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Historian Dr. Ismay Milford joined the Research Centre Global Dynamics this summer. She is part of a research group on New Global Dynamics, funded by the Ministry of Science, Culture and Tourism of Saxony as part of a cutting-edge research grant. In our interview, she speaks about her arrival in Leipzig and her research focus.

1) In your PhD thesis you looked at the anti-colonial thought and practice of activists from Zambia, Malawi, Uganda and Tanzania in the 1950s and early 1960s. Which results of your research surprised you? What was particularly important to you in dealing with this topic?

One surprising – or at least striking – thing to emerge from my research was the complexity and sometimes impossibility of transnational anticolonial work during this period. I started my PhD in the context of new research that demonstrated the extent of cooperation between anticolonial leaders and activists across Africa, Asia and the Caribbean in the twentieth century, especially through meetings in colonial metropoles, membership of international organisations, or political projects that spanned what later became nation-states. So, I was ready to write about how some lesser-known activists from a less-written-about region also transformed, and were transformed by, all the new opportunities for activism across colonial borders that emerged in the post-war world. What I found was that the activists I followed – a cohort of mainly very mobile, well-educated men – faced endless frustrations in gaining access to this world of solidarity projects and advocacy networks and that there was constant debate about whether or not it was useful or worthwhile. Their work was more eclectic than I anticipated and their notions of ‘radical’ and ‘moderate’ strategies or sympathisers did not map onto Eurocentric interpretations in the Cold War context.

In telling this story, two things were particularly important for me. First was to take seriously the sources produced by these activists (invitations, correspondence, cheaply printed pamphlets and newsletters) as a reflection of the organisational and intellectual labour of anticolonialism, finding a methodological framework that allowed this. Second was to let the trajectories of activists themselves  demarcate this specific region of East and Central Africa, and then to commit to thinking through this region as a way to see connections that might not have been visible if starting from a national focus.


2) Where have you worked so far and why did you decide to come to Leipzig now?

Since completing my PhD at the European University Institute (Florence) in 2019 I have been working at the University of Edinburgh, as part of a Leverhulme Trust-funded project ‘Another World? East Africa and the Global 1960s’ which sought to understand, again from an explicitly regional and non-state perspective, how visions of engagement with the rest of the world changed after political independence in East Africa, especially in the context of global economic crisis in the 1970s.

I’ve also enjoyed some visiting fellowships, in 2020 at the Academy of Finland Centre for Excellence in the History of Experiences (Tampere University), where I worked on an internationalist spiritual movement during the Cold War, and in 2021 at the Munich Centre for Global History (Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München), where I worked on my book manuscript.

Moving to Leipzig, I’m really excited to be in another institution with strengths in both global history and African Studies, and especially to be based in an explicitly interdisciplinary research centre, having previously worked in a history department. One specific thing that brought me to ReCentGlobe was the opportunity to learn from and contribute to the centre’s growing focus on environmental histories, in particular conversations about resources and ‘resourcification’– that is, the process by which society constructs an idea of something as a resource. I haven’t paid adequate attention to environmental history perspectives in my work so far and it feels increasingly important to recognise how these perspectives might inform or alter the intellectual, cultural, social and political histories that I am more familiar with. More broadly, I’m very happy to be based in the EU again, as I fear that collaborations across Europe will become increasingly difficult for scholars based in the UK. And Leipzig is a wonderful city of course!


3) What would you like to work on in the coming months?

My main focus in the coming months is a new research project relating to technology, environment, and the idea of the ‘information society’ in East Africa during the second half of the twentieth century. I’m interested to think about how knowledge of the environment was produced (regionally and in interaction with institutions elsewhere in the world) and about the professional lives involved, in the context of changing narratives about ‘development’ and information itself. This was a region that various actors across the globe have looked to when envisaging the potential of information technologies and the imperative for ecological protection, so insights from East African history have a significant bearing on how we understand these particular global dynamics. Currently, to think through the narration of technology in global history, I’m working on an article about Ugandan radio engineers in the 1970s.

Relating to these themes, and to my previous work on decolonisation, during the Winter Term I’ll be teaching a seminar course for MA Global Studies, ‘Communicating a new world order: Decolonising information and media in the twentieth century’.

More generally, I’m excited to see where events and conversations in Leipzig and ReCentGlobe might lead me in the coming year!


Recent and forthcoming publications by Ismay Milford: