Recording memories, recovering history: Professor films documentaries on African voices

May 05, 2014

WachangaDavid Wachanga is searching for a past that was destroyed by war and silenced by fear.

Kenya -- his native country of 44 million people -- gained its independence in 1963 after nearly 75 years as a British colony.

Unlike many moments in history that are widely chronicled and preserved in libraries and digital archives, Kenya's post-independence era is lacking in coverage, said Wachanga, an assistant professor of communication at UW-Whitewater. The lack of archival materials on clandestine media sparked his interest.

"You'd have people distributing pamphlets in the middle of the night and then destroying them later because no one wanted to get caught with the information," he said.

In the absence of archives, Wachanga turned to testimony. That also proved to be a challenge.

"Some people had been detained. Some died. Some survived but were not willing to talk," he said. "Others struggled to articulate their experiences for fear of betraying the spirit of the movement."

Wachanga eventually decided to focus on the lives of two famous African intellectuals as a way to tell the story of a nation:

- Ali Mazrui, a man regarded as one of the prominent African scholars of his generation.
- Ngugi wa Thiong'o, a novelist, playwright, and oft-spoken candidate for the Nobel Prize for Literature.

With a video camera in hand, Wachanga embarked on a six-year odyssey that took him across three continents. He interviewed dozens of people, including Mazrui and Thiong'o. About 10 students in Wachanga's communication courses helped with video editing; one student traveled to Washington, D.C. and another flew to New York to conduct interviews.

The documentary on Mazrui will be shown at UW-Madison on Thursday, May 8, at 3 p.m. The Thiong'o film was screened at Cornell University on April 17.

Wachanga and MazruiWachanga is quick to point out that he is not a historian.

"I am using biography as a way to revive voice and cultures," he said.

When he began the project, Wachanga said one of the biggest challenges was discovering how information was propagated in a restricted environment.

Six years later, he says nothing is more intimidating than having information and being trusted to report it responsibly.

"I'm the steward. What do I do with it? I need to summon all of my critical faculties to make sure the stories are told meticulously," he said.

It makes for great discussion in his media ethics course.

"When I see students talk and write about topics like second amendment rights, abortion, migration -- those are ethical issues," he said. "What they write about or choose not to write about has real, human consequences."

-- Written by Jeff Angileri, photos submitted by David Wachanga


Jeff Angileri

Sara Kuhl