“Que notre passé nous serve à bâtir le présent pour un avenir prosper [sic]” (p. 221 – “that our past may serve us to build the present for a prosperous future”). In August 2010, on the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of Gabonese independence and of the Year of Africa, in which seventeen African nation-states gained independence, a banner with this slogan and with the seventeen national flags was carried through the streets of Gabon’s capital city Libreville. This anecdote sums up quite a lot of what the book “Remembering Independence”, co-authored by Carola Lentz and David Lowe, is about. The quote evokes the active remembrance of independence, the importance of icons and symbols, the interplay of past, present and future, the simultaneous local, national and transnational spatial dimensions, and through observing a present performance of historical reference also the interdisciplinary character of a book written by a historian and an anthropologist.
“Remembering Independence” appeared as the fifth book in the Routledge series “Remembering the Modern World”, for which co-author David Lowe is also one of the series editors. The title is a bit underspecified, as in reality the book does not focus on collective memories and commemorations of (national) independence in general, but only independence from colonial rule in selected countries in Africa and Asia-Pacific. The countries that are dealt with in detail all gained independence between the end of the Second World War and the end of the Cold War: Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, India, Indonesia, Madagascar, Malaysia, Namibia and Papua New Guinea. However, thanks to the sophisticated combination of empirical description, comparison, and conceptual or theoretical reflections, the book has analytical relevance beyond the concrete cases that are actually addressed.
Concretely, the book consists of an introduction, six chapters, and a section with final reflections. It also contains twelve pages index. The first chapter sketches the conceptual framework and introduces the media where the remembrance of independence takes place. Pierre Nora’s 1980s concept of “lieu de mémoire” (site of memory) proves useful here, as it combines the concentration on a specific site with a “maximum amount of meaning” inscribed onto that site, thus giving space to inclusion as well as exclusion, shared identity as well as dissent and contestation. The books, museums, monuments, heroes, martyrs, and national days highlighted in this chapter presage the following chapters 2 to 4.
Chapter 2 deals with independence days as mediating moments between past, present and future. The declaration of independence in itself proves to be one of the “less controversial events” in the creation of the new political unit (p. 5), therefore allowing to rally behind it, to become a trope for lost hopes and frustrated futures, as well as a metaphor for political agendas and achievements. Independence is both a flexible idea (p. 217) and as a site of memory not too controversial.
Chapter 3 zooms in on the iconic national heroes around which both unity and division, inclusion and contestation crystallize. The smaller “martyrs, victims, and anti-heroes” of liberation who vie for a place in the national gallery, are addressed in chapter 4. In both chapters, the national pantheon, the changes in the selection of national heroes or martyrs of independence, as well as the shifting symbolic meanings reflect political evolutions and realignments in the relation between past and present. Each of these chapters juxtaposes three countries, more precisely Ghana, Malaysia and Papua new Guinea in the chapter on independence days (ch. 2), Ghana, India and Namibia in the chapter on national heroes (ch. 3), and Indonesia, Madagascar and Namibia in the chapter on martyrs, victims, and anti-heroes (ch. 4). The same applies to the two last chapters of the book, which add a spatial and temporal dimension to the analysis.
In chapter 5 (focusing on Ivory Coast, Malaysia and Papua New Guinea) regional differences as well as the concentration of commemoration in specific places – typically the capital cities – is used to map the remembering of independence. The Ivorian attempt, since the early days of the independent state, to incorporate the whole national territory by circulating independence commemoration ceremonies around the country, contrasts with the Bougainville secessionism in Papua New Guinea, meanwhile having led to an overwhelming (over 98%) vote in favour of yet another independence at the end of 2019.
Chapter 6 in turn deals with the temporal flexibility in choosing which past is remembered for which future as part of contemporary political agendas. Ivory Coast, India and Madagascar are used to illustrate the historical depth that is constructed in the remembrance of independence, thereby referring to precolonial political entities or proto-national heroes presaging the independent nation.
The strength of this book lies in the balance between description and comparison. The distinguishing characteristics of the eight selected countries (or by extension of postcolonial Africa and Asia-Pacific in general), the similarities and differences between the eight cases at hand, as well as the differences and changes over time within each of these countries provide complexity to the ethnographical and historical analysis of past, present and future in the remembering of independence. It also leads to outspoken conclusions, for instance that apart from some formalities (like street parades or midnight ceremonies) neither former colonizer nor continent determine how independence is remembered, but that the role of precolonial references or postcolonial alliances and experiences lead to similarities and distinctions. “‘Independence’ [as ideal] rather than decolonization [as historical process] became a key concept in political discourse” (p. 2).
The book meets the ambitions and expectations it raised. It is also a pleasant read, richly illustrated and replete with insightful examples. In this regard, I want to draw the reader’s attention to a free access online archive, released in 2019 and containing over 28,000 images, which builds on the research on commemorations of independence across Africa by Carola Lentz and her colleagues at the Johannes Gutenberg University of Mainz: https://bildarchiv.uni-mainz.de/AUJ/ This archive is an indication of the empirical richness and the explicitly acknowledged teamwork that underpins this at first sight rather unpretentious book.