the world stage, studied in Cuba—often to the dismay of observing former colonial powers.8

     In contrast to the lived experience of transnational actors and the networks formed during the decolonization process, the archival sources that contemporary students are generally the most familiar with are problematic, especially when studying the personal relationships and individual connections that students forged. State archives often reinforce the myths surrounding decolonization. National archives work to project a continuous narrative back in time through the deliberate collection and dissemination of sources. Through the analysis of museum displays and webpage construction found online, or historiographical papers (looking at the development of narratives in such countries as India, Pakistan and Tanzania for example) more advanced students can examine state-backed research into and displays of anti-colonial resistance movements in the 1857 Rebellion in India, the Easter Uprising in Ireland and the Maji Maji Rebellion in Tanzania to see how a nationalist history and archive is created and often obscures transnational connections and examples of global integration.

     Examinations into specific lives and the movement of goods, ideas and means of resistance can show the limitations of both state and national narratives and allow students to realize Luise White's point that transnational approaches are 'un-national' histories.9 These archives also work to reify traditional connections that exclude movement between different former colonies. Additionally, research relying on state records and official archives is problematic as the voice of African students are rarely found in official documents. For example, while the fact that East African students were monitored by immigration officials, Colonial Office bureaucrats and even their teachers immediately demonstrates the high level of distrust they faced, their lived reality and everyday interactions were rarely mentioned in records. Furthermore, state archives minimize the importance of women and racial minorities, such as the Indian population in Kenya, while promoting the unity of the postcolonial state. Finally, many of the documents themselves remained hidden by the colonial government and are carefully constructed to present a certain chronology of events.10 In her research on the Kenyans Mau Mau Uprising (1952–64), Caroline Elkins writes: "The colonial crimes of the British were detailed meticulously — but unlike the Nazis, they had the opportunity to destroy the evidence."11 Here the comparison between Nazi Germany and the British Empire is deliberately controversial, but such examples provide for interesting class debate on the usefulness of this connection, raise questions over Eurocentric portrayals of the past, and detail the ability of states to craft historical narratives.

     In addition to showing the deliberate construction of archives, activities such as searching through the British National Archives' online repository can introduce students to archival research while specific examinations of its digitized records can show the limitations of state-centered sources. Critical examinations regarding the suppression of documents highlight the connections between decolonization and the Cold War in the late 1950s and early 1960s. The colonial empires worked to counter Soviet critiques of their rule, to inculcate a faith in Western democracies and to win the hearts and minds of formerly colonized people—a nearly impossible task if the scale of colonial atrocities were to be fully realized. Thus, examinations of the sources surrounding decolonization offer concrete examples of the otherwise opaque subject regarding the construction of archives and the availability and reliability of source material.12  Still, images of barbarity and savagery associated with 1950s Kenyan men, who compromised 70% of my interview subjects, were reproduced in India and provided additional excuses about why interracial dating needed to be limited.

     Newspapers demonstrate the continuation of racialized ideologies outside of official state archives. An examination of the coverage of the Mau Mau Rebellion—either with official newsreels or daily British newspapers—highlights the racialized aspect of the war rather than a more nuanced account showing the atrocities that occurred on both sides. The images and stories associated with this uprising reinforced the danger of Africans and furthered the need to regulate Afro-Indian relationships. Examinations of newspapers from formerly colonized areas, which often mirror official discourse (due to the still-existing difficulty of covering African events outside of the major cities and the lack of on-the-ground journalists) and are less sympathetic than might be expected, allow students to realize the complex nature of the subject and the reproduction of colonial mentalities outside of the metropole. Indian newspaper coverage of African students likewise reflects the perspective of middle class and elite Indians, specifically letters to the editor and articles addressing problems created by students, occasionally including a brief quote from the students themselves. Most of the newspaper sources come from the Times of India, India's most prestigious newspaper, written in English and designed for a cosmopolitan and elite audience. Newspapers highlighted deliberate African transgressions that angered Indian society and stressed the violent actions and seemingly irrational behavior of African students, explained as a problem inherent with the African character and a reminder of the constant threat posed by Africans. By ignoring the country's failure to develop a tolerant and welcoming atmosphere, the behavior of ordinary Indians was excused and their own racism was never mentioned in the newspapers. For example, one headline stated "African Students Wreck Consulate," referring to protests following the 1961 murder of Congolese Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba at the Belgian Consulate and its actual subsequent destruction.13 Other articles highlighted the destruction of paintings and protests against movies depicting Africans in a primitive manner.14 While not entirely inaccurate, Indian readers learned about unruly African protest and attacks on private property according to the papers, were disproportionate to the grievances students might have possessed. This coverage worked to reinforce the colonial tropes of savage and irrational behavior of Africans, only now representing a greater danger because of student proximity.

