David Brokensha

Interviewed by Alan Macfarlane
Filmed by Alan Macfarlane
Indexed by Sarah Harrison
Interview Length: 1 hour, 37 minutes, and 43 seconds
Interview date: August 25, 2006

Description of Interview

“I have always been a gradualist,” explains David Brokensha, who is perhaps best known for his work consolidating anthropology and development. In this extremely enlightening interview, we not only learn about the intellectual influences of earlier anthropologists (e.g., Monica Wilson), but also of the insights Brokensha gained through his many professional roles, such as being a rural development officer in Kenya. Although Brokensha acknowledges the importance of critics such as James Ferguson and Arturo Escobar, he remains a proponent of development anthropology. While many might believe development to be a “disruptive” force, “run by capitalists for capitalists,” there is, he firmly believes, still room within such as a system to facilitate change, however gradual that change may be.

This interview with Brokensha is also about his personal life. Brokensha was born in 1923 in Winkelspruit near Durban, South Africa. He attended Durban Preparatory High School where he was taught by Nevil Nuttall, an English teacher who was to leave a lasting impression. It was in 1951 on a ship sailing from England where Nuttal met Evans-Pritchard, another mentor for Brokensha who, along with his mother, was on the same ship. Some years before this “significant juncture,” Brokensha was a World War II prisoner-of-war, held captive not far from Tripoli and then near Dresden. It was only some years later, at the age of 31, when Brokensha realized that during his time in captivity, he had been in love with Wolfgang, one of the German guards. He explains, “until then, when I met Bernard [Riley], who was my life partner, I didn’t recognize I was gay.” Riley and Brokensha remained partners and intellectual collaborators until Riley’s death in 2004.

Partial Video Index

0:05:05 Born in 1923 in Winkelspruit, near Durban; father was a lawyer, later a judge whose own father had come from Cornwall in 1870; mother came from Lancashire as a nursing sister and parents married in 1915; youngest of three sons; dull, happy childhood; mother's experience working in slums of Edinburgh made her aware of similar situation in South Africa; grew up in a White melieu and only when I later joined the army that I became more aware; father was a good father and supportive; mother always present; another member of the family was Elizabeth Calderwood who came from Glasgow, who joined the household aged 21 after mother lost first baby aged 37 (she was 45 when I was born) and stayed until I was six

4:54:10 Went to local schools - Durban Preparatory High School then to Durban High School which then had 350 boys, all White; good school, had the advantage of a remarkable English teacher, Nevil Nuttall; edited the school magazine and was secretary of the debating society under his encouragement; one of his sons became Anglican Bishop; in 1951 I was traveling out from Oxford on Union Castle Line with Evans-Pritchard and his family, my mother with me who was friendly with Evans-Pritchard's wife; Nevil Nuttall was on the same ship; and important juncture when two mentors met; Nuttall was a gentle man who encouraged love of literature, showing that you did not have to be loud and vulgar to be strong

6:48:00 Left school at 16 in 1940 and went to Rhodes University College in Grahamstown for just two terms; July 1940 middle brother, Paul, and I joined up; eldest brother Guy was quite an air ace who had joined the Fleet Air Arm in 1937 and was already decorated; Paul and I wanted to be pilots but I was too young; both became dispatch riders having been promised Harley-Davidsons which at 17 was irresistible; had a year in South Africa training at Potchefstroom which had an Afrikaans university and was one of the heartlands of the Nationalists who were pro-German and against South Africa entering the War so some quite unpleasant fights between locals and the soldiers; after a year went to North Africa with the 2nd South African Division and spent a year in the desert before being captured - 22,000 South Africans were captured in June 1942 at Tobruk; until a few days before capture had had an easy war; Paul and I taken prisoner; spent 6 months in Tahuna, about 35 miles south of Tripoli, in the desert, in a prisoner-of-war camp run by the Italians; Paul and I were both strong swimmers and before we were caught had agreed to go to the coast and swim outside the area of Tobruk where we could meet up with our forces; we did not realize they were 80 miles away; caught on a beach by Germans who apologized for handing us over to the Italians; after Tahuna, taken to Frascati, near Rome for 15 months; escaped in the armistice; caught again after 11 days and sent to Dresden; Paul was a Sergeant and I was a Lance Corporal but as father had wanted us to stay together he came to the working camp and was the senior prisoner-of-war; I worked in the Post Office loading parcels which was permitted by the Geneva Convention; generally got on well with the Germans who were supervising and with the guards; I spoke a little German and became very friendly with Wolfgang, one of the guards, my age; we would speak to each other in the other's language about our plans for going to university after the war; only realized afterwards, when I was 31, that I was in love with Wolfgang; until then when I met Bernard who was my life partner I didn't recognize that I was gay; I was very distressed when Dresden was bombed in February 1945; desperate to see Wolfgang but when I did he told me in German not to speak to him again; learnt that his sister's flat had been bombed and she and family killed so I could understand; we were 8km from the centre of Dresden so not bombed directly though we could see it; going through the town later thought I could never get the stench out of me; looters shot including an American who had been captured in the Ardennes

