Jinja District Archives project team members sort through boxes of files. (photo: Keefer Denney-Turner)

In the interest of preserving Uganda’s rich archival sources and promoting equitable accessibility, faculty and students from the University of Michigan and Uganda’s Makerere University have, in recent years, partnered with Ugandan archivists to preserve, catalogue, and digitize the country’s local and national repositories. 

Most of these collections are disorganized and difficult to access, but are otherwise usable. This has afforded a new generation of historians the opportunity to write histories of the colonial and postcolonial state—provided they have the patience, time, and funding necessary to spend months picking through mountains of unsorted files.

Since 2009, Professor Derek Peterson has led five teams of undergraduate and graduate students from History and the School of Information to conduct cataloguing projects at the Uganda National Archives in Entebbe; district archives in Kabale, Fort Portal, Hoima; and the Central Police Station Archives in Kampala. This past summer Peterson’s team traveled to eastern Uganda to catalogue the Jinja District Archives (JDA), the largest known provincial collection in the country.

JDA 2015 project team members (left to right): Ashley Rockenbach (U-M), Riley Linebaugh (U-M), Precious Ampeire (Busoga University), Kate Bruce-Lockhart (Cambridge University), Abigail Meert (U-M), Claire Nakanjako (Makerere University), Sandra-Claire Bugingo (Makerere University), Andrew Shin (U-M), unidentified district officer, Keefer Denny-Turner (U-M), Olive Nakyanzi (Jinja District), and George Nabida (Jinja District). Missing from photo: Eberechi Ogbuaku (U-M); James Munene (Henry Mitchell British Institute for Eastern Africa); Arnold Mugume, Sandra-Claire Bugingo, and Sharef Walya (Makerer University); Rose Kitimba (Busoga University). (photo: Arnold Mugume)

Jinja was long the industrial capitol of Uganda and a regional hub for labor migrants, and this is reflected in the JDA’s impressive collection of files concerning labor and labor organization. The region was severely affected by Idi Amin’s so-called Economic War (1972) and his decision to expel Uganda Asians, who made up the majority of Jinja’s mercantile class. The JDA therefore offers a unique window into the history of colonial economies, labor migration, and the postcolonial state, and should be of great interest to historians of East Africa, the Indian Ocean, the South Asian diaspora, and global labor movements.

The JDA, however, also presented some of the most significant preservation challenges the team had yet encountered. Housed in the basement of the district headquarters, the archive suffers termite damage and floods every time it rains, resulting in severe water damage to files left on the floor and lowest shelves. The team spent the first three weeks of their stay removing wet files from the basement and drying them in the District Council Chamber using fans, paper towels, and time. 

They then commenced sorting, consolidating, rehousing, cataloguing, and shelving the entire collection, completing the project within eight weeks. While funding constraints prevented the district from constructing a new storage space for the archive, the team left the collection safely above the flood line and the new catalogue (both electronic and hard copy) in the hands of the district records officer. The team completed their project by presenting their work to the Jinja District administration and records management students and faculty at Makerere University.