An Interview with Assistant Professor Benedito Machava

Benedito Machava is a historian of colonial and post-colonial Africa. Raised and educated in Mozambique, he received his Ph.D. at Michigan University in 2018. His research focuses on liberation struggles, decolonization, nation-building, socialism, and socialist experiments in Africa. He spoke to us about his development as a historian, current research, and its implications, and gave advice to students wishing to study the history of Africa. 

1. Could you tell us a bit about yourself and where you grew up?

I grew up in Mozambique in the outskirts of the capital city, Maputo. I was born at a very difficult time in the history of Mozambique as it was at the height of the civil war (1976-1992). My family was originally from the countryside, but they had to move to the city because of the war. I did not experience the war myself, but my older brothers did. 

Although it was an experience I didn’t live through, and it felt distant in that way, the war shaped me. I think it shaped my generation because the stories we were told growing up and all the things we lacked, from school, clothing, to food, were all directly related to the war. It was one of the most horrific wars in post-colonial African history. 

I came of age in the post-civil war period. It was a completely different time. It was also the post Berlin wall, and Mozambique was coming out of the socialist experiment. This definitely changed the outlook of the country for a short while. There was a cultural phenomenon taking place during that time, spurred by the return of young Mozambicans who had been sent to East Germany back in the 1980s. For example, they brought televisions and, for the first time, our small world was now open to the larger world. For me, this was when I was introduced to American music and I think that was when I got hooked on the English language.

2. You were educated in Mozambique before going to Michigan University for your Ph.D. How was your journey when coming to the US? 

To be honest, it was one of the toughest things I have ever done. I was considering doing a program in the UK at Oxford University or in the US at Michigan University, but I ended up choosing Michigan because Ph.D. programs in Europe tend to be very short, maximum 3 years. I was looking for a program that could give me the chance to learn the language first because I spoke English somewhat informally (just things I learned from American pop music) so I needed to learn the language formally.  

So, moving to Michigan was a challenge because one thing is to study the language informally, and the other is to be immersed in the midst of people who speak it as their first language. However, it was a great adventure, and I had the good fortune to be in an exceptionally welcoming and supporting academic community in Ann Arbor. 

3. How would you describe your discipline and how did you decide on this route? 

I identify mostly has as a social historian, and I’m interested in social processes and the ways in which political and economic processes affect ordinary people—people who are often on the fringes of political and economic power centers.

I became interested in history because growing up in Mozambique the weight of history was quite huge in that we were surrounded by monuments celebrating the sage of liberation. Our schoolbooks where populated by the images of the heroic struggle for independence and pictures of the heroes who fought against the Portuguese.  Mozambique became independent quite recently – in 1975, so this was a history that was very close to me as I was born only eight years after independence. 

This really sparked my interest in history because I was surrounded by the historical marks of the making of our country. The history I studied was shaped by an encounter that changed the heroic view that I had of my country for so many years. 

We often say that victors write their own history. This wasn’t different in Mozambique. Most of what I knew about the history of this country had been written according to the views of those who have liberated the country from the Portuguese.

But it is a history silenced a number of processes that were crucial for the making of the independent Mozambique. One example is the reeducation camps which were established throughout the country immediately after independence. These internment camps were meant to rehabilitate and reeducate the so-called antisocialists. This was something I never heard about growing up in Mozambique. Once I discovered this, all I wanted was to dig into that hidden side of my country’s history. 

4. In terms of your development as a historian, who would you say influenced you? What influenced your interest in history and specifically African history? 

I had amazing teachers. I was already really interested in history, but one thing is to major in history, and the other thing is to become a historian.

I had incredibly talented and supportive teachers in Mozambique. They set the example and set the bar for what it means to do historical research. I’m talking of people like Gerhard Liesegang, David Dedges, João Paul Borges Coelho, to mention a few They influenced me enormously.  

5. What do you teach at Yale and how has the pandemic impacted your classes and teaching methods?

This is my second semester teaching at Yale. Last semester, I taught two courses. One was an undergraduate lecture on the Legacy of Colonialism in Independent Africa – I especially wanted to interrogate weather the decolonization independence was a cup of plenty or a poisoned chalice. It was a kind of a puzzle that I wanted to get students to think through and explore the legacy of colonialism in present day Africa. 

The second course was a graduate seminar on the Histories of Post-colonial Africa. This was essentially a seminar where we read recent monographs on post-colonial Africa. Some books are theoretical, some are social history, and others are intellectual history. The goal was to explore what themes and genres have dominated the field in the last few years. Additionally, we looked at the challenges of archival research in post-colonial Africa for writing post-colonial histories. 

This semester, I am offering two courses— both of them are seminars. The first one is on the cultural and political history of Lusophone Africa (by this I mean former Portuguese colonies). And it’s a seminar where we essentially explore one of the least studied colonial experience Africa (keep in mind that the Portuguese were the first to arrive in Africa and the last to leave).

The second seminar is on a subject very close to my own research. It’s on socialist experiments in Africa. It explores the appeal of socialism in Africa and the nature of the socialist experiments that were undertaken after independence. 

As you can see, almost all my courses revolve around the post-colonial period. I am more interested in the contemporary history of modern Africa, the post-colonial period.

6. Your Research interests focus on liberation struggles, decolonization, nation-building, socialism, and socialist experiments in Africa. How and when did you first get interested on these themes? 

After finishing school, I was hired by a Danish anthropologist named Helene Kyed to help with research on community policing. During that activity I came across narratives about people removed from the cities and taken to the countryside by force.

I asked my employer to send me to the archives, just to get to the bottom of what the interviewees were saying. As I read more archives including newspapers, I realized that these camps were a key aspect in the whole socialist experiment and a central feature of Mozambique’s social experiment.

But the encounter that stood out to me was actually a letter written by a young man who had been taken to one of these internment camps in the northern province of Niassa. I found the letter he wrote to his mom about a year after he had been taken. The letter started with some bold letters in the newspaper saying, “I am not dead, mom,  I’m still alive.” At that moment, I decided that I needed to find out who this young man of only 21 years old was  – mind you, I was only 22 at the time. I wondered what he looked like and what happened to him. I wanted to bring back the faces and the names of those thousands and thousands of young people who went through this traumatic experience. I wanted to know their faces, their names, and their stories. 

To me this was social history, and I wasn’t interested in the political part of these stories. Even though there were some important political figures that went to internment camps, I was most interested in the ordinary folks who were victimized by this process of social engineering during Mozambique’s socialist experiment.

Even today, this is the kind of history that I do. Of course, I would like to explore other sides of Mozambique’s history when I am done with the book that I am currently working on. 

7. In what ways do you see your research having implications for Africa and the world at large? 

This is a really important question. I believe that the issue is not so much that the history of Africa has been mostly written by non-Africans. 

The major problem is institutional support. The issue is about publication and for the wider access to the works written by Africans in the continent. For example, many scholars in African universities, who write and publish happen to publish mostly in platforms that don’t reach the wider world, and most of the times is very localized and written in the local language. 

So, for me, it’s the lack of institutional support. There’s a history to this because most African universities suffered enormously from the austerity measures of the 1980s and early 1990s. During this time, the budgets for universities flunked compared to the 1960s and 1970s when the field of African history and historical research in Africa was flourishing. 

The major challenge now is how can institutions and universities in the developed world rebuild that infrastructural support, so that the work that is done on the continent by people in the continent is published in major publications and outlets. 

Of course, there are many other challenges African scholars face including the fact that African scholars work under conditions that affects the kind of scholarship that is produced. One of them being their salaries that are extremely low. Because of this, many people have to find other means to sustain themselves and their families – we have more structural issues at play here that can be remedied by rebuilding African universities and strengthening their infrastructure.  

Your question has a second aspect, which has to do with the larger impact of the kind of research that I do, or other African scholars do. It is really important that African voices are heard in a world where Africa tends to be viewed from a very limited gaze and very limited set of perspectives. 

We hear Africa as the poor and troubled, and it’s extremely important for people like me to bring a different perspective of the continent. 

8. What advice would you give to students who wish to study the history of Africa?

The one advice I would give is to be passionate about what you choose to study because that passion will carry you through the ups and downs of doing the research. Historical research tends to take time, especially if you’re doing African history, and you are not on the continent, you have to travel. You have to often travel to different places for archives and most of those will not be from the comfort of your seat, and most of the time, it’s not pleasant. 

So being passionate about your project is very important and reminding yourself of why it matters to research the subject you have chosen.

9. What book would you recommend? 

For those starting in African history, especially at a graduate level, I would recommend a polemical and provocative book by Paul Zeleza entitled Manifactiruing African Studies and Crisis. For those interested in history in general, I recommend John Tosh’s The Pursuit of History.