14:56:20 Experience as a prisoner-of-war decided me that I would not be pushed around; demobilized and went to Britain then back to South Africa; father was a Judge in Britain at that time and chairman of South African Prisoners-of-War Relatives Association; Paul and I saw him in Brighton; got back to South Africa in July with desire to join the Air Force to emulate brother Guy who had disappeared in 1942 but dropping of the atomic bomb ended the necessity; went back to Rhodes University and was able to finish a degree in two years on political science and economy; had become familiar with the problems in South Africa and thought that if Whites could be persuaded it was not only morally right but to their economic benefit they would loosen up on the Blacks; applied for an Elsie Ballot scholarship to Cambridge; 8 were given in 1947 and I was awarded the eighth; in my favour was that I had been a prisoner-of-war and was a fair swimmer; scholarship changed my life; in my last year at Rhodes had started anthropology, firstly with J.D. Krige and then Monica Wilson; she was terrific and another major influence on me; the last thing I had published was a lecture I gave on her ideas about social change; she was a student of Malinowski; made me feel that anthropology could have some sort of answers to the problems of South Africa, and still think so; on Sunday evenings she would ask a few of us round to supper; when I became a teacher at University of California followed her lead and invited students for Sunday lunches; her son, Francis Wilson, is a well-known economist in South Africa; he remembers when about 8 hiding under the table to hear our conversation

20:53:10 Went to Cambridge because of the scholarship though knew nothing about it; accepted at Christ's and for first year read economics; by the terms of the scholarship were supposed to go back and so some sort of public service; had a very good tutor but economics didn't really grab my imagination; did part 2 of the tripos in social anthropology; there met Paul Baxter and David Pocock; at that time only 6 of us doing the tripos and we three went on to do postgraduate work at Oxford because Cambridge was in the doldrums; Hutton was professor (1949); Reo Fortune and wife, Mildred, used to entertain us at Duck End for Sunday tea; Reo's lectures were spellbinding; Hutton not very impressive; also did some archaeology and physical anthropology; met Godfrey Lienhardt, the first Roman Catholic that I got to know well, with his friend Talog Davies who went on to become Attorney General in Malaysia; Godfrey one of the brightest men I ever met and could relax about Catholicism; as a result I started going to see Father Gilbey who was Catholic chaplain at that time; moved to Oxford and finished instruction there and was received into the Catholic church with sponsors being Evans-Pritchard and Godfrey; this gave rise to the rumour that they were proselytizing but quite untrue

26:48:14 Joined the church in June 1950; in 1954 when in the Colonial Service I met Bernard Riley and decided to spend my life with him; at that time I was 31 and had resigned from the service and intended to become a Catholic priest; I wanted to go back to South Africa and learn Zulu and become a priest in Zululand; dilemma of recognizing I was gay and wanting to be a priest; decided to go with Bernard so did not receive communion for 10 years; when I returned to Ghana I discussed this with a Benedictine priest who offered to give me communion; Bernard was also in the Colonial Service when I met him; he was 3 years younger and teaching at Tanga High School; at that time no university in Tanganyika but Tanga High School, which had been set up by Germans, was the oldest in the country; half the staff were white British with some Africans and Arabs; Bernard taught geography which he had studied with geology at Manchester University; he had been in army intelligence during the war in India; we met at the Tanga Yaught Club and he proposed spending life together (1954); not easy - had 6 months together in Tanga and had to be quite discrete; Bernard resigned at the end of his tour; both went to England and spent 6 months in London and then Bernard went to teach in Rhodesia in Bulawayo at Founders' High School which was the only school for coloureds and Indians in the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyassaland; after 9 months in Tanganyika including spell in Njombe and Tunduru as District Commissioner, a job I liked; Tanganyika was not a colony but a mandate of the United Nations so no heavy hand of colonialism; only a few occasions felt uncomfortable; one in Tunduru when the Liwali, Muslim headman, came and politely and asked to be able to drum at Id as previously D.C.'s wife had said they gave her a headache and forbidden them; I asked if I could join them and we had a great party; I had worried that I would be expected to witness judicial hangings as I have always been opposed to capital punishment but fortunately it never arose; proud of my service there