     Based on this background, I have developed several assignments designed for undergraduate survey or mid-level classes. Students can perform basic searches of Indian newspapers (provided access to Proquest exists) to find articles regarding reactions to events surrounding the decolonization of Africa. Using this research as the basis for a short paper, students can examine the views of one postcolonial society (India) on another (decolonizing or newly independent African countries) and find specific examples regarding the reproduction of colonial tropes detailed above. I found that "Letters to the Editor" provided the most extreme examples regarding the acceptance or condemnation of the presence of African students and might be particularly helpful to students in today's classroom. They can also examine the current state of race-relations in India, including recent attacks on African students, to demonstrate the same points. British newspaper coverage of the 2018 Windrush controversy or even the 2018 marriage between Prince Harry and Meghan Markle also provides insight into the limited acceptance of mixed-raced couples, the legacies of empire and the unsettled nature of decolonization.15

     Additionally, students in survey or mid-level undergraduate classes can analyze newly published oral histories that are easily accessible. Papers requiring an analysis of between one and three oral histories work to complicate the history of the 20th century by demonstrating individual reactions to larger global events, such as state-formation and migration, and highlight the exclusion of particular racial groups. Students can use such exceptional collections as those found at or to research specific oral histories regarding the experience of a variety of colonial migrants, mostly South Asian but also African,  to the United Kingdom. While millions of migrants from the British Empire arrived throughout the 20th century, general understandings regarding the history of the United Kingdom, and Western Europe more generally, largely leave out the presence of African and Indian peoples. Taking the assignment in another direction involves examining oral histories of the Partition of India in 1947. Although millions were directly impacted by this monumental event—as refugees, victims or perpetrators of violence, kidnappers of women, rioters or nascent state-builders—they became consumed with forgetting the past. Incorporating new oral histories, such as those found online at, into research efforts and highlighting the actions of subaltern groups allows such seminal events as the Partition to be re-interpreted and studied through primary sources. New work based on engagement with non-traditional sources provides greater insight into the brutality, chaos and oppression of women during the Partition era and demonstrates a continuation of patriarchal values, including concerns of women's honor, from the colonial era.16 

     Finally, works of fiction become a valuable source for students to understand the formation of postcolonial networks and exchanges, as well as the embeddedness of racism in the postcolonial state. As Antoinette Burton demonstrates in her examination of postcolonial Indian literature, fiction provides a powerful insight and important student resource for examples of the historical agency of Africans and subaltern populations, the global connections they forged and the discrimination they encountered.17 Furthermore, many of these accounts raise important questions surrounding colonially imposed identities. Simply, are half-African children African and what place half-African children have in the colonial metropole or areas where colonial racism is reproduced?  For example, The Morning After, a fictional account of an Afro-Indian relationship and their children, has the couple, rejected by Indian society, wondering where they will live, what will happen to the children, and how the children will be raised in terms of culture and religion.18 Many other accounts blame incoming African females for such issues and show how they needed to be punished. Thus, colonial tropes used in Indian fiction highlight the alleged laziness, irrationality, Afrocentrism and separation of the incomers at the expense of unity. As is also demonstrated in the oral histories, a sense of self-policing was used to limit interracial sexual relations, especially in new zones of contact, and, as more recent scholarship points out, these relationships could be exploited for money, land and access to power. Fictional works generally are more inclusive of a variety of voices than the archives mentioned above, while also providing relatable examples to students. Important yet underutilized works include such classics as Small Island by Andrea Levy, Nervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangarembga, Fractured Destinies by Rabai-al Madhoun, Brick Lane by Monica Ali and Seasons of Migration to the North by Tayeb Salih.19 New television programs, such as Netflix's Chewing Gum, demonstrate the issue in a relatable and accessible manner that encourages student responses and also demonstrates the intimate racism experienced in the daily lives of migrants. Assignments based on these fictional accounts can raise questions about the racial legacy of the colonial state, what independence actually means for the decolonized world and the limitations of social and cultural acceptance of outsiders in a postcolonial world. Students could easily watch an episode of Chewing Gum and develop short papers critiquing the show, debate the portrayal of race online or even post comments on show-related websites followed by an in-class discussion regarding the specific reproductions of colonial tropes and stereotypes.20

