The African Heritage Initiative has been involved in a great amount of activity during the past year. Most notable were the two academic conferences organized under the Initiative’s auspices. The first, concerning ‘The Politics of Heritage’, was held in Johannesburg, South Africa. It is described elsewhere in this newsletter. The second workshop, about “Archives in Uganda,” was held at Makerere University in collaboration with the Makerere Institute for Social Research. It was the first occasion in which Uganda’s archivists, museum curators and librarians have sat together with government officials and scholars to discuss the infrastructure of the country’s archives.
Uganda’s archival landscape is rich and varied. The most important collection, the Uganda National Archives, consists of 1,200 boxes of material. It is presently located in the basement of a government building in Entebbe, near Kampala. There are substantial archives in located in the back rooms, attics and cellars of the district government buildings of southern and western Uganda. The (Anglican) Church of Uganda and the Catholic Church have important collections in their care, and there are useful collections kept at old leprosy museums and hospitals. Makerere University boasts a very significant collection of newspapers and private archival collections, deposited into its library by important Ganda politicians of the early 20th century. There are useful but uncatalogued files kept in the basement at the High Court of Buganda. And a great number of private individuals have kept their papers stored in private libraries.
The condition of these archives is generally poor. There are bright spots: the Church of Uganda papers have recently been re-housed, catalogued, and digitized with funding from Yale Divinity School; and the Catholic church archives are kept in good order by a dedicated team. But the government archives are in a poor condition. District archives are very often uncatalogued and uncared for, thrown into attics or sub-basements together with old typewriters, sinks, tires, and other detritus of government bureaucracy. The National Archives is in urgent need of assistance. Its considerable collection is currently being catalogued with support from the University of Michigan, but there is a real need for a campaign of preservation.
There are now several nascent projects meant to build up an infrastructure for archives management in Uganda. Some ten years ago the World Bank has allocated funds to build a proper building for the National Archives; after a very long delay, the building project is at last going forward. The National Library has—with the support of the Library of Congress—launched an effort to digitize some of the archival files in its collection, and it is actively collecting additional materials. Makerere University’s library is steadily organizing, cataloguing and digitizing its important archival collections. The University of Michigan, working with Mountains of the Moon University (in Fort Portal), is involved in a project to organize and preserve the provincial archive in Kabarole District, in western Uganda. And a team from Michigan and Makerere University has been working to catalogue the considerable holdings of the National Archives in Entebbe.
The July 2011 workshop at Makerere was an occasion when those of us involved in archive preservation projects in Uganda could compare notes, coordinate our work, and develop a shared strategy. The morning was spent surveying the field. There were presentations from the National Archivist, the government’s Commissioner for Archives, the director of the National Library, and other archivists and librarians about the character and extent of their collections. In the afternoon attendees deliberated over matters of shared interest. One discussion, led by Makerere’s David Luyombya, considered the legal framework for archive preservation in Uganda; another discussion concerned the architecture of the planned building for the National Archives; a third discussion centered around the role of technology in archive preservation. These were eminently practical conversations, utterly necessary in a context where government has invested very little in setting standards and organizing a forward course for archive preservation.
It is hoped that the Makerere workshop will give rise to other meetings of this kind. Less formally, we hope that the contacts made at the Makerere workshop will help to enable communication and the sharing of resources among all of us working to reinforce the infrastructure for historical knowledge preservation in Uganda.