35:09:05 I spent two years at Oxford doing a B.Lit.; Baxter and Pocock had both read English and Cambridge with F.R. Leavis; I did a 20,000 word thesis on the Southern Nguni, the frontier wars between the Xhosa and British in the nineteenth century; supervised by Lienhardt and Max Gluckman was my external examiner; met John Beattie then at Oxford doing D.Phil.; he had spent nine years in the Colonial Service and he and Meyer Fortes advised me to go for administration and I applied for the Colonial Service; under the terms of my scholarship I was supposed to go back to South Africa; by then in 1950 the Nationalist Government had been in power for two years; I wrote to the Native Affairs Department in Pretoria and they were not interested in an English-speaking liberal and they only offered me a temporary clerkship; I asked the scholarship trustees if I could fulfill the terms of my scholarship by going to the Colonial Service which they agreed to; under the influence of Godfrey and E-P I applied to the Sudan Political Service but told that it wasn't politically expedient to appoint a white South African; joined the Colonial Service but had to spend another year at Oxford doing the cadet course at Wadham College, learning Swahili; later in 1960 when I came back to do D.Phil. I had to have had 6 terms at Oxford and this year gave me the requisite number with the B.Lit.

39:32:24 Finally left the Colonial Service because of Bernard in 1956 but also convinced that independence was coming; had met Julius Nyerere in Njombe when I was D.C. when he came with a delegation from TANU; he was little known then but I gave a party for him and he was one of the most impressive men I have ever met; my mother then staying with me as my parents had separated and Nyerere entered the room and saw her as the eldest person and went and talked politely with her; afterwards I was reprimanded as I should not have encouraged a political party as D.C.; his ability convinced me that independence was not far off; then I had anticipated within 10-15 years, but it was only 5 years in 1961; Bernard then teaching in Bulawayo and I went to work in the city of Bulawayo department of African administration; big department headed by Hugh Ashton, himself an anthropologist with a doctorate on the Basutu; I was given a job in the African townships; very different from the Colonial Service; given a Harley-Davidson to drive around but took some time to adjust to being part of a bureaucracy; fortunately because of Ashton's inspired leadership Bulawayo had some of the best housing in Southern Africa and I worked in an innovative home-ownership scheme where Africans were encouraged to own their own homes and the rent was deducted from their employers, so no problem of rent arrears; money from beer gardens went into building swimming pools and an art centre; looking back we were naively optimistic about integration and had seriously considered staying there but in 1958 the struggle for independence broke out and we realized there was no place for us; decided to leave and Bernard applied for a Fulbright scholarship to Indiana University where he got a Ph.D. in geography; I wrote to Paul Baxter for advice and he suggested I applied for a post in social administration at the University of Ghana where he was teaching; I taught in Ghana for four years during which time Bernard and I were able to meet about once a year; in his third year Professor George Kimball, his supervisor, was asked to recommend someone for a temporary post in geography at the University of Ghana and he recommended Bernhard who was writing a thesis comparing natural resources in Ghana and Zambia so he joined me for a year; separation painful but strengthened relationship

