Jan Tzatzoe, John Wesley Gilbert, and Women’s Refugee Care

I want to take the chance to reflect somewhat on how Roger Levine’s A Living Man From Africa (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011) intersects with other things I’ve done and am interested in. First, I want to elaborate a bit on the similarities and differences of Levine’s project from my work on John Wesley Gilbert. Second, I want to discuss my work with Women’s Refugee Care in light of Jan Tzatzoe’s life as an intermediary and interpreter. Finally, I want to think a bit more about Levine’s method — particularly his relationship to “theory” — and consider what I can learn from A Living Man From Africa.

John Wesley Gilbert was the first African-American to earn a graduate degree from Brown, and some consider him to be the first black archaeologist. He was born in 1864 in Georgia, where he studied at a forerunner of Morehouse College before coming to Brown in 1886. After a stint at an excavation in Greece, he became an educator in the South. He was also a Methodist. In 1914, he went on a mission to the Belgian Congo, where he worked alongside the (white) Bishop Walter Russell Lambuth. They established a school that Patrice Lumumba later attended. I think Gilbert shares a lot in common with Jan Tzatzoe. They were both black men in a white world, who advocated for some semblance of racial equality founded in a deep-rooted Christian missionary sensibility. Their work both led to broader changes, whether through the Aborigines Committee of Parliament or through the educational program Gilbert espoused. One other function Gilbert and Tzatzoe share is their work as intermediaries and interpreters. Although Gilbert’s first language was English, his linguistic skills were highly valued by Lambuth in their mission to the Congo. Lambuth later wrote that Gilbert’s

work [of translation] was so well done that the Colonial minister upon my subsequent visit to Brussels inquired who wrote the letters, and remarked that they were the most correct and elegantly expressed among those received at his office from one who was not a native of either France or Belgium.

Like Tzatzoe, Gilbert also worked on native languages: “I did what I could in collecting a Batetela vocabulary, formulating a grammar and writing the first Epistle to the Corinthians and the Epistle to the Romans in the Batetela language.” This point also brings out some of the differences between Tzatzoe and Gilbert: apart from almost a century of temporal distance, Tzatzoe was born and raised in an African community whereas Gilbert was firmly rooted in the American South. I think comparing these two figures starts to get at the ways in which race became a universal factor in social relations under colonialism — while hopefully not eliding the important particularities of black experiences under colonialism.

Talking about Tzatzoe as an intermediary and interpreter also brought to my mind another project that I have been a part of. In Fall 2017, I and a friend (Jeanelle Wheeler) conducted interviews through and with Women’s Refugee Care, a Providence-based NGO run by and for the Congolese refugee community here. One of these interviews has particularly stuck in my mind, for two reasons. Firstly, the person we were interviewing shared some really touching stories of her life in the DRC, Burundi, and now in the US. In talking about her work, Katerina mentioned that she had serious mental health issues:

The day that they promised me I could go start work, I woke up and I couldn’t. I was too ill. … The doctors referred me to a therapist, and the therapist said that it is probably because I was so traumatized. That’s why I’m like this – I also have nightmares, I hear things, I don’t know. … I’ve had a very nice life, me and my children as well. But I really don’t know, I don’t see anything. I don’t see that I have any future here. There isn’t any hope. … The students are taken care of. My children are happy. Still, I suffer.  Ni hatari.  I want you to remember that word. It means “it’s dangerous,” “it’s serious,” “it’s terrible.” Life, that is — the past, the present, and the future.

The experience of talking with these people is in my mind in this class when we speak about the San genocide or the Xhosa Wars (especially because Swahili sounds surprisingly similar to Xhosa!) More germane to Tzatzoe, the interview with Katerina was also very interesting linguistically. Katerina spoke in Swahili (which was not her native language) to Aline, the director of WRC. Aline then translated to French, which she speaks fluently because she attended university in Kinshasa. Finally, Jeanelle and I translated the conversations into English after recording and transcribing them in French. Aline’s role was particularly interesting, and similar in many ways to Tzatzoe’s. Like him, she did far more than a literal translation. She provided crucial contextual information for me and Jeanelle and elaborated on questions that we asked of Katerina. Like Tzatzoe narrating the Marriage at Cana (what word did he use for “wine”?), Aline filled in much more than just linguistic equivalences. Both Jan and Aline were intermediaries, not just interpreters.

So far, I’ve focused on the affinities between Jan, Aline, and John Wesley Gilbert. Now I want to turn to the affinities between Roger Levine and me. Specifically, Levine approached his work in a very different way than me. Unlike his work on Tzatzoe, I was writing a paper to present at a symposium on Gilbert. I was therefore not really telling a story of Gilbert life, but rather focusing on three aspects (religion, politics, and modern reception) that helped me make an argument about his legacy. The interview with Katerina is in some ways more similar to A Living Man from Africa, because I was not interested in making an argument, but rather in helping tell Katerina’s story. The biggest difference is, of course, that our subject was alive while Tzatzoe was long dead. I think this is part of why the format is so different: we didn’t have to piece together quotes from many sources — we could just ask the person sitting in front of us and then more or less present the answers as they were given to our audience. The most interesting move Levine made, which I want to think about more, is how he dealt with theory and historiography. There was a really strict segregation of this material from the central biography of Tzatzoe, which is a narrative in the present-tense (with the occasional poetic excursus). As Levine outlined in his introduction, this segregation — and the ways in which he presented his central story — were deeply informed by theoretical concerns about representation, narrativity, and ethics. It’s just that these weren’t integrated at all into the narrative. Our interview with Katerina had no real consideration of theory or historiography. Although we did it for a class, our primary purpose was to tell a story that would help Women’s Refugee Care. In other words, we weren’t interested in intervening in any sort of academic debates, but rather in producing compelling content for an organization whose work we found very important. My Gilbert paper did deal with “theory,” albeit obliquely. It ended with an exhortation to my peers and my audience about how we should go about conducting scholarship on Gilbert. I think Levine’s work provides a successful and interesting counterpoint to my previous ideas about the role of theory. We should always remember that the choices we make in telling stories, in interpreting evidence, and choosing what gets told and what is left out are all based on some assumptions we hold. Good theory (in the best tradition of critique) helps us excavate these assumptions and re-examine them. I think Levine engages in this task, but I think his example shows us that you can do this and also present a compelling, well-told, and relatively uncomplicated narrative. I might not adopt Levine’s approach in all the work I will do, but I will certainly keep it in mind as one valuable path.

Leave a Reply