Your research in the Sainsbury Research Unit at the University of East Anglia concentrates on the archaeology of the Sahel region in West Africa. What makes this region so interesting?
It is fascinating firstly because there is an awful lot of archaeology out there. I made my first trip to West Africa in 1997, and wherever I went I was faced with concrete remains of the past. They're not huge pyramids or walls though, they're things like pottery shards. A lot of the areas nowadays are sparsely populated, so you get a chance to excavate in depth and carefully, whereas you just can't do it in somewhere like the UK that is so densely populated.
It's also an unjustly neglected area. These were very important regions in the medieval period, but people don't write about them. The Sahel is now very much on the periphery, politically and economically, but 500 or 600 years ago that was not the case. But we don't hear about these African regions on a daily basis, people just hear about famine and war and natural disasters.
What was the importance of the Sahel region in medieval times, why was it a place that people flocked to?
Later the region was very important to the Islamic world in terms of scholarship. Timbuktu in Mali had a world famous university, and scholars travelled throughout Northern Africa exchanging knowledge. Pilgrims were also very important, and there were particular buildings reserved for pilgrims on their way to Mecca. There was a real intellectual exchange that people aren't aware of - it wasn't just trade.
You're currently undertaking ERC funded research in Benin, which I understand is historically important because it's at the crossroads of several different medieval empires. Why is it important to look at this particular convergence area?
These intersections are basically drawn by historians on the map with very little evidence to be honest. Historically we have the vague knowledge that there were several different political players in the area, and I'm hoping that we can see the boundaries between them archaeologically. Does living in one area as part of one polity or system of government affect the way that people built their houses or made their pots, or what kind of food they ate? It's all about contacts and knowledge and skills: people learning to do things in a different way because they're exposed to different influences.
So far it's looking really good because we have seen quite notable differences in material culture at a given period about 1000 years ago. The pottery looks very different from place to place, so it's quite intriguing.
What lessons do you think modern society can learn from the information you've unearthed about these medieval West African cultures?
First of all I think they can tell us how quickly fortunes change. Areas that are now peripheral were once really important in global economy and global society. Also, it's a cliché, but I think that by looking in the past you do learn a lot about how to act in the present and how to look towards the future. For instance, one thing we can look at is religious change, how people adopted a new religion. The Hausa people in Niger and Nigeria are a very interesting case in the adoption of Islam because there wasn't as far as we can tell a jihad or any violent conversion process. They had a combination of traditional beliefs and Islam, much to the annoyance of the pure school of Islam. But nonetheless you get this cohabitation very often. In the current climate that's quite an important lesson.
Another thing is that this kind of research can put Africa a bit more on the world stage, and I think that's valuable. Then last but not least it's important for the people locally, because they're very interested. They feel that they don't really get a voice very often and the students want to know more, but opportunities for field work are quite limited.
Have you done any outreach to spread the messages of your research?
I did a project with school children in Norwich and Zinder in Niger as part of a youth impact project. We themed the project around the Hausa people but we wanted to broaden it, so we made it about identity. We got the children, who were 11 or 12 years old, to think about Englishness and Welshness and Irishness, and we got them to think about Hausaness and how one might define themselves as a Hausa. That took the children into interesting directions about how they feel stereotyped as teenagers and how religion plays a role in their life or not.
We also organised a series of weekly Skype exchanges with these kids and got the UK children to think about what notions they had of people in Africa. The Skype exchanges were the best way of doing that, because the British kids realised that the African kids they were talking to were just like them – they liked football and they liked playing on their X Box, and they had pets.
At the end of it I think the lesson they took away was that there are many ways of looking at the same things, everybody comes at the subject from a different angle. They also learned that people sometimes make snap judgements about each other, which is a useful lesson in terms of religious and race tolerance. I would make a strong case for humanities research in fostering understanding between individuals.
Dear Dr. Haour, thank you very much for this interesting interview.
Interview: Helen Jaques (© AcademiaNet)