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CAS researchers awarded British Library grant to protect endangered archive in Nairobi, Kenya

Tom Molony and doctoral candidate Tom Cunningham have been awarded a grant to help with the protection of the archive of the Presbyterian Church of East Africa (PCEA) in Nairobi.

The British Library’s Endangered Archives Programme (EAP) grant will fund a three-month project to clean, survey, catalogue, and digitize an important collection historical material that is currently at risk of deterioration. The project, which begins in January 2016, will also employ a Nairobi-based archivist and recruit assistants from the PCEA and the Nairobi research community. By cleaning and digitizing the archive, the aim of the project is to make this historically valuable but endangered and under-used archive accessible to both local people with an interest in the material and an international community of scholars.

The collection consists of the records of the PCEA and the two colonial missions that preceded it, the Church of Scotland Mission and the Gospel Missionary Society. Some material in the collection dates back to the start of the twentieth century, a period during which ‘Kenya’ (the name was not acquired until 1920) was being brought under British rule. Among the first non-Africans to explore, settle, and work in the highland interior of Kenya, the missions were among keenest linguists and ethnographers of the people who lived there; the archive contains their notes and observations. The missions subsequently established a monopoly on education and health in this part of the colony; the archive provides an insight to the inner workings of missionary schools and hospitals in colonial Kenya through the 1910s-1950s. Moreover, the archive holds rare Kenyan-authored documents from this period, such as school essays and correspondence with missionaries written by students of the missions. The archive is a ‘church’ archive and much more: the Presbyterian church was at the forefront of many political moments in colonial and post colonial Kenya, from its role in the ‘(Female) Circumcision Crisis’ of the late 1920s to Mau Mau in the 1950s: the archive documents parts of this history.

This rich collection of historical material is currently located in the attic room of the bell tower of St. Andrews Church near the centre of Nairobi. Though the archive was used to inform such landmark studies as Carl Rosberg and John Nottingham’s, The Myth of ‘Mau Mau’: Nationalism in Kenya, (1966) and Jeremy Murray-Brown’s 1972 biography of Jomo Kenyatta, Kenya’s first President, over recent decades access to researchers has been restricted and the archive has remained largely un-(or under-)used (with the notable exception of Derek Peterson’s Creative Writing). As the PCEA do not have an archivist, the archive has not been maintained, and today the room is dusty and the documents are precariously piled on top of one another, in boxes that are deteriorating.

Dr. Molony who has recently completed a monograph on the early life of Julius Nyerere, the first President of Tanzania, will lead the EAP project. It will be supervised by Tom Cunningham who is currently in Nairobi undertaking fieldwork for his PhD thesis on the history of Church of Scotland Mission to Kenya. News of the grant for the project has been enthusiastically received by the PCEA and the St. Andrews parish. The project has also garnered support from leading scholars in the history of East Africa - John Lonsdale (Cambridge), Derek Peterson (Michigan), and David Anderson (Warwick) - and the British Institute in Eastern Africa. The aim of the Endangered Archives Programme is “to contribute to the preservation of archival material that is in danger of destruction, neglect or physical deterioration world-wide.” The Programme prioritises archival material relating to “pre-modern” or “pre-industrial” societies, located in countries where resources and opportunities to preserve such material are lacking or limited.

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