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The Life and Works of Elizabeth Colson

Royal Anthropological Institute

Thursday, 12 October 2017 from 10:00 to 17:00 (BST)

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Elizabeth Colson 12 Oct 2017 Free  

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Thursday 12 October, 10.00am to 5.00pm
Royal Anthropological Institute

The late Elizabeth Colson was for many years a Fellow of the RAI. This day will recall her great contribution in several fields, including the anthropology of Africa, the anthropology of migration and displaced peoples, applied anthropology and gender. We hope that the day will give us the opportunity to revisit and discuss current topics in the anthropology of sub-Saharan Africa, particularly the Tonga, as well as to reconsider the work of Professor Colson in some detail.

10.00-10.15am Opening

Dr Pamela Shurmer-Smith
A Lifetime of Elizabeth Colson

I would like to offer a very subjective presentation, musing on the attached image of the flyleaf of my copy of The Plateau Tonga of Northern Rhodesia: Social and Religious Studies with its two dates: 1964 and 2015.

I bought this book at the start of my second undergrad year at the (then) University College of Rhodesia and Nyasaland. It was the very first ethnographic monograph I read and its impact was profound. A rather naïve teenager in a conservative and racially segregated society, The Plateau Tonga made me understand there was far more than I had imagined; societies didn't have to have rulers to be orderly, patriliny wasn't inevitable, but more than anything, Colson showed how all the bits meshed in together: virilocal marriage, cattle lending, ancestors, a network of rain shrines, joking relations, spirit possession all wove a coherent whole.  In the long vacation at the end of my second year I went to live for a month in a Plateau Tonga village. Generations of my own students also found her work enlightening and accessible.

Elizabeth Colson revisited the Southern Province of Zambia regularly throughout her career and returned permanently in her 90s. Learning that she was living in the Southern Province, I wrote to ask if I might drop in to meet her in October 2015 – she generously invited me to stay a few days. I went full of trepidation, she was 98 after all. Those few days were inspirational – she talked about the role of the Tonga in modern Zambia, her life and career, the anthropologists she had known ("When I arrived at Cape Town, Max and Clyde were on the dockside to meet me") but it was not all reminiscence, she was thoroughly up to date.

I'd asked people what I should bring as a gift "Famous Grouse Whiskey" "gin, as she likes to entertain", "exotic cheese" were variously suggested. I took them all and rather shamefacedly packed my old copy of The Plateau Tonga to ask if she's sign it. I also took my book on the white diaspora – she'd already read it!

When I told Axel Sommerfelt, my old tutor, that I had finally met Elizabeth, his comment was, "Her work will never be obsolete".

Tea and coffee: 11.00-11.20am

Jamie Wintrup (University of Cambridge)
Reflections on conducting anthropological fieldwork in southern Zambia and the enduring value of Elizabeth Colson’s work

This paper is based on fieldwork carried out in the Southern Province of Zambia during 2015-2016, where I spent time at a rural mission hospital which was founded in the late-colonial period. My research has considered the relations between the rural Tonga patients who visited the hospital to seek treatment, the Zambian hospital staff who worked there, and the American Christian missionaries, who visited on long- and short-term medical mission trips. In this paper I reflect on the way in which Elizabeth Colson’s work offers anthropologists conducting research in the region today such a valuable resource for considering the long history of interactions between the Tonga speaking people of the region and outsiders of various kinds – from the missionary societies who were active at the 1940s (when Colson first arrived in the Southern Province), to the builders of the Kariba dam, to the more recent work of non-government organisations (NGOs) who have engaged in projects to do with child-maternal health and HIV/AIDS. I reflect on the importance of having such detailed longitudinal ethnographic material to draw from through Colson’s own insightful rendering of Tonga life.

I met Elizabeth Colson in Zambia (at her home outside Monze) in 2015 during my fieldwork and she was very generous with her time – advising me about researchers who have engaged in similar work in the Southern Province over the years, giving me countless references to look up, and firmly encouraging me to practice my Tonga grammar exercises. It would be gratifying to share these experiences with people who knew Colson, as she was very encouraging to me as a PhD student.

