This fall, the History Department acquired a new faculty member, Sarah Hardin. Although World History and Conversatio will constitute part of her class rotation, her primary teaching area will be African history. A number of our students have already met her in class, but One Thing after Another hasn’t properly introduced her yet. Seeing as Sarah has had the benefit of a couple of months to settle in, One Thing after Another asked her a few questions so everybody could get to know her.
Q: Where are you from originally? What was it like growing up there?
A: My earliest years were spent in a lake house in the Piney Woods of East Texas and on Galveston Island where I played a lot outdoors and developed my love for nature. For a short while, my dad drove a book mobile which I liked as a van I could play in, but at the age of 5 I hated reading. We moved to Austin, and I took school field trips to the Greenbelt, Big Bend National Park, and Mexico (to go caving), something I really miss.
Q: How did you get interested in African history?
A: Lots of little things over a long time.
In middle and high school, I was fortunate to take world history, world literature, and anthropology. I was also fortunate to have teachers who assigned Colin Turnbull’s The Forest People (a highly romanticized and problematic ethnology of the Batwa in the Belgian Congo, but amazing to my young mind) and several great novels written by West, East, and South Africans. These classes and books made me curious about how people around the world had experienced Western imperialism and what their own histories were.
In college, after finishing my Spanish minor, I started taking French since I was frustrated by not knowing how to pronounce the French words I was reading in the books in my anthropology and history classes. In French class, I learned of the Francophone world. I also took Korean and wrote a research paper on Korean resistance to Japanese occupation. My senior thesis was on the ways Freya Stark, a British travel writer, envisioned the end of the British empire and the future of the Middle East, Egypt, and Yemen.
After I graduated, I used my French, Spanish, and Korean language skills a little as an international student advisor at the Texas Intensive English Program in Austin for four years. I worked with students from every continent on the planet. It was great!
As I considered going to graduate school, I was interested in Latin American and Asian history, but I found that African history would enable me to combine all my interests and get a job, so here I am!
Q: How did you end up researching the relationships between cotton, pesticides, and the Fulbe people in Senegal?
A: Again, I pursued lots of little things. I originally proposed doing an environmental history of western Côte d’Ivoire since there is little written about that area in English. At the University of Wisconsin-Madison, I got a Foreign Language Area Studies fellowship to study Hausa, one of the languages spoken the most by West Africans. Hausaland is in northern Nigeria and southern Niger and is known for cotton cultivation, among other things. I thought researching cotton would be a good way to do a comparative environmental history, plus I recalled how my grandmother spoke about picking cotton as a child in Texas. I then got a Jan Vansina travel grant from the UW History department to do research for my master’s thesis at the archives for French West Africa in Dakar, Senegal. I looked for records on northern Côte d’Ivoire and southern Niger, but I found more on southeastern Senegal. French colonizers reported, as they tended to stereotype ethnic groups, that the main people who grew cotton were Pulaar-speaking Fulbe. Indeed, when I left the archives and visited that part of Senegal, people there told me the same thing. I then studied Pulaar and when I was doing my interviews I asked folks about how cotton cultivation had changed since their grandmothers’ era, and the biggest change they remembered was the introduction of pesticides. I’m now researching why certain chemicals were introduced and how they affected people’s lives. Even though a lot of pesticides were used, not much is widely known about what exactly their effects were in those places. That information could help influence public policy.
Q: Of all the books you use in teaching various courses in African history, which one is your favorite and why?
A: One of my favorites is Jan Bender Shetler’s Imagining Serengeti: A History of Landscape Memory in Tanzania from Earliest Times to the Present because even though it is technical and a little difficult for beginners to read in places, undergraduate students tell me they learn a lot from it. The book does almost everything a college-level book on African history should do. It challenges common views of the Serengeti as a natural wilderness. It undermines common views of “tribes” and shows how social affiliations are formed. It explains the use of alternative sources and methods in history (archaeological, linguistic, and oral). And it chronicles how the Serengeti National Park we see today was created. Shetler presents the perspectives of people who have been called “poachers” and argues that it is crucial that their histories be taken seriously when considering public policies. (Given that the topic is about Serengeti where there are no large, densely populated cities, it is not the best book for urban history, but then there are other books for that.)
Q: Since the great majority of the department is not from New England, we have noticed all sorts of peculiarities about this region. Have you noticed anything usual about life here?
A: So far I’ve found that people drive really friendly in Manchester, NH. That’s a good thing since I’ve seen a lot of motorcyclists exercising their freedom to drive without helmets!
Q: What activities do you do in your free time?
A: Exploring the beautiful hiking trails and the great bookstores in New England!