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November 4, 2016

Introducing John Doyle-Raso//Building a database of Lake Victoria’s environment and economy

November 4, 2016 | By | No Comments

Hello all! I am a second-year doctoral student in the Department of History. I am especially interested in studying environmental history and histories of science and technology, focusing on water politics in Africa. I am interested in historicizing the water politics of Lake Victoria as part of the broader water politics of the Nile Basin. I plan for my dissertation to address the policy shift from swamp reclamation to wetland preservation in Uganda in the second half of the twentieth century. I will conduct archival and oral research in English, Kiswahili, and Lusoga. My supervisor is Dr. Laura Fair; the other members of my comprehensive examinations committee are Drs. Walter Hawthorne (to round out my major field in African History), Jamie Monson (for Environmental History), and Georgina Montgomery (History of Science).

I began my postsecondary studies at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, majoring in peace studies and sociology and minoring in biology (I have an abiding interest in ecology and evolutionary biology). Thanks to an Undergraduate Student Research Award, I was able to do four months of oral research about village-level water politics in Dodoma Region, Tanzania, at this time. After my bachelor’s degree, I completed the dual master’s degree program in world and international history at Columbia University and the London School of Economics. My thesis addressed the final years of colonialism in East Africa, 1953-63, in light of the completion of the Owen Falls Dam across the Victoria Nile in 1954.

I plan for my doctoral research to extend my master’s research to address the transition from colonialism to independence in East Africa, to narrate people’s experiences with the changing politics of the lake aside from those of a narrow class of development experts, and to be the first book-length study of Nile water politics to foreground changes in East Africa. I will focus on the change in environmental policy from one of swamp reclamation to one of wetland preservation, bookended by the dates 1954-1986. This change was happening globally at the time, but had uniquely wide-ranging significance in East Africa due to the position of the region at the source of the Nile.

For my project for the CHI fellowship, 2016-17, I will build a database to document and visualize economic and environmental changes in the Lake Victoria basin. The database will both inform my analysis and serve as a way to access freely information that I have collected in Africa, Europe, and North America – a vital issue in African studies, wherein research participants and other local people often lack access to research findings.

I participated in the HILT 2016 digital humanities training prior to joining CHI this year. At HILT, I learned about an array of programs and tools for analyzing and representing data digitally; the CHI fellowship continues my exposure to these approaches. I am especially interested in programs such as CartoDB, Cytoscape, and Google Fusion Tables. Network analysis programs like Cytoscape would enable me to analyze the dynamics of overlapping networks, including: the relevant scientific communities; government, activist, and other political actors; and relationships between political and scientific leaders. Programs such as CartoDB and Google Fusion Tables would let me map these networks, and the resources about which they communicated. Environmental history is highly amenable to such approaches, given its focus on space across time.

I intend to focus on data regarding water as well as the energy and commodity industries in the Lake Victoria region in the late colonial and early postcolonial eras. I will pull this data from sources that I digitized from African, American, and European archives. This corpus contains disparate information on economic variables, such as the inputs and outputs of different industries, as well as environmental variables, like rainfall and lake level. Creating the database will help me better understand the historical context I will research for my dissertation, by structuring these sources of data spatially and temporally.

I will be able to add to this database as my research advances. For example, this summer, I visited a number of different government scientific offices in East Africa and learned that many continue to update environmental records dating to the colonial era (with some gaps). In particular, there are long-standing government programs for hydrometeorology and limnology – two disciplines with major economic and political implications in the Lake Victoria basin. The database and skills that I will develop in the CHI program would help me to ascertain what scholarship I can and cannot produce based on such sources.

In particular, my work in CHI will advance two of my primary goals for my scholarship. First, it will help me represent changes in water and land use in East Africa in an integrated manner. Land politics are central in the historiography of East Africa, and water politics were integral in shaping land usage, e.g. agriculture, forestry, mining, and wildlife conservation. Yet, the relationship between land and water in the Nile basin has received little attention, and so our understanding is incomplete.

My second goal is to produce knowledge about changes in environmental policy that occurred during the transition from colonialism to independence. Historians of development, environmental politics, and water in this context have focused on projects started by colonial governments and continued into independence. Most depict continuity, emphasizing the power of the twinned discourses of development and modernization. Thus far, historians have tended to argue that postcolonial governments continued the forceful drive for modernization begun under colonial rulers without significant changes occurring. Yet, the history of Lake Victoria affords opportunities to study historical change in this context. For instance, the collapse of the East African Community in 1971 ended a number of long-standing organizations aimed at integrating economic, political, scientific, and other activity in the region. Additionally, the policy shift from swamp reclamation to wetland preservation has reversed the valence of state objectives regarding a key link between land and water. By focusing on the shift from reclamation to preservation, I will challenge the prevailing depiction of development and modernization in Africa as extensions of the colonial state. A database of economic and environmental data over time would make it easier to analyze these changes.


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