During colonial rule, British Colonial administrators were expected to submit an annual report of the activities in the colonies. The sizes of these reports could range from a few pages (less than 20) to over several pages (more than 100). Given the vast territorial holdings of Britain, these documents provided a lens through which the Colonial Office and the British Parliament were kept informed of the colonies. The documents provided a brief history and geography of the territory and then they delved into more substantial issues such as revenues, expenditures, trade, demographics (births and mortality), social welfare, migrations, etc.
For British officials who looked at these reports each year, they could make some general observations about the state of the territory. They could answer questions such as, is this territory improving or in decline? What are the revenues in relation to expenditures year in and year out? What regions of the territory are either struggling or prospering, and why? Between 1897 and 1938, about 63 reports were issued from Nigeria. These contain a total of over 1.4million. What this project does is to use Voyant to distant read these documents in order to see what questions they may answer or generate toward leading me to closer reading of the documents or other archival research.
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From the beginning of colonial rule in Africa, development has been an important aspect of the colonial project. In its early years, development was conceived mainly in terms of the exploitation of the resources of Africa. Emphasis were placed on building roads, railways, ports and communicataion facilities to support the onward transfer of commodities to the West. Beginning with the economic crisis that ensued after the First World War and heightened by the Great Depression of 1929, the colonial project came into question as the European colonial masters struggled to hold onto to their financially weak colonies in the midst of the growing criticisms against colonial rule. Without the revenues that were previously generated from the colonies through taxation, the colonies suffered neglect and were imploding. Several mass actions and strikes took place creating socio-ecoonomic and political instability. The colonial governments were forced to respond by investing the scant financial resources they had in the colonies. Rather than focusing solely on the exploitation of the economic resources of the colonies, special attention was given to the social needs of the colonial period. These efforts were obstructed by World War II but would resume right after the war, launching a developmentalist era in Africa. Begining with this period after the war, Africa has seen an inflow of international experts with “shovle-ready” development plans in hand to transform Africa from an “underdeveloped” continent to a “developed” one. These missionaries of “development” or “modernization” often come with the financial backing of international organizations. Billions of dollars/ Euros/ Pounds/ Yen/ etc. have been voted and invested in these projects. African governments have also been often held financially captive by the loopholes and fineprints that are embedded in these development cooperation agreements. More than seventy years after this era stated, the promise of modernization is yet to occur. African nations continue to be highly indebted to the nations of the Global North.
The idea to do this project came to me when I visited my homeland, Nigeria in 2010. I visited the neighborhood I had grown up as a young child. This area which at the time I was a child could boast of good public amenities such as running water, electricity, telephone lines, excellent public schools, etc. had changed. Things had fallen apart and were no longer working. As I travelled across the country, I discovered this was the problem across the country and in fact, across Africa. They were all these abandoned projects. Some completed and were never used and others remained uncompleted or had since stopped working. This was the moment of my “historical turn.” I had to look toward history to find the answers. I have sought for answers in National Archives in Nigeria, the United States and in Britain. The knowledge I have gleaned is mediated by elites. Archives are not unbiased sources. The voices of the ordinary persons – the subsistent farmer, the home maker, the teacher, the unemployed, etc are absent.
This project is aimed at giving voice to anyone. Each development project that has ever been initiated has an impact on people, whether negative or positive and perhaps, both. When that new dam is built and the international organization or government heralds the dawn of a new era with constant electricity and well irrigated farms, we must never forget those whose land has been taken away from them without compensation or those who suffer the environmental impact of the project. People living close to dams in Africa have often seen their homes flooded and the government is always slow or non-responsive to their plight. Their stories are important to our history of development. This is a forum for them to share their experiences and tell their stories through text, video, photos or audio. Scholars and practitioners who have been working in the field of development have a lot to share with us, whether it is project documents or archival sources.
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