This journey to acquire original historic documents from a small island in Africa was an unforgettable experience as part of my time as a MA student and for myself, personally.

Travel Report: Curtis Platson

Curtis Platson, a master's student in the Department of History, received a Graduate International Research Travel Award (GIRTA) to further his research in Tanzania.

August 27, 2019
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This summer, I embarked on a one-month research trip to Zanzibar, a small island off the coast of Tanzania. My goal was to access the original historic collections held within the Zanzibar National Archives (ZNA). This trip was only made possible thanks to the Graduate International Research Travel Award (GRITA), which funded me to complete invaluable hands-on research in the state archive of Zanzibar for my MA thesis project. The purpose of this research trip was to seek answers to my research questions regarding the colonial politics surrounding uchawi (Kiswahili for witchcraft, sorcery, and magic) in Zanzibar and Pemba during the 1920s to 1964.     

The first week of the trip involved air-travel, acclimatizing to the beautiful island location, and completing the research application. My prior research and consultation from my senior supervisor, Dr. Aaron Windel, prepared me for a limited indexed collection regarding uchawi; however, finding any piece of information that held relevance to the British official response to uchawi would serve as a guild on where to search next. To my success, I did manage to find pieces of British correspondence within the colonial medical department records that discussed specific cases of uchawi ‘disturbances.’ Pursuing this paper trail led me to the ZNA’s medical department collections dating from the early 1920s to 1963. These materials will help me further understand how the British responded to local medical practices. The largest group of sources I collected regards the instating and repeal of Zanzibar’s Leprosy Decree. I invested time collecting materials on the colonial handling of leprosy in Zanzibar and Pemba since there are significant accounts in British travelogues that discussed the leprosy epidemic in the islands and how local medical practices (labeled as ‘white magic’) influenced the decisions of the colonial authorities to handle cases of leprosy on the islands. The GRITA funding allowed me to record over 300 pages of original colonial-era documents using my digital camera. With these new sources in mind, my MA thesis has developed into an analysis on the British medical department of Zanzibar during the interwar period and examining the department’s handling of local medical practices (uchawi in my particular case) within the two islands of Zanzibar and Pemba. 

This journey to acquire original historic documents from a small island in Africa was an unforgettable experience as part of my time as a MA student and for myself, personally. I am humbled to have had the opportunity to travel abroad, to meet so many kind and helpful people at the Zanzibar National Archives, and to represent SFU by conducting historical research thanks to the Graduate International Research Travel Award (GRITA).

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