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Five Lessons from the Archives of the History of Medicine in Ghana

Posted on 5 May 2017

CGHH PhD student Ben Walker recounts his archival fieldwork in Ghana, with tips for researchers

'Making Friends and Acknowledging People: Five Lessons from the Archives of the History of Medicine in Ghana' by B. B. Walker

Searching through the archives for material to put together a history of medicine in Ghana can be a challenge. Getting the right letter from the right person or physically locating the archive for example, can often involve a far greater effort than actually reading the documents themselves.

Unlike for histories of Europe and North America, Ghana’s historical record is not to be found in vast libraries of catalogued papers (though it must be noted, the Balme Library at the University of Ghana has an excellent stock of a wide range of government, media and academic publications). Its past is in people’s homes, in their funeral brochures, in church storerooms and in obscure corners of hospitals. This is not because Ghana is more ‘primitive’ but because it has not had the stable institutional capacity to maintain a full national archive since the years of its independence from British rule in 1957. Coups, economic collapses and revolutions have led to the loss of large swathes of written material.

The research may be more physically grueling but it is no less rewarding. Ghana’s records are a patchwork, but no less worthwhile or valid than any of the red ribbon-tied bundles one might find at the British National Archives in Kew. For those who wish to try it for themselves, here are five key tips: 

1)     Get Signatures: To get into PRAAD (Public Relations and Archives Administration Department of Ghana) you will need a signature on an official archive document in order to be allowed in. This signature can best be obtained from a friendly academic colleague at the University of Ghana. It cannot be obtained from the British High Commission (yes, I tried). You may have the option to try to get the form in advance and have a Head of Department from your own institution sign it, although I cannot vouch for this route.

2)     Make Friends: Your best pathway to understanding anything about the country of which you are researching is to get to know the people and fellow researchers. Ghana is no different. My research would have been much more problematic had I not received help at every turn by incredibly kind Ghanaian academics, students, librarians, businessmen, solicitors, fashion designers, doctors and hoteliers. Not only will this likely facilitate your only access beyond the national archive storehouses, it will make the whole thing make far more sense and be far more fun.

3)     Interview, interview, interview: I conducted many interviews with many elderly Ghanaian doctors and clerics, each of them with their own surprising and important insights. Obviously the aim is not to take on their opinions as your own. Sometimes these interviews tell one far more about present concerns than about past ones. Nevertheless, actually talking to people involved is vital if one is to get a sense of what is beyond the written record, what has been hidden and what was never recorded on paper. By listening to the voices of individuals historians can counter the claims of the powerful to control the national past.

4)     Go West: Many of Ghana’s best-written historical material can be found in the UK and the US, even material after the end of colonialism. Copies were made and stored more effectively and systematically. As Jean Allman recently emphasised in her article on Ghana’s archives on the Nazi Pilot named Hanna, a history of Ghana requires travelling all across the world.[1]

5)     Tip and Acknowledge: Making friends with local librarians and taxi drivers, both of whom are vital to any good historical work often requires good tipping and payment. Buy gifts for those who help you out. Pay when you are given photocopies. Many of these people have little money. Don’t forget about their real lives beyond the archive. Secondly, there are terrible historical relations between European researchers and African communities because of broken promises in the pursuit of information. If you promise something, deliver it. If you publish something, send it to the people that helped you and of course, acknowledge them. Finally, don’t forget that you are a guest.

Overall, the value of the archives (whether in the sense that one might expect or not) to be found in Ghana far outweighs the difficulty of accessing them and connecting to their keepers. They can shed light on histories that have for too long remained disclosed, submerged in imperial and post-imperial narratives constructed from the records of the powerful. Whether or not you ever choose to study Ghana, the principle can be generalised. Attempting to uncover hidden histories matters if scholars are to continue confronting the assumptions of their audiences and to extend their own understanding beyond previous expectations. If we do not, we will continue to misunderstand, misinterpret and demean cultures and pasts which look unlike our own. 

[1] Jean Allman, “Modeling Modernity:  The Brief Story of Kwame Nkrumah, a Nazi Pilot Named Hanna, and the Wonders of Motorless Flight.” In Peter Bloom, Takyiwaa Manuh, and Stephan Miescher, eds. Modernization as Spectacle.  Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2014, 229-43.