Hello CHI Community! I am Eric Kesse, a final-year doctoral candidate in African History at MSU and a Charlotte W. Newcombe (Woodrow Wilson) Fellow for the 2022/23 academic year.
I specialize in West African history, the study of human enslavement and the African diasporas, gender history, and African environmental history. My research interests include studying the African environment with particular attention to Africa’s water systems and bodies of water. I am interested in how Africans developed dynamic relationships with bodies of water over time and how such relationships shaped the history of the continent. To this end, my dissertation, “Living with Water: Environment, Slavery, and Spirituality in a West African Stilt-House Community—Nzulezo, c. mid-1700 – 1870s,” investigates the environmental and social history of Nzulezo, a community on stilts in the middle of the Amanzule River in southwestern Ghana.
Oral traditions explain that the people of Nzulezo have lived on the Amanzule River for over two centuries, amid challenging environmental conditions like seasonal flooding and unfavorable historical events like the Atlantic slave trade and European colonialism. In my research, I address questions of why Nzulezo people chose to settle on the river and how their history allows us to understand the centrality of water in African historiography. I draw on European (British and Dutch) archival records, missionary and travelers accounts, slave trade exportation data from www.slavevoyages.org, as well as newly-available oral histories and material culture from Nzulezo to argue that beyond the quest for security, religious and environmental factors (such as gaining access to freshwater and adhering to the demands of the Nzulezo snail deity) impelled Nzulezo people to construct their settlement in the middle of the Amanzule River. These findings overturn received orthodoxies in African historiography that suggest that Africans established settlements in the middle of bodies of water primarily as a defense against the Atlantic slave trade. They also allow us to see pre-colonial African communities in greater complexity and to understand the lives of individuals beyond and outside the frame of the slave trade. This study comes from one-and-a-half years of conducting extensive ethnographic and oral history research in Ghana, as well as research in twelve archives in Ghana, the United States, and the United Kingdom.
I am delighted to be part of the CHI Fellowship program because of its great opportunity to learn more about digital humanities/history (DH) and how DH helps to further the critical study of the human environment. I am also excited about collaborating with other CHI fellows to design and complete projects. Although I am not precisely sure how my final project will turn out, I wish to develop an interactive map that displays historical changes to the Nzulezo “built environment” over time.
I look forward to fully engaging in the CHI program as I continue to think broadly about my proposed project.