In 1952, a young Belgian scholar of European medieval history travelled to the Belgian Congo (now Zaire) to live in a remote Kuba village. Armed with a smattering of training in African cultures and language, Jan Vansina was sent to do fieldwork for a Belgian cultural agency. As it turned out, he would help to found the field of African history, with a handful of other European and African scholars. ""I'm not an ethnologist, I'm a historian!"" Vansina was to repeat again and again to those who assumed that people without written texts have no history. His discovery that he could analyse Kuba oral tradition using the same methods he had learned for interpreting medieval dirges was a historiographical breakthrough, and his first book, ""Oral Tradition"", is considered the seminal work that gave the study of pre-colonial African history both the scholarly justification and the self-confidence it had been lacking. ""Living with Africa"" is a memoir of Vansina's life and career on three continents, interwoven with the story of African history as a scholarly speciality. In the background of his narrative are the collapse of colonialism in Africa and the emergence of newly independent nations; in the foreground are the first conferences on African history, the founding of journals and departments, and the efforts of Africans to establish a history curriculum for the schools in their new nations.
Jan Vansina is the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Professor and the Vilas Professor in History and Anthropology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. His many books include his 1994 memoir Living with Africa, Oral Tradition as History, Kingdoms of the Savanna, and The Children of Woot, all published by the University of Wisconsin Press.