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African studies book by UTSC historian wins national prize

AFRICAN HISTORY: Professor Stephen Rockel, pictured with his book, has won a national prize for the best book on African studies. (Photo by Ken Jones.)

by Mary Ann Gratton

A book by UTSC history professor Stephen Rockel has won the Joel Gregory Prize from the Canadian Association of African Studies for the best book on African studies published by a Canadian, a Canadian landed immigrant, or an African educated in Canada.

Rockel’s book is titled Carriers of Culture: Labor on the Road in Nineteenth-Century East Africa (Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2006). The biennial prize was presented at this year’s meeting of the Canadian African Studies conference, held at Queen’s University in Kingston.

His book is described as “a journey, a labor history, a story of African initiative and adaptation to modernity, and a contribution to a history of Tanzania and East Africa that gives due attention to intersocietal linkages and networks.” The $500 prize is named in honour of the late Joel Gregory, an important scholar in African Studies in Canada known for his research and contributions to African demography.

“I was extremely happy,” Rockel responded when asked about the news. “I was particularly pleased because it came from my peers, and I’m proud that we have a very strong tradition in African studies here in Canada.”

Carriers of Culture is Rockel’s first book. “It was a long time coming,” he said. He began working on it in 1994, but had to set it aside for a few years after moving to South Africa to work. Originally from New Zealand, Rockel first came to Toronto following his undergraduate degree at the University of Auckland. He pursued his graduate studies in Canada, earning his Master’s and PhD from the University of Toronto. After teaching in South Africa, he returned to Canada in 1999. He then joined UTSC, earning a Connaught grant from the University of Toronto, along with funding from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC). These grants enabled him to travel to East Africa in 2000 and again in 2005 and 2006 to continue researching the book and other projects.

Rockel specializes in the modern history of sub-Saharan Africa, especially East, Central and Southern Africa. His research and teaching concentrate on the rapid changes brought by integration into the international economy, African responses to new opportunities, European imperialism and colonialism, and subsequent conflicts. His interest in imperial and postcolonial wars extends to comparative histories of conquest, domination and resistance throughout the colonial world. Although he is a social historian, his work also takes in perspectives from anthropology, political science and sociology, and covers a range of themes including labour migration, slavery, cultural change, urbanization and the “nation,” as well as new interpretations of conflict in Africa, Asia, and the Americas.

History has always held a special fascination for him. “There’s a saying that the past is another country,” he said. “I love the fact that history allows you to enter these other worlds, even though we only have tenuous links to them now. History provides great connections to the present, and it is still so relevant today.”

African history became the focus of his research focus for several reasons, he says. “The field really only got going after the Second World War,” he said. “It’s still a relatively young field, and many aspects of Africa attracted my interest.” Cultural aspects of Africa such as the music and its influences on North America, as well as his own love of travel, led him to pursue African history. Rockel has also been active in the anti-apartheid movement, which connected him with other Africans as well as historical scholars.

He has now been with U of T Scarborough for 10 years. “It’s the best of both worlds,” he said. “It’s the University of Toronto, but a more intimate campus, and I like the fact that I can talk to people in different disciplines and get to know them. Here in humanities, most of us think in terms of an interdisciplinary approach, which I certainly do.” He is also fond of the diversity on campus. “Students come here with backgrounds from everywhere in the world. They are terrifically grounded, down-to-earth people, and they all come with their own story and some life experience.”

Rockel has worked within the humanities department to establish African Studies as a new minor program, which launched this year. He is serving as program director and supervisor, and plans are in place to grow the interdisciplinary program in the future.

"On behalf of the campus community, I'd like to congratulate Stephen Rockel on his book and on receiving the Joel Gregory Prize," said Professor William Bowen, chair of the department of humanities. "The book represents a great deal of research and is a superb piece of scholarship. I am also delighted because it helps to shine the spotlight on African Studies here at the University of Toronto Scarborough."


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