Most people don’t know much about Lesotho, a landlocked country encircled by South Africa. For Dr. Conz, however, it’s the center of his historical research, and the questions he explores there are relevant on a global scale. Dr. Christopher Conz is a lecturer in the Department of History at Tufts University where he teaches African history. His research focuses on knowledge of the environment — how people use resources to produce meaningful things they can make a living from, and how this knowledge is produced, circulated, and applied.
In order to answer these questions, Dr. Conz found himself in Lesotho, drawing upon a network of academics there. In addition, he spends time in rural areas where people make their living from the land. Dr. Conz draws upon written material evidence such as government reports, journals, and newspapers, but also uses oral sources as well, talking to people about their memories and how they experienced a particular process of change. One particular topic Dr. Conz is interested in is the history, politics, and environmental dimensions of pellagra, a nutritional deficiency disease caused by a lack of niacin, which is common when people eat too much processed maize meal. He brings together oