Africa in Our Lives: Brad Paul

Brad Paul’s field diaries have taken him across Mozambique and Ethiopia to study working life and the on-the-ground impacts of international development projects. He shares his favorite travel experiences and advice to students in this AFRICA IN OUR LIVES.

Field of Study: History
Hometown: Born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana; grew up mostly in Maitland, Florida

“Most projects rely heavily on collecting quantitative data… I believe one-on-one interviews, group discussions, personal journaling, community photo documentation and other forms of ‘on the ground’ chronicling can tell us an equally important story.” -B. Paul (Submitted photo)

What brought you to Madison?

My family and I moved here two years ago after spending the previous eight years in Maputo, Mozambique. It was a very difficult decision to leave Maputo, but we decided it was time to be closer to family and my wife has roots here. She is from Fond du Lac, WI, and is also a UW-Madison graduate.

What inspired your interest in Africa?

For as long as I can remember I have been interested in Africa. The reasons may have changed over the years, but it has been a constant since childhood. Africa always seemed to attract less popular attention, so I wanted to find out why. In some respects, my academic research and professional work has been organized around this question. I am interested in comparative history; for example, industrialization and the emergence of segregation in South Africa and the American South at roughly simultaneous junctures. For the most part, however, I am mainly interested in everyday life and what we share as people regardless of where we come from. My colleagues and friends, whether from Mozambique, Malawi, or Madison, like to watch sports, spend time with their family, or enjoy a beer. Whatever is on the passport, we are fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, and friends. Yet, we have complex and different histories. Discovering these commonalities and differences is exciting and worth the time to understand and pull together.

Tell us about your favorite travel experience.

Tough one. So many. Visiting the village (Sergoit, Kenya) my wife, Tina Lloren, lived in during the Peace Corps was pretty powerful. The mayor, the school headmaster, the faculty, and the entire student body welcomed us and showed us their new chemistry lab, which they named after Tina!; Traveling throughout the “cashew triangle” of Mozambique; Visiting Robben Island; watching a giraffe just casually cross our path while on my first safari in Kruger National Park; Outside of Africa, living in Greece for a year as a kid and later, as an adult, traveling to Cuba and the former Yugoslavia were pretty remarkable.

An image of “Brad’s bar” in Mozambique, named for his alma mater, the University of Massachusetts. (Submitted photo)

What led you to study work culture in Mozambique?

My academic background is in labor history, so I have long been interested in issues of workplace organization, trade unions, and economic and social life. And, my work in Mozambique presented a good opportunity to pursue some of these themes in a variety of settings, including cashew factories, community maize mills, among soy farmers, chili growers, and in coconut and tree nurseries. I was the research director of an NGO that provided services to smallholder farmers and rural wage earners. The NGO had a very gifted group of agricultural and business advisors, but often struggled when it came to understanding a particular project’s influence on everyday life. There were consequences- mostly positive, but some negative- that often escaped the balance sheet. My emphasis on looking at work- something most everyone is engaged in at some level- hopefully gave us a fuller understanding of the communities in which we were operating.

Tell us a bit about your current research.

I have just completed a study of three malt barley grower cooperatives in Ethiopia. Then idea was to better understand what happens when small farmers’ embrace commercialization. In this case, the cooperatives have contracts with a multi-national liquor company that is sourcing its barley from Ethiopia. My work is less concerned with the specific economic indicators, although these are terribly important, and more with how daily life is adjusted to accommodate the time and material demands of market-based agriculture. I have also been working with the Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems (CIAS) here on campus to develop some qualitative research and oral history projects centered on the issue of land tenure in Wisconsin farm communities.

How did you come up with the idea for your Field Diaries project?

In my experience, within the world of international development there is a tendency to minimize the value of qualitative research in measuring a program’s effectiveness. Instead, most projects rely heavily on collecting quantitative data as measured against a set of pre-determined indicators. I’m interested in promoting a different evaluation approach. I believe one-on-one interviews, group discussions, personal journaling, community photo documentation and other forms of “on the ground” chronicling can tell us an equally important story. Field Diaries are one way to do this. They are simply daily journals, recorded by project participants, which provide useful information about habits, customs, recreation, work and social life of farmers, workers, managers, and community members alike. Field Diaries can be read and interpreted in multiple ways. For me, the interest is on working life. But in the hands of another writer, from another discipline, the final product might look quite different with respect to key themes and findings. I’ve always loved the oral histories of Studs Terkel and the kind of field research done by someone like the anthropologist James Scott, so I think Field Diaries in just another form of pulling these ideas together. The approach has always been there, but perhaps the application to international development work makes them somewhat unique.

What are the most-thumbed books on your bookshelf?

Walter Rodney, History of the Guyanese Working People, 1881-1905; Charles Van Onselen, The Seed is Mine: The Life of Kais Maine, a South African Sharecropper, 1894-1985; C. Vann Woodward, Origins of the New South; Studs Terkel, Working; Zora Neale Hurston, Mules and Men; E.P. Thompson, History of the English Working Class; Currently, John Higginson, Collective Violence and the Agrarian Origins of South African Apartheid, 1900-1948.

What advice would you give to students who are interested in studying Africa?

Do it! After Asia, Africa is home to the largest percentage of the world’s population; the continent has shown positive economic growth in recent years; it is urbanizing at a rapid rate, but remains an important bread basket; and the history, literature, music, and popular culture is incredibly rich, and for most westerners, at least, largely unknown. If you are not from Africa, time to learn. If you are African, learn more!

Profile produced by Kyra Fox.

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