46:23:07 Taught course in social administration to men and women who were middle level civil servants including a few from Cameroon, Nigeria and Togo, who came for a two-year course; they were highly motivated as a pass meant better housing and an allowance for a car; a joy to teach and they taught me a lot; my first experience of an independent country; went in 1959 and Ghana independent two year's earlier; liberating; at that time there were a lot of South Africans in University; although I have not been to Ghana since 1988 know it is like a second home; also taught some courses in department of sociology where Paul Baxter and Raymond Smith were teaching; the head of department was a remarkable American, St Clair Drake, who had been one of the first black students in anthropology at University of Chicago; he arranged my teaching so I could do fieldwork; with Paul Baxter's guidance I chose a community called Larteh on the Akwapim Ridge, less than an hour's drive from the university; taught Monday to Wednesday then went to Larteh for the rest; unorthodox way of doing fieldwork but did it for three years with extra time during vacations; I was doing fieldwork as I wanted to join Bernard and we both knew that we had to get a Ph.D. to get a decent post at an American university; as soon as I had settled in Ghana wrote to Evans-Pritchard who encouraged me; then wrote to Sir Maurice Bowra the Warden of Wadham College asking to come back; got a letter which I treasure saying he had talked with Evans-Pritchard that he could do what he liked; at the same time Bernhard was struggling through a variety of required courses at Indiana where all I had to do was a dissertation; E-P appointed Paul Baxter as my supervisor and even after he left continued the commitment with great encouragement, a model I have tried to follow; my thesis was a study of social change at Larteh; a good choice as in 1960 Africa was highlighted in American institutions and I managed to get a term's leave at Washington College, Bellingham, where Bernard had spent the previous summer; realized Bernard and I could happily live at an American university; my study of Larteh was one of the first of a small town (about 6000 people); I had hoped to have done a study in Northern Ghana like Jack Goody but Paul pointed out it would be very difficult to get to; main thesis was that Larteh had suffered a lot of change but unlike many where change caused problems, in Larteh it was the opposite; dissertation accepted then published; it had 22 reviews, mostly favourable; my strengths are not in detailed analysis but as an ethnographer; more importantly, the people of Larteh loved it; in 1970 when I went back there the Chief was holding an informal court when the book was brought out to confirm a detail
second part

0:05:05 Did joint study with Bernard in Kenya over a period of 18 years on the Mbeere; at the University of Ghana met David Apter who was a political scientist who had done studies in Ghana and Uganda from Berkeley; he ran the first Peace Corp training programme for a group of 40 teachers to come to Ghana and in 1962 invited me to direct the training programme at Berkeley; first experience of California; invited Bernard for his expertize as a geographer in Ghana and we ran 6 week course; as a result of this Apter suggested a move to Berkeley; from 1963 had an appointment with Apter and Seymour Martin Lipset who were directors of the Institute of International Studies; had an administrative post so stayed at Berkeley while Bernard still working on his PhD at Indiana; by this time my mother getting frail and had joined me; had a very pleasant house in Berkeley; Bernard joined us during vacations; after three years Apter advised me to get an academic post but there was no opening at Berkeley, partly because Apter was persona non grata with the anthropologists and partly because they had enough African anthropologists; applied to Santa Barbara, a smaller college, but very happy there as we had a lot of freedom; Charles Erasmus, the first Chairman, let us teach what we liked once the introductory courses had been done; I succeeded Charles after two year in 1969, a year of increasing student protest against the Vietnam war; in the department we had hired a South American anthropologist for two years and in his last year he became radicalized saying grades were capitalist emblems and was giving students A+ for a doll of a Vietnamese child bombed by the Americans; his contract not renewed but the students said we had fired him and I as Chair became the villain; half the students signed a petition saying that Bill Allen should be reinstated and that I should be fired; ironic as Bill Allen and I were the most radical in the department and often saw each other at anti-war rallies but I have always worked from within the system; bruising year so decided to go away

6:20:10 Bernard had been offered a post in a prestigious department of geography at Berkeley but had come to Santa Barbara instead; he was not happy there and resigned after a couple of years; to be able to stay with me he took a library degree but no post and eventually became a lecturer in new department of environmental studies which was formed in 1974 after an oil spill; after a year I joined him getting 50% time in anthropology and 50% in environmental studies; we taught a joint course on environmental problems of the third world; most of our colleagues concentrated on North America with a little bit about Europe and Japan; we continued to teach together until we retired in 1989; Bernard handled the physical aspects while I dealt with the social environment; meanwhile I was teaching courses on social change in Africa, on minorities, apartheid, discrimination, also taught a graduate course on development; I was one of the first to do so; colleagues supported me though a diverse group; many of my students went on to teach development studies or into relevant posts; at the same time I was a director for 25 years of a non-profits institute for development anthropology with Michael Horowitz and Thayer Scudder with the aim of encouraging government agencies, World Bank etc. to use experts on our roster of development anthropologists, many from developing countries, who were available for consultation and advice; United States Agency for International Development introduced a requirement that all projects had to have a social soundness analysis from 1978; ideally anthropologists should be involved from the start and be there monitor and evaluate at the end; USAID at one time had 60 anthropologists but unfortunately many became bureaucrats and seldom spent time in the field; when I left the Director had been a Peace Corps volunteer in Peru which made an enormous difference as Americans are often insular

