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Review of Inside African Anthropology: Monica Wilson and Her Interpreters


By Karen Cereso

Inside African Anthropology: Monica Wilson and Her Interpreters. Eds.  Andrew Bank and Leslie Bank. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2013. Pp. 354. ISBN 978 1 107 02938 5 (hb). £55

Inside African Anthropology: Monica Wilson and Her Interpreters is a set of contributions about the life and work of Monica Wilson, but one which particularly examines her productive engagement in collaboration with colleagues: among these, her husband Godfrey Wilson, but of most focus, her (and, in Leonard Mwaisumo, Godfrey’s) African assistants, and who, in a number of cases, were first-rate anthropologists in their own right. Andrew Bank, in his introduction to the volume, explains the use of the word ‘interpreters’ as Wilson’s own term:

‘the first interpreters in the southern region of [the African] continent were Africans, not colonists… [the] bilingual Christian converts who had learnt literacy and communicative skills on mission stations and then worked as translators’ (Wilson, 1972 paraphrased by Bank, p7).

This quotation has significance for the volume’s findings in two ways. First is the commitment Wilson had to the inclusion and advancement of African student-assistants and colleagues in her ethnographic endeavour in apartheid South Africa. Secondly, Wilson’s own background as the daughter of missionary parents and being schooled at Lovedale Missionary School in Port Elizabeth, where she had also learned the Xhosa language, meant that a missionary approach shaped her work.

The volume takes much of its evidence from the Wilson Collection, an archive of the Monica and Godfrey Wilson Papers, donated by Wilson’s sons in 1994 to the University of Cape Town, Manuscripts and Archives Department. The rich use of this collection in the volume poignantly illustrates the intimate connection between personal everyday life and academic practice that characterises ethnography.

This connects to another of the book title’s keywords: ‘inside’. In many ways, Wilson was herself an ‘insider’, growing up in South Africa, and returning there from Cambridge for her first fieldwork. She would remain there as apartheid drew away other European academics, and after Godfrey’s suicide when, as the mother of young children, she determined to continue her work. She negotiated the position as ‘insider’ skilfully, despite the context of neo-colonial and apartheid politics and society, and always conscious of how it even more forcefully conditioned the possibilities for her black colleagues.  She supported them not only in terms of their participation in her own projects, but also with advice, references and recommendations to assist in their careers, academic or otherwise, often where other senior academics had shown scant respect for them, or, even, played the system to their own benefit and actively thwarted the positions of African colleagues.

Besides the themes of ‘insider-ness’ and the relationship between Wilson and her assistants, which run through the volume, other emerging themes are: the relationship between anthropology and history in Wilson’s work; the continuing problematic of the relationship between anthropology and colonialism; the religious informing of Wilson’s work and the focus on ‘paganism’; the implications for anthropology and feminism in Wilson’s work (albeit usually an implicit theme); and the implications of all of these in terms of social status, of ‘culture’, cultural translation and of ‘otherness’ as concerns of anthropology.

There is of course no getting away from Wilson being, besides an ‘insider’, also an ‘outsider’, and this was no less so in terms of the difficulties of acceptance she had within her profession. She rejected the norm, promoted by Malinowski as well as her own tutors (such as Jack Herbert Driberg) at Cambridge, that as a woman she should stick to ‘lines of comparative research which women might undertake, such as the conditions of birth, diet and infant education’ (Driberg quoted by Bank p60) and her studies were extensive, and multi-faceted. The importance to Wilson of the relationship between history and anthropology became particularly focused around anthropology of social change which she pioneered with her first monograph, Reaction to Conquest, examining how social and historical change impacted on society and ethnic practice. She chose her communities with care, for example rejecting, after three months, Auckland in Cape Province as ‘already too culturally mixed for her to acquire a clear enough sense of the process of “culture contact” [using the metaphor that] the ripe cheese was no longer so satisfying to the taste’ (Bank pp72-3).

The concept of ‘insiders’, though, had its greatest significance for her black South African colleagues, including Leonard Mwaisumo (chapter by Lekgoathi, Mwakasekele and Bank), Godfrey Pitje (especially chapter by Morrow), Livingstone Mqotsi (inter alia, L. Bank’s chapter) and Archie Mafeje (A. Bank and Swama). As ‘insiders’ they brought an understanding that Wilson craved as a rigorous scientific disciplinarian about her object of study, but they trod a difficult line: for example, ‘[Pitje] met with suspicion from “pagans” for being different to [sic.] themselves, and from Christians for fraternising with pagans’ (Morrow p211), and beyond that, when it came to career, ‘no African who [did] not thank the Whites for kicking him around [was] going to get appointed’ (Pitje in a letter to Max Gluckman quoted by Morrow p213).