     Thus, overviews of decolonization encountered by undergraduate students need to provide a more nuanced story than is traditionally highlighted. For example, women played a much greater role than is acknowledged in most historical examinations, traditional archive sources or postcolonial nation-building narratives, leading to classroom discussions about their subsequent marginalization. Additionally, the racialized stereotypes that characterized colonial rule at the daily level and influenced almost every aspect of colonial policy continued after decolonization and became more complex and in need of reaffirming without the clear colonizer-colonized divide. Consequently, decolonization was not a quick, clean break with the past: transnational imperial connections remained, along with patriarchal and racist views of Africans.21 In a manner that was similar throughout the globe, the experiences of African students abroad was characterized by a tension created by their presence—a need to welcome students (and continue the imperial mission) against a need to ensure students did not stay in the country, spread communism or even date local women.22 Jawaharlal Nehru worked to improve his standing among the non-aligned world by enhancing the connections between India and East Africa, promoting a specific Indian-based developmentalist approach in Africa and hosting African students. Underlying Nehru's engagement was a sense of paternalism and the assumption that the African continent needed and wanted Indian assistance. Here, instructors might highlight the similarities and differences with the earlier civilizing missions or even raise questions regarding the occurrence of postcolonial civilizing missions.23 The use of multifaceted sources, not just fictional works, demonstrates the life-worlds of the past through representation of the experience of formerly colonized people and provides new insights that complicate traditional top-down and politically centered histories of the post-World War Two world. Examining how decolonization is portrayed can lead to a great deal of fruitful classroom discussion, demonstrates the limitations of traditional archives and works to complicate the study of history in an understandable manner with concrete examples. Still, as the sources regarding the issue are problematic, have been destroyed or remain hidden, historians have needed to find alternative sources.

An Intimate History of Decolonization: The Importance of Oral Histories

     Oral histories can highlight important instances of intimate student encounters and provide illustrative examples that remained ignored by state archives and newspapers.  However, they also need to be read in a critical manner and students need to be cognizant of their potential limitations. I found that in comparison to the economic and social chaos of later decades, most students viewed their youth of the 1950s and 1960s with nostalgia, overlooking many of the problems that they encountered. Additionally, the urban location of most of the interviews, selected by myself for ease and access, reflects the now elite status of many of my subjects. Over the last forty years, many of men and women who studied abroad achieved success in their respective fields of study, are now closely linked with the government or elite educational institutions, and live in Nairobi. Despite these shortcomings, I contend that oral histories remain as an important corrective to national archives and state-based histories, providing an important, and instructive, method of examining and recovering the recent past.

     The memories from a former student, Adeline Akoth Opondo, who graduated in the early 1970s, demonstrate the potential dangers of transnational intimate encounters, as well as the insight that oral histories can provide. After learning of scholarship opportunities from a newspaper advertisement she read at work, Opondo applied for a scholarship with the hope of attending Makerere University in Uganda, as she did not want to be away from her family and community for four years. After failing to secure entrance to Makerere, Opondo accepted an Indian government scholarship offer to study economics at Punjab University, becoming a member of the class of 1973.24 While abroad, she starting dating and fell in love with an Indian man, with whom she discussed marriage and other long-term plans. However, this multi-month relationship, which went against the desires of her boyfriend's family, also resulted in an unplanned pregnancy. Learning from the experience of her friend mentioned at the start of this article, Opondo vowed to keep the child—although done in secret, refusing to tell her boyfriend; thus, the racial transgression was never made public. By quickly escaping India, Opondo escaped any larger social condemnations but it was at a high cost to herself and her daughter, a process reflective of the student experiences. Students conducting oral histories of postcolonial migrants and regarding such intimate encounters can realize the poignancy of these experiences and feelings of marginalization that the written sources often fail to convey.

     In addition to the secrecy involved in relationships, the oral histories raise important insights into other aspects of policing of national boundaries. Students today may wonder that if the Indian state generally welcomed African students, what worked to limit Afro-Indian interactions? This research provides needed examples of how societal regulations worked ensure the students remained guests, confined to certain spaces, and efforts were enacted to prevent unmonitored or unapproved contact with their Indian hosts. African students remember a general level of distrust and unacceptance that Indians made clear. The mostly male population of African students abroad were seen by Indians as sexual threats and remember being associated with jungles, primitive and savage behavior and mental inferiority. In affirming this perception of Indian views, one former student recalled that "an African man befriending an Indian lady was an abomination."25 The threat of violence also worked to prevent African and Indian students from dating. On one occasion, an African student, Naimasiah, was approached by a group of Indian students who threatened "to rough him up" if he continued seeing his Indian girlfriend.26 Abortions also occurred, as in at least one instance, a student believed that terminating her pregnancy was the only action available to ensure her own safety, which also ensured that racial boundaries were maintained. Housing-related issues worked to reinforce the Afro-Indian divide by limiting the interaction between the two groups. African students were housed in different dormitories or houses than Indian students, and access to shared space within the home was limited due to fears regarding miscegenation. As Indian students returned to their family home from time at school, their parents worked to reassert their authority over wayward youths who, in the minds of parents, had gone astray while at school. Overall, the life stories conveyed by the interviews demonstrate the tension between official narratives of toleration and welcome and the lived experience of students who constantly fought the racism they faced. Consequently, the African students quickly realized that Afro-Asian solidarity existed only at the rhetorical level; in actuality, Indians worked to maintain, guard and constantly reinforce a distance between themselves and Africans, both inside the university campus and outside of it.

     Furthermore, I found vastly differing memories between African and Indian students and even competing narratives among the latter group, allowing for fruitful classroom discussions over the reliability of oral histories as sources and showing the muddled nature of history. Furthermore, the differing interviews demonstrate that multiple perspectives are needed when analyzing the past. Thus students should also be encouraged to compare narratives to each other and to written source material. In my research, the tension between and within oral histories highlights the diverse interactions between Indian and African students. While some Indians either denied or did not remember any anti-African discrimination, other oral histories provide a more nuanced view. For example, one former Indian student, Rai Bahadur, remembered: "We had good relations with Africans. We never experienced such moments. But yes there were some acts of misbehavior from Africans but I would not categorize it as a part of discrimination."27 In another oral history, Kashi Nath Singh highlights the levels of discrimination mentioned by East Africans: "Some of them [the African students] were addicted to drugs, but overall they were good and friendly towards Indians...During our time we Indians and Africans have been through injustice and exploitations in those days before, we [Africans and Indians] were linked through mutual empathy like freedom from domination and discrimination."28 Here Singh is echoing views that are were seemingly overshadowed by the colonial experience and the shared animosity directed towards the British Empire. If students encounter similar responses, additional questions can be raised about convergences of memories and the impact of present day coverage of Africans (as alleged drug dealers) on their subjects' memories.

     Upper level students of history or the social sciences can readily involve themselves in developing their own oral histories.29 In addition to providing an ethical introduction to obtaining consent and the usage of interviews (including introducing students to the campus Institutional Research Board), instructors will need to practice interview strategies beforehand with students. A practice session with a classmate might be useful. Students will also need assistance in finding subjects, and here local community groups, churches, non-governmental organizations can be contacted to assist students. Students themselves might also have a particular participant in mind, however I found that some distance from the participant is required for greater objectivity. Interviewees need to be found several weeks in advance but need not be physically present as Skype sessions or phone calls—working through a third party—can be arranged. Fortunately, I found that one participant might introduce another, so the process is less daunting that it might seem. Overall, I found that interviewing in general works better in small groups (especially to ensure student comfort) with the close oversight of the instructor. Instructors then will need to help students develop a list of issues and potential follow up questions to obtain specific stories.

