My fascination with watercourses probably dates to a childhood spent playing along the bayous of Houston, Texas. My academic interest in history only emerged as an undergraduate at the University of Texas at Austin, when I chucked my undergraduate journalism major to study history, a field that I found more useful at explaining the complexities of the world around me. I also had a more general interest in international affairs, and the campus anti-apartheid movement drew me naturally to Southern Africa. The year I arrived at Stanford University to pursue a Ph.D. in African history, Namibia became independent and the Berlin Wall fell. For the first time in decades it was possible for historians from the West to access archives that would permit an examination of the joint legacies of German and South African colonialism in Namibia. Even in that arid country, I was drawn to rivers—particularly the Kavango of northeastern Namibia, on the Angolan border. But the colonial records for that region had been destroyed in Namibia's protracted war with South Africa, and I decided a dissertation with no archival base was professional suicide. So I moved on, to north-central Namibia, where half the country's population lived, and wrote a history of changing generational relationships under colonialism. In the late 1990s I was teaching in Georgetown University's Department of History and School of Foreign Service, and I was finishing research for a book on Christianity in northern Namibia. It was the dry season there and the seasonal river that drained into the region was bone-dry, but water was, metaphorically at least, everywhere. It was there when I asked about missionaries, when I asked about kings, and when I asked about migrant labor. It became apparent that water—in the form of seasonal and perennial rivers as well as rain—had long been central to political, religious, and economic life in this delta and within the adjacent watersheds. As I read more widely, I realized that the same situation prevailed across the semi-arid river basins of much of the Southern African region. People's identities, their political institutions, and their ritual worlds were grounded not only in the land, but also in the rivers that flowed across that land. The more I thought about it, the more it amazed me that historians—including me—had for so long mostly ignored the importance of water in a region with so little of it. My initial thought was to write a history of water and politics in precolonial Southern Africa. But at about the same time, the region's water began attracting the attention of the policy world. Namibia's plans to dam Epupa Falls on the Kunene River and displace local pastoralists provoked international opposition, Namibia and Botswana disputed water rights on the Kavango River, the Lesotho Highlands Water Project garnered international scrutiny, and Mozambique was devastated by floods along the Zambezi. This project emerged, then, from a desire to learn what light history could shed on these contemporary events and the social and political processes they unleashed.
B.A. (1989) History, University of Texas at Austin; M.A. (1992) History, Stanford University;
Ph.D. (1995) History, Stanford University
- Associate Professor, Department of History and School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University, 2003-present
- Assistant Professor, Department of History and School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University, 1996-2003
- Visiting Assistant Professor, Department of History, Southwestern University, 1995-96
Southern Africa: impact of colonialism on environment, gender, religious identities, political relations
This project historicizes and compares current conflicts over river resources in the six major river systems of Southern Africa, a region considered at risk of conflict over freshwater resources. Using secondary sources and primary research, I demonstrate that riparian claims have been central to political identities and conceptions of sovereignty for centuries. The continued importance of water control to national sovereignty drives regional cooperation and deters regional conflict over the rivers, but it also raises the stakes for water control because a challenge to state control over riparian resources is viewed as a challenge to the state itself.