Issues around academic recognition and reward for Africans are evidenced throughout the volume. Wilson was asked by the South African Institute of Race Relations practically to spy on her assistants, and letters attest to her disgust at this and to her lack of acquiescence (Morrow p213). Leslie Bank’s chapter narrates a stream of injustices done to Livingstone Mqotsi: his ethnographic work remained under-acknowledged; he did not acquire a PhD although contemporary readers find that astonishing; a change of academic approach in the study of witchcraft that Wilson required him to make was later penalised; and, Mqotsi refers to the ‘penalties of being black’ (quoted by L. Bank p242) after a litany of positions promised were rescinded and he was sacked from others for political reasons.

How far Wilson’s work, or the volume itself, ‘challenges the sometimes essentialised retrospective construction of “colonial anthropology” as the products of white outsiders studying African subjects’ that the volume claims it does (Bank p6) is debatable.  Wilson was ‘a true-blue liberal’ (Morrow p218 quoting one of her students), and situated by her missionary background with her ‘interest in “native clerks” who were invariably converts’ (Lekgoathi et al p162). On the one hand, African colleagues remember her for her unusual capacity to listen to, and, unlike other European mentors, at least discuss their different views (e.g. with Mqotsi, with whom she argued about his Marxism, Morrow, p207). Nevertheless, their depth and detailed findings as ‘insiders’ that challenged her categorising frameworks and explanations were overridden, often their contributions to fieldwork and to written material were only minimally acknowledged, and even her politics of race was sometimes questionable: a ‘hostess’ with whom she stayed for seven months is presented in Reaction to Conquest as a white Scotswoman, when the woman was, according to Wilson’s notes - but edited out for the monograph - of ‘coloured blood’ (A. Bank p75).

Wilson herself, however, was constrained by patriarchy, by the academic politics of her time, and the South African political context. But questions might also be asked about where the volume authors themselves take ongoing accusations levelled against anthropology today. Although there is no reference at all to the pertinent work of Deborah James, the authors do introduce and frame their chapters through relevant critical frameworks, drawing most notably on Nancy Jacobs, James Clifford, James Ellison, Lyn Schumaker, and, in Pamela Reynolds’ concluding chapter, Pierre Bourdieu. Arguably though, there is a reluctance to engage in depth with the implications, leaving a sense of only being teased by the critical framings introduced. Nancy Jacobs’ ‘intimate politics of knowledge’ is oft reiterated, yet there is no direct discussion of the significant complicator in that Jacobs’ work concerned native knowledge about ornithology whereas this study concerns knowledge about Africans (the ‘insiders’ of the title): thus how Western anthropologists acknowledge and appropriate this knowledge has many more questions to at least ask, let alone answer. Regarding James Clifford, Leslie Bank makes good use of the idea of ‘silences’ and of ‘morally loaded categories’(p125), but these ideas are used more to illustrate how Wilson’s work can be seen as having lost out as an accurate portrayal than as a post-colonial critique. Clifford on the anthropological desire for an ‘integrated portrait’ (quoted p91) and ‘smooth[ing] over the discursive mess’ (p95) could have been developed in relation to a number of examples, e.g. concerning ‘paganism’ which is presented as a relatively homogenised construct in opposition to Christianity.

The volume is a rich and interesting read. But perhaps a loyalty to their protagonist results in reluctance to criticise.  Archie Mafeje’s reference to the ‘Eurocentrism’ of Wilson and her peers (p257) loses out to the Langa study being ‘better seen as creative dialogue and co-production’ (p258) despite the authors, here Bank and Swana, having shown how the study was more Mafeje’s than Wilson’s. And a one-paragraph discussion asking whether Reaction to Conquest is an example of ‘anthropology’s hidden colonialism’ concludes that this would be a ‘harsh judgement’ (A. Bank p93). One has to question why such a judgement would be ‘harsh’ considering the time and context in which Wilson lived and worked, and whether, rather, the reluctance to acknowledge the role of Eurocentrism and hidden colonialism implies that 21st century anthropologists and historians may be inadvertently justifying their continuity.

Reviewed by: Karen Cereso LUCAS, University of Leeds

[Published in Leeds African Studies Bulletin 75 (Winter 2013/14), pp. 129-132]

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