Jan Vansina: The Exit of A Generalissimo

Oloruntoyin Falola's picture


Jan Vansina: The Exit of A Generalissimo


By Toyin Falola


Old soldiers never die,

                                          They just fade away

                                                                                                                    General Douglas MacArthur, 1951



Jan Vansina—MacArthur Fellow and Vilas Research Professor Emeritus in History and Anthropology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison—just passed away this week, aged 87, after an extended and very bold battle with cancer. This intellectual “garrison commander,” like an old soldier, will never die nor fade away, especially as his generals and other troops, manning fields near and far, still remain in their posts, battle-ready to listen to the final command of Generalissimo Jan Vansina! Jan is now overly qualified for sainthood and today, at this very moment, I pronounce his canonization without any question!


Jan, described as the professor of professors, was the serious label that I heard in Nigeria; the Balogun of Wisconsin had already immortalized himself while still alive and was in our midst, with a legion of essays and books, including his tantalizing memoirs. Ever to be felt in today’s world is Jan’s towering global stature, coupled with his profound and prolific influence on various disciplines. Twice, I had the great privilege of evaluating his work for the one million-dollar Kluge Prize administered by the Library of Congress. Condensing a diverse and eclectic long list of achievements into 25 pages, the maximum allotted for the task, was an exercise in brevity. I can claim, with certainty, to have read most of his works in print over time, including those that he wrote when I was still on my Mom’s breast milk; for more wisdom and edification, I searched for Jan’s much older works to digest.


In weaning myself off of Vansina’s rich intellectual nutrition, we had fresh encounters, some of which were in contentious debates at several locations, including our own old Lagos, where Professor E. J. Alagoa, one of Jan’s distinguished students who became overly committed to the use of oral history, held a conference during which Michel Doortmont, then a young PhD student, and I critiqued Vansina’s work before his eminent presence. He repaid with kindness, writing a long rejoinder, one of several from him to me, which was in a remarkable generous spirit. I gladly did a review of his memoir, and he as well returned the favor of reviewing mine, just as if passing the baton in a race, as if we were exchanging positive energy. When it was clear that he would not survive the cancer, I became one of the few that was pre-warned that his end was near. I took it calmly, saying “there is no such an end!”


            In thinking of Jan, I wish I could focus on the ironies of these encounters. Of course, not today, as the purpose here is to re-introduce the intellectual giant to a new generation of scholars who now bother very little or less about fieldwork, languages, inter-disciplinarity, and collegiality. Hopefully, Jan will reincarnate in one of these younger souls. However, the world that Jan created has been reborn in ways that a previous generation like me finds rather disturbing and troubling: many members of this new set of scholars, obsessed with the so-called transnational impact of their work, love externally grown concepts and theories more than the Africans they have themselves chosen to study. Instead, Jan Vansina taught us, first and foremost, to first love the people we study, develop a passion in the ideas they themselves generate and, in the end, to set those ideas in a comparative perspective.


Perhaps, I should simply re-introduce this great man of ideas and genuine intellectualism to a new generation, which must find its right bearings on its own. By all accounts, our authentic Vansina was a leading and esteemed figure in the African Studies community; his accomplishments, over some forty years as a professional scholar, are well known and have been far reaching. He is deserving of the Yoruba epitaph:



Ajanaku koja mo ri nkan firii:

Bi a ba rerin,

Ka so pe a rerin.

Bi a ba pe'ri akoni,

Aa fi’da lale geerere!


The elephant is not an invisible object;

When we see it, let us acknowledge it is huge.

When we invoke the spirit of a hero,

Let's give him the full honor he deserves.


Born on September 14, 1929 in Antwerp to Dirk and Suzanne Vansina, Flemish Catholics of Belgium, Jan in his adolescence and his parents were caught in the great catastrophe of the Second World War. The war would later precipitate and accelerate future anti-colonial upheavals in Africa just after the war—events, in other words, that would come to shape Vansina’s education and development, especially as he grew into his intellectual maturity. His father moved the family to Bruges during the war, a place that was less likely to see interruptions, indeed for Jan, who was still in school. Vansina, in his prolific gift, wrote a memoir of these experiences during the war, Through the Day, Through the Night: A Flemish Belgian Boyhood and World War II (2014). At sixteen, sometime after the war in 1945 or 1946, his parents enrolled him in the Catholic University of Leuven with the hopes of him earning a degree from the School of Medicine, but at some point he persuaded them to allow him to study law instead of medicine. Vansina, however, kept from his parents the knowledge that he had also enrolled in history alongside law. And two years after first commencing studies at Leuven, he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in history and law. He then shifted into his graduate studies, specializing in medieval history.


In 1952, young Vansina finished the master’s course in history and accepted a job with the Institute for Research for Central Africa (IRSAC). Because he was not specifically trained for the position of research anthropologist, he quickly managed a course and apprenticeship at University College in London. By the end of the year, he was in central Africa with the Bakuba for his fieldwork assignment. European colonial power still at this point controlled much of central Africa, including Belgian’s brutal rule over the Congo. The official, academic history of this region, and African histories in general, had been conceived by scholars as really only beginning with European contact. They largely ignored the periods prior to the subsequent colonization of the continent for lack of indigenous written texts.


