Africa in Our Lives: Dave Bresnahan

PhD candidate Dave Bresnahan’s first taste of African Studies was through the work of Philip Curtin, one of the founders of the African Studies Program at UW-Madison. Since then, Dave has never looked back. He has traversed the kaya forests of Kenya’s coast, studied Mijikenda-speaking communities’ entanglements with the Indian Ocean, and even served as outreach coordinator at the African Studies Program. He shares his favorite parts of Madison and his post-dissertation plans.

Field of study: History
Hometown: Cinnaminson, NJ

Dave conducting an interview on hunting vocabulary near Kwale, Kenya in 2013. (Submitted photo)

What brought you to Madison?

The African history program, fried cheese curds, pond hockey. In that order.

What sparked your interest in Africa?

I went to small college without an Africanist historian so I did not have any opportunity to study African history as an undergrad. Luckily, my advisor assigned some of Philip Curtin’s work on the Atlantic world in an American historiography class. Curtin, as many know, was one of the founders of the African Studies Program at UW-Madison. That led me to start reading African history books (and a lot of African literature as well) on my own. It was not long before I started thinking about going to graduate school to study African history.

How did you first hear about/get involved with the African Studies Program on campus?

My first year in Madison Jan Vansina gave the Africa at Noon lecture of the year—as he did for decades. That has a way of drawing people into the room. Initially, I attended the usual ASP programs, weekly Africa at Noon lectures, the annual spring conference, etc. In the more recent past, I became considerably more involved with ASP when I started working as the outreach coordinator, which I did until the end of May this year.

Tell us about your current research.

I study the coast of East Africa and the Indian Ocean world, but I am most interested contexts where East Africans turned away from or rejected the cosmopolitan cultures of the Indian Ocean. I am currently writing about Mijikenda-speaking communities in the hinterlands of Mombasa, Kenya. Mombasa is a global port city and has been a nexus in Indian Ocean exchange networks for the last millennium. But the historical decisions of communities immediately adjacent to Mombasa defy the neo-evolutionary logic that characterizes most studies of the region. Mijikenda communities intentionally shrunk the size of their settlements at the same moments their Swahili neighbors urbanized, they pioneered important long-distance trade routes in eastern Africa, but participated very selectively in maritime commerce, and they were very receptive to the ritual knowledge of outsiders, but completely rejected Islam. All despite living just kilometers from a global port city. It is a history of global dissonance if you will.

What is one of your most vivid memories from your fieldwork in Kenya?

My very first time in Kenya, back in 2009, I had the chance to accompany the National Museums of Kenya’s forest conservation unit to put up signs to designate a brand-new UNESCO World Heritage Site. It was an ecological heritage site, patches of indigenous coastal forest called kayas, which are considered “sacred grove” forests. The kayas also happened to be the topic of the MA thesis research I was conducting at the time. At one of the kayas (Kaya Kambe) the elder men in charge of the forest tried to use the UNESCO sign to solve a local land dispute. They attempted to convince the National Museums that the sign should go next to a farm plot, rather than the kaya forest itself, thereby placing the field under their jurisdiction. It turned into a huge argument and by the end a few hundred people had gathered around us to witness the people from the National Museums and kaya elders argue about land rights. It was a big “aha” moment in my thesis research, which was about the political invocations of the kaya forests. I have traveled back to that same area a number of times in the years since and people still talk about the incident.

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

Study an African language and then go and study or visit the place where that language is spoken. There is probably no better university in the U.S. to study an African language than UW-Madison.

What would you like to do after you finish your dissertation?

After I finish my dissertation and hit “submit” (to send it off to rest in Memorial Library’s electronic dissertation database) I would like to throw on some running shoes and head into my backyard mountains in Missoula, Montana.