13:23:18 On development anthropology, in Britain some anthropologists remained sceptical; 1982-4 spent in London as Director of the University of California student exchange programme and Isaac Schapera encouraged me to get an affiliation with L.S.E. but told there was some objection as I was known to be doing development; for me it has been fulfilling; colleague Ted Scudder is probably the world expert on forced resettlement of people particularly as a result of man-made dams; he was involved in Three Gorges Dam from the beginning with the Canadian contractors and through him more provision was made for schools etc. though their lives are still miserable; we are not just band aid people but believe we have had some influence on policy of World Bank etc.; World Bank's chief sociologist for a number of year was a Romanian, Michael Cernea, who wrote a book called 'Putting People First' and had been responsible for appointments of anthropologists to many senior positions in the World Bank; I am proud of that; some anthropologists, Arturo Escobar and James Ferguson, are very sceptical about development; their line seems to be that development is fundamentally disruptive and wrong; many like Escobar come from a left-wing, Marxist, point of view and believe that development is run by capitalists for capitalists; this has not been my line; going back to Rhodesia, the Government before Ian Smith was fairly racist but we worked within it to make changes; I have always been a gradualist

17:09:01 Accepted post in Kenya as an area evaluator for a special rural development programme; area of low potential near the Tana River; asked to be sent there as I knew no African social scientist would want to go there and it was like Handani in Tanzania where I had been, another marginal area; spent 15 months there the first time and Bernard took leave and was with me for 9 months; I was employed by the Government of Kenya and University of Nairobi; some successes but the project was not adequately planned; wanted pastoralists to form communal ranches but nobody asked them and they failed; at Bernard's suggestion we applied to do a joint study of social and ecological change in this Mbeeri division and were able to get National Science Foundation grants and came out for two periods of about a year each in the 1970's; went back again whenever we could so that over an 18 year period we monitored the changes; focused on changes in vegetation as people had told us that deforestation was occurring at quite a rapid rate, partly due to increased population, partly encouragement to make charcoal which destroyed hardwood trees; published two volume book, one a botanical dictionary of trees; very impressed by indigenous knowledge; we became instant pioneers in social forestry; 1975 Eric Ekholm wrote a book called 'The Other Energy Crisis', the main being oil, this on deforestation; became focus for our work; forestry department's response was to encourage communal wood lots which seldom worked as there was a mistaken assumption that there was a cooperative community; this was main reason for the collapse of Nyerere's Ujamaa programme which was also founded on this belief; they will cooperate within the family group but in a village there are always feuds and factions; also women expected to do all the work in raising the trees but the men took the profit when selling; tried to encourage local foresters to ask the indigenous people what they knew about trees; one example was 'melia volkensii' which we had seen growing in straight rows, obviously planted by local farmers; asked a forester why they did not grow them and told it was far too difficult to germinate and they planted eucalyptus and pine which the locals didn't like; asked a local how did it and told that goats ate the seeds and enzymes in the goat's stomach allowed the seeds found in their excreta to germinate; melia is a multipurpose tree providing shade, goats eat the fruit, and a good hardwood for building; in 1980 coedited with Mike Warren whom I'd first met as a Peace Corps volunteer 'Indigenous Knowledge and Development'; one of the first such and many contributors were influenced by Robert Chambers at Sussex; idea that indigenous knowledge was a useful add-on, not an alternative to Western knowledge; had some difficulty persuading not only the World Bank but also African scientists

26:04:05 Retired 1989 and decided to move to Engand as Bernard unwell and had no medical aid provision in U.S.; in 1995 University of California allowed me to put Bernard onto my medical aid as my long-term partner and also given pension rights; spent ten years in Britain giving talks etc.; was active with Sandra Wallman in the group on applied anthropology; did a lot of traveling, exploring the world; also enjoyed opera etc.; 1999 went to South Africa, mainly for Bernard's health, but also I am fourth generation South African; settled in Cape Town, at Fish Hoek, where we lived for five years until Bernard died; that was two years ago but Bernard told me to get on with life so now traveling round the world; I do remain somewhat involved, Martin West and Mugsy Spiegel of University of Cape Town arranged for me to be an honorary professor in the department of anthropology; very good small department; Owen Sichone my Zambian colleague very active in development and occasionally I talk to his class if he is away; stimulating department where they discuss issues such as health, AIDS, poverty and housing, all relevant to South Africa; also discuss race, a topic that people feel uncomfortable discussing; I go for the weekly seminar; the piece I have done on Monica Wilson is probably my last publication

30:45:18 Memories of Evans-Pritchard; Polly Hill; Meyer Fortes; Lucy Mair; Audrey Richards; Isaac Schapera.