Vansina’s time in central Africa just after graduation, though, led him to recognize the possibility of using the oral traditions as sources of veritable historical information, in the same manner that he had analyzed medieval dirges as raw historical material. Vansina’s attention to oral traditions became his greatest contribution to the historiography and methodologies available to the then nascent discipline of African Studies. With this idea in mind, Vansina began to work on his doctoral thesis while doing this fieldwork in central Africa. It was also while he was conducting research in this area that he met his Rwandan-born wife, Claudine Herman.


Jan completed his doctoral program in 1957, earning a Ph.D. in History; in his thesis he implemented the methodological and historiographical tools that he put to use while he was in central Africa for the IRSAC. It was a move he had to justify insistently over the course of his thesis defense, but it was also one that catalyzed the evolution of African Studies. His books Oral Tradition: A Study in Historical Methodology (1965) and Oral Tradition as History (1985) very much outlined his argument for an acceptable and encouraged use of oral tradition as an appropriate primary source of the history of a culture. Vansina’s developments in these books and later contributions to History in Africa: A Journal of Method, in addition to voluminous research carried out through these methodologies, made the Belgian historian a founding figure of African Studies as an academic discipline. Living With Africa, published in 1994, is Vansina’s personal account of the development and evolution of African Studies.


A couple of years after his doctoral defense, Vansina moved to the University of Wisconsin-Madison for a professorship. Phillip Curtin invited Jan to the University in 1960 in part to collaborate upon the building of a program in Comparative Tropical History. Vansina remained at the University of Wisconsin-Madison for the rest of his academic career. At Madison, Vansina published more than 15 books and 160 articles, and established himself as an academic authority on the full range of central African history. His notable books are Kingdoms of the Savannah (1966), Paths in the Rainforests (1990), and Antecedents to Modern Rwanda (2004) among others. His accomplishments at Madison led to his being awarded the Distinguished Africanist Award by the African Studies Association in 1986. Five years before, he began collaborative work on the 8 volume UNESCO General History of Africa, acting over 10 years (1981-1993) as a central member of the editorial committee of the project, where he served with dedication and collaboration with such eminent scholars as Ghana’s A. Adu Boahen; Nigeria’s J. F. Ade Ajayi; Kenya’s Ali A. Mazuri and other noteworthy Africanists.


In 1994, Vansina retired from the University of Wisconsin-Madison as a MacArthur Fellow and Vilas Research Professor in History and Anthropology. He, however, continued to write from his accumulated research materials: he published Living with Africa in 1994; Antecedents to Modern Rwanda in 2004; Being Colonized: The Kuba Experience in Rural Congo, 1880-1960 in 2010; and finally his memoir Through the Day, Through the Night: A Flemish Belgian Boyhood and World War II in 2014. In 2000, Vansina was elected a member of the American Philosophical Society for his work in the Social Sciences for over 50 years, and more recently, the American Historical Association honored him with the Award for Scholarly Distinction. A prodigious career, Jan Vansina certainly met the expectations of the Great Sufi Master, Ahmadu Bamba, as the following words are worthy of this hero: 


This life is God’s farm and no one sends anyone to his farm to sleep.

The night is so long; do not shorten it with sleep.

The day is so pure; do not stain it with unrighteousness.

— Shaykh Ahmadu Bamba


Most certainly, Jan did not sleep at work; he did not shorten the day; and he did not stain his long life. Where I come from, we see the death of an elder like Jan as a celebration of life. Rather than cry, we actually sing and dance. Can you try to wake him up? The following Yoruba dirge is appropriate as we think of him in death:



E ba mi pe e l'ohun ago;

Boya a je je o!


With a wailing voice, join me to bring him back to life;

Perhaps he will respond!


We are tired of singing, let him rest. Let us dance to console ourselves:


Iku o pa eni ta n pe;

Iku a peni to n peni!


Death will kill the person whom we call;

It will kill the person who calls us!


And to accept the fatality:


                                              Ko sẹni ti o ni i ku;

Ko sẹni t'oko baba rẹ ko ni i digboro.

Ko seni to o ni i ku;


Everyone will die;

There is no person whose father's farm will remain ploughed forever.



And like Jan, there is no escape, nowhere to run, not anywhere to hide, as the Yoruba would say in honor:


Biku ba gbowo,

A ba fun un lowo.

Biku ba gbagbo rọgbọdọ,

A ba fun un lagbo rọgbọdọ.

Ṣugbọn iku o gbowo;

Iku o gbagbo;

Odidi eeyan ni n gba!


If death will take money,

We will give it money.

If death will take a big ram,

We will offer it a big ram.

But death does not accept money;

It does not accept a ram.

It takes only human lives!


Adieu, Jan, the Professor of Professors, the sage of our time, the Generalissimus of African Studies! Rest in Perfect Peace until we meet again!! Surely, we will resume our debates to be mediated by our collective ancestors!!!



Categories: Obituary