     When conducting oral histories, I found most people are willing to share stories about their lives and my own experiences help illustrate the interview process. I tend to start the questions generally in chronological order-asking about early life experiences at home and at school (often providing implicit comparisons to contemporary society) and general comments about life in the past. However, this is an important method to start the conversation as asking about the role parents or other relatives played in shaping their lives or supporting the student's education generally elicits a detailed response and, by obtaining a relatable response regarding the influence of parents, helps makes the early-stages of an interview less daunting and even more conversational. Furthermore, I found that these questions can uncover important connections regarding the general limited access to education and important support from a relative, friend or teacher—someone with instrumental connections to the British world. Moving onto questions regarding secondary school, many interviewees attended school in the 1950s and were gifted students, taking pride in describing their accomplishments and continued desire for further education. Questions regarding the process of obtaining a scholarship provide key insights into the forging of transnational networks. To ensure more detailed responses, I ask about the preparation to go abroad and the details of the trip, which is an important life experience for the participant and will amaze interviewers with the details such as communal nature of the experience and initial apprehension. Overall, these questions provide insight into life during the post World War Two colonial era (1945-1964) and the importance of schooling in the lives of interviewees while also making the "exotic" subject of African decolonization more relatable to current students.

     While the earlier questions work to establish the general narrative and provide important background, I now ask the questions that I am most interested in—those regarding the experience abroad, hoping to arrive at the topic of interracial romances. However, the conversation cannot be rushed—basic levels of trust, tone and conversation need to be established. School-related experiences are often remembered as the most positive experiences, their greatest accomplishments while abroad and often provide the most detailed stories. Transitioning to the parts about life outside of the school takes a bit more care-and often provides the most telling details. I found that participants are quick to mention the racism, but further questions are needed to detail specific actions. Romantic relationships sometimes are mentioned in response to the question about the strongest or best specific experience—but often it comes out in a follow up question (how did you spend your time or who did you meet in class). However, once participants bring up the subject they are willing to respond to most follow-up questions (such as how and where did you see each other, what were the reactions to your relationships, how did the host family react?) and then discuss the general reactions of the host society to the dating (or even the presence of the students). As many relationships ended over fifty years ago with the departure of African students, the distance of time since the ending of the relationship allows the topic to be approached and details of the relationship mentioned.

     By the end of the exercise, students should realize their interviews are performances, influenced by their own presence and by participants' experiences following the events under question. Still, I found a general willingness to share lived experiences about seminal life experiences to a different generation. The resulting oral histories provide a link to living history which is much more engaging than traditional material and, if properly connected to larger events of the decolonization process, can allow students to experience history from a more bottom-up perspective rather than just focusing on the political elites.

     This project can be taken one step further to include an accompanying digitalization of participants' photographs, personal letters, important documents (such as diplomas and genealogies), journals and physical heirlooms to reinforce the narratives of the oral history and create a multimedia display or webpage. Developing tools for the ever-popular digital humanities, students can map the paths taken by various postcolonial migrants at different stages over the last fifty years. In addition to showing the racism encountered by various incoming peoples, the paths students took to get abroad was often quite complex and involved travel to several countries. For example, in order to circumvent colonial restrictions, Kenyan students travelled through the Sudan to Cairo in order to then travel to the USSR or India. Furthermore, mapping allows students to visualize any resulting racialized backlashes or changes in travel patterns. Any public displays of the projects allows students to debate how to best showcase their work to the public, translate the spoken word to visual representation, while demonstrating highly marketable skills.

     The history of intimate relations, including violence, exists outside of state records and can be found in the oral histories, thus adding an often-overlooked voice. My own source material demonstrates how the claims of superiority associated with the Indian developmentalist project were complicated by fears of rampant African sexuality and how the incoming African students threatened the racial solidarity of the postcolonial states. The ironic outcome of transnational connections was the reification of national boundaries and the coalescing of national identities against an undesired and unwanted migrant populations. As the experience of transnational students demonstrates, imperial views continued to influence postcolonial societies and examinations of the intersectionality of race and gender adds greater complexity to the narrative of decolonization. Oral history projects place students' work at the forefront of current historical research while raising questions regarding the construction and interruption of historical sources.