Dr Virginia Bond (London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine & Zambart, University of Zambia), Dr Lisa Cliggett (University of Kentucky) and Prof Elizabeth Colson (posthumous, University of Berkeley)
The increasing vulnerability of children to sexual abuse in Zambia: from taboo and offense to tolerance and compensation.

We consider changes in and attitudes towards manifestations of sexual violence against children in Zambia. The paper will draw on a decade of conversations among the authors on this topic, an unpublished manuscript (approximately 2008) about the vulnerability of childhood in the Gwembe Valley by Elizabeth Colson, Cliggett’s research observations of rural Tonga children (early 1990s onwards) and Bond’s research on Zambian children as domestic workers (2010-11).  

As Colson describes in the unpublished manuscript, reports of physical attacks, including sexual assaults, on Gwembe children have become more common since the 1990s. Prior to this time, such attacks were sanctioned through both taboo (of adult physical contact and sexuality with young girls and children) and actionable offenses (requiring fines and compensation). With the range of change ushered in during the 1990s and increased heterogeneity of communities, according to Colson, concern for taboo seems to have disappeared, while demands for compensation have remained. Senior Tonga elders considered sexual assaults on children ‘just a small thing’ (Colson, email correspondence, May 16 2013). This downplaying of child defilement (rape of children is labelled ‘defilement’ in Zambia) resonates with Cliggett’s documented lack of concern in responses to the rape of 14-year-old girls in a Tonga village and Bond’s experience of the r complacency, and even complicity, towards the sexual abuse of child domestic workers.

Applying Colson’s data (based on fieldnotes and diaries from four Gwembe villages) to their field research, Bond and Cliggett explore contemporary instances of sexual assault on children and the social landscape in which these events unfold.  Cliggett’s work with Gwembe Tonga migrants to a rural setting, while not focused on the experience of children, offers insight into a few cases of child sexual assaults within the context of the position of children in a changing kinship system, characterized by multi-ethnic and highly mobile families, and fluid marriage arrangements.  Bond’s research on child domestic workers in Lusaka and Eastern Province captures the vulnerability of poor (and often rural and girl) children to sexual assault.  Sent to work in better-off households and far from home, the children are easily exploited.  Many girl domestic workers are sexually preyed on by men of the household, their presence in the domestic space of the house (and particularly the bedroom) seeming to incite men’s sexual outlet and entitlement, much to the anxiety of married women.  Sometimes boy domestic workers are also sexually preyed on by women.   Although some domestic workers will succumb to sexual relations hoping it will aid their schooling and finances, others are forced to have sex.  A 16-year old girl in the village (Eastern Province) who had returned from domestic work, described her experience with the man head of household; “He used to tell me to sweep the bedroom, then the man would enter and lock the door. He only opened the door when his wife returned”.  Driving the practice of child domestic work is the history of children’s role in domestic duties, under-education, the burden of orphanhood that accompanies the HIV epidemic, the challenges of child care amongst working women, economic hardship, and legislative changes in minimum wages for domestic workers (which has enhanced the pull and relative affordability of child domestic work).  

Influenced by globalization and human rights and by experiences of defilement and early pregnancy, there is a growing awareness of the distress and harm of defilement that counters the more complacent response described.  Community based organisations and parents, for example, are actively questioning social acceptance around domestic work.  Cracks in social protection, fragmented and differentiated society and other wider stresses make these shifts harder.  Further, Colson points out, the very individual rights promoted by globalization which preach against ‘the grain of local opinion and local taboos’ have ‘left communities less able to control their members by appeal to accepted standards and the menace of non-human forces’, leaving, ‘few people…concerned with the welfare of any individual child’ (Colson, pp32).  