Schools existed as places of contestation over societal rules regarding relationships as students challenged traditional views by establishing their own dating, sexual and marriage partners, something that could be  further taken advantage of while abroad. Returning home married to a foreigner was generally accepted by East African societies. The offspring of such unions were accepted at the local level but experienced alienation as their respective nation-states increasingly were defined by Africanness. With regard to their careers, the majority of African students enjoyed success upon their return home and became leaders in government, medicine, and business. Quickly moving into the elite of their respective countries, they helped develop their nation-states, demonstrating the importance of transnational connections in the process of nation-building. The new connections forged by African students provide an alternative view of the last 50 years, as encounters were restricted by the imperial legacy and complicated by the Cold War. This article has worked to raise new questions regarding the continuation of an imperial racialized ideology and how it was embedded in postcolonial institutions, while demonstrating important transnational linkages and blurring the colonial/postcolonial divide.

     By focusing on decolonization from a more intimate perspective and engaging students through a variety of interactive activities designed to push critical thinking and especially developing their own oral history projects. Bridging the generational divide is often easier than expected due to the amiable attitudes of participants, eager to tell their life stories, and similarities in life experiences—current students are asking questions about other university experiences, obtaining scholarships, dating while at school and studying in a different locale. Then students can pose larger questions can be raised regarding the meaning of decolonization and its impact on those involved, while also challenging its accepted chronology. Furthermore, important questions can be developed regarding the use of historical sources. By highlighting the voice and experience of transnational subaltern groups in the decolonizing world, a more complex and nuanced story can be constructed and imperial continuities, especially regarding racialized and gendered views, demonstrated.

Appendix: Oral history project

Stage 1: Instructors should ensure students possess a basic knowledge of subject, discuss ethnic issues regarding oral histories and practice interviewing skills with partners, friends or family members.

Stage 2: Students should find a willing participant and develop a basic list of questions. Please note that finding a willing participant can be quite difficult and time-consuming.

Stage 3: Students should start the interview process and work to obtain a basic overview of the life and experiences of participant, develop following up questions and return to ask more detailed follow up questions.

Stage 4: Students should transcribe the interview

Stage 5: Students should analyze the interview by working to connect the oral history to larger trends regarding decolonization and think about what was included or excluded from the interview. Also, students should consider the degree to which the oral history was a performance, with portions exaggerated, issues regarding general statements of agreement given without specific support, or how subsequent life events influenced the telling of the past.

Stage 6: Students should make the interview available to the general public (or university archive), create an interactive map and/or webpage including photos of objects for public consumption.

Questions to serve as a guide:

1.  Briefly describe your educational background.

2.  What role did your parents play in support of your education and getting the scholarship?

3.  What role of your teachers (or other figures) play in supporting your education and helping you receive a scholarship to study abroad?

4.  How did you learn about scholarships or opportunities to study abroad?

5.  How did you prepare to study abroad?

6.  What were your first reactions in relation to being in a new (foreign) country?

7.  What problems did you face in the new country and how did you overcome these issues? (including discrimination, cultural shock, diet, weather, lack of money)

8.   How was housing abroad, where did you live and how did you deal with instances of racism? Did you feel welcomed while abroad?

9.  Did you date or know of anyone who dated while abroad? What was the reaction to any dating?

10. Did your training in the host country help you achieve your career? Did you return to the host country again?

Timothy N. Nicholson is an Assistant Professor at Farmingdale State College. He can be reached at


1 Adeline Akoth Opondo, interview with the author, 20 July 2016.

2 Understudied aspects of decolonization include the role of youths in pushing anticolonial activity, connections between different colonized peoples or between peoples of the Global South and the importance of colonized peoples in shaping the cultures of the various colonizers during the postcolonial period.

3 See Stephan Miescher, Michele Mitchell, Naoko Shibusawa, "Introduction," in Gender, Imperialism and Global Exchanges, eds Stephan F. Miescher, Michele Mitchell, and Naoko Shibusawa (Chichester, West Sussex; Malden, MA: John Wiley & Sons, 2015); also see Rachel Sturman, Samera Esmeir, Miriam Ticktin and Megan Glick, "Forum: Gender and Human," Gender and History 23 (2011), 229–82.

4 Mrinalini Sinha, "Projecting Power: Empires, Colonies, and World History," in A Companion to World History, ed. Douglas Northrop (Chichester, West Sussex; Malden, MA: John Wiley & Sons, 2012), 268.