Lunch 12.50-1.30pm

Prof John Argyle (University of Kwa-Zulu Natal)
HOSTAGES AND HITMEN: Agents of conflict resolution among the Soli and other Zambian peoples

In mid-1957, I had been newly appointed as a Research Fellow of the Rhodes-Livingstone Institute, to make an already projected study of the neighbouring Soli of the Central Province of Northern Rhodesia. I had Oxford qualifications in social anthropology, but no previous experience of Africa or actual fieldwork there or anywhere else. So it was a privilege to be invited by Elizabeth Colson to accompany her for a few days on the further work in which she was then engaged amongst the Plateau Tonga. I now have a few recollections only of practicalities that I was shown by her, such as ways of living in the field; providing medical assistance to residents; participating in village life and other local activities (eg including me in the crew of a canoe trip on the river); making and arranging field notes etc.

I do not recall her adducing any specific references to the Tonga ethnography, then in its earlier stages, but part of my own subsequent field work amongst the Soli did eventually draw my attention to her 1953 paper on Social Control And Vengeance in Plateau Tonga Society which was the only one of its kind for Central Africa at that time and it became deservedly well known for its wider contribution to the ongoing analyses of the feud. But, I maintain, it was not the whole story about the settlement of disputes in the area. It was not even the whole story for the Tonga. For in an earlier, minor paper (1950, p 39) she stated that the Tonga

“seem never to have been a warlike people or capable of organsing any large-scale force of their  own. Instead they turned to the traditional method which they used in their local feuds [sic] – the summoning of a more distant group not involved in the quarrel, who could be paid to come in and wipe out the offending party.”

Colson did not refer to this again in 1953, but I found independently the use of “third parties”, under the Soli terms nkole and kapondo which I heard repeatedly during discussions about conflicts and their consequences, particularly in pre-colonial times.
This paper discusses the meanings and contexts of these terms in several Soli cases and also traces their occurrence among neighbouring peoples, such as the Lamba, Ambo Luba, Nsenga, Bemba etc.

Prof Richard Werbner (University of Manchester)
Fiddling: Elizabeth Colson and the Moral Imagination

My topic, Fiddling, comes from Elizabeth Colson herself, in her 1975 Distinguished Lecture to the American Anthropological Association. I want to re-open this topic with stories that register extremes in the representation of her ethnography. The first, recognising her to be ‘one of the greatest anthropologists of the post-war generation’, in Max Gluckman’s Foreword to her collected essays in Social and Religious Studies, turns around an apparent paradox. It was as if her essays still fell short; there was no total integration between them, and they showed no unitary social system; and yet somehow the very strength of the analysis was in the parts as such. I am tempted to get ahead of this story and speculate. Perhaps if Marilyn Strathern had written the Foreword and ironically stood it on its head, the apparent shortage would have been a brilliant anticipation of Partial Connections.

As for the second story, the striking fact is that in it nothing of the first is told. Instead, for example, in the Biographical Dictionary of Social and Cultural Anthropology, all that is said by John Campbell, somewhat blandly, about her distinction is this, ‘Elizabeth Colson is associated with research on resettlement, migration, refugees and social change’. Campbell lets planned social change and how it goes wrong, especially when technology determines policy, take over at the heart of Elizabeth’s long-term intellectual project.

My aim is not to reconcile these two stories, which say as much about the times when they were first told as about the subject herself. To go further, Elizabeth’s notion of fiddling has to be unpacked and the question of its importance for the moral imagination has to be put for the ethnographer, for her own reflexive view explicitly positioned in anthropological and, indeed, world history - and for her deeply considered ethnography in accounts of the moral imaginations of the Makah Indians in modern America and the Tonga in Central Africa.

Tea and coffee 3.00-3.30pm

Prof Raymond Apthorpe (University of Cambridge & Royal Anthropological Institute)
Elizabeth Colson: Anthropologist Extraordinaire

4.15-5.00pm Closing Discussion
Royal Anthropological Institute, 50 Fitzroy Street, London W1T 5BT.  The RAI office is just around the corner from Warren Street, NORTH of Fitzroy Square. It is next door to French's Theatre Bookshop.
Do you have questions about The Life and Works of Elizabeth Colson? Contact Royal Anthropological Institute

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Royal Anthropological Institute
50 Fitzroy St
W1T 5BT London
United Kingdom

Thursday, 12 October 2017 from 10:00 to 17:00 (BST)

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