5 Andrew Burton and Hélène Charon-Bigot, eds., Generations Past: Youth in East African History (Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 2010),

6 Sarah Steinbock-Pratt, "'It Gave Us Our Nationality': US Education, the Politics of Dress and Transnational Filipino Student Networks, 1901–45," in Gender, Imperialism and Global Exchanges, eds. Stephan F. Miescher, Michele Mitchell, and Naoko Shibusawa (Chichester, West Sussex; Malden, MA: John Wiley & Sons, 2015).

7 Susan Bayly, "Vietnamese Narratives of Tradition, Exchange, and Friendship in the Worlds of the Global Socialist Ecumene," in Enduring Socialism: Explorations of Revolution, Transformation, and Restoration, eds. Harry West and Parvathi Raman (Oxford: Berghahn Books, 2009), 125–147.

8 Carlos Moore, Castro, the Black, and Africa (Los Angeles, CA: Center for Afro-American Studies, University of California, 1988), 131.

9 Luise White, Unpopular Sovereignty: Rhodesian Independence and African Decolonization (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015).

10 Caroline Elkins, "Archives, Intelligence and Secrecy: The Cold War and the End of the British Empire," in Decolonization and the Cold War: Negotiating Independence, eds. Leslie James and Elisabeth Leake (London: Bloomsbury, 2015), 248–271.

11 Caroline Elkins quoted in "Erasing Empire" by Rosa Gilbert, in Jacobin, 11 March 2016,

12 See Ian Cobain, The History Thieves: Secrets, Lies and the Shaping of a Modern Nation (London: Portobello Books, 2017) and David Olusoga "Wake up, Britain. Should the empire really be a source of pride?" in The Guardian Online Opinion Polls, 23 January 2016,

13 "African Students Wreck Consulate", Times of India, 16 February 1961, 7.

14 "Painting Destroyed African Students Help", Times of India, 12 June 1966, 11.

15 The Windrush generation (1948–1970) of colonial migrants to the United Kingdom worked and settled throughout the country without needing any documentation of their right to do so; however starting in 2013 many of the migrants were being treated as illegal immigrants and threatened with deportation, the loss of jobs and property; the Home Office was implicated in such action starting in late 2017 and 2018.

16 Urvashi Butalia, The Other Side of Silence: Voices From the Partition of India (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2000).

17 Antoinette Burton, Africa in the Indian Imagination: Race and the Politics of Postcolonial Citation (Durham: Duke University Press, 2016), 20.

18 Canakya Sen, The Morning After, quoted in Burton, Africa in the India Imagination, 134.

19 Andrea Levy, Small Island: A Novel (New York: Picador, 2004). Tsitsi Dangarembga, Nervous Conditions (Banbury, England: Ayebia Clarke, 2004). Rabai Al-Madhoun, Fractured Destinies: A Novel (New York: Hoopoe, an imprint of American University in Cairo Press, 2018). Monica Ali, Brick Lane (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2003). Tayeb Salih, Season of Migration to the North (New York: New York Review of Books, 2009).

20 Michaela Cole, Chewing Gum, directed by Tom Marshall (2015; United Kingdom: Netflix).

21  Tracey Rizzo, "Introduction," Journal of World History 28, no. 3 and 4 (2017): 313–340; also for a more specific case study see Todd Shepard, Sex, France and Arab Men (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2018).

22 Jordanna Bailkin, Afterlife of Empire (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2012).

23 For example  those now coming from the United States and USSR.  For more on Nehru see Steven Gerontakis and Tracey Rizzo, Intimate Empires: Body, Race, and Gender in the Modern World (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016); also see Timothy Nicholson, "Global Bodies: Students, Sex and Contested Solidarity," Journal of World History 28, no. 3 and 4 (2017): 140–165.

24 Adeline Akoth Opondo, interview with the author, 20 July 2016.

25  Kivisi James Mabudiku interview with author, 13 July 2016.

26  Parmalek Ole Naimasiah, interview with the author, 29 July 2016.

27 Rai Bahadur, interview with author, 14 January 2018.

28 Kivisi James Mabudiku, interview with author, 13 July 2016.

29 For a good overview on the subject see Luise White, Stephan F. Miescher and David William Cohen, African Words, African Voices: Critical Practices in Oral History (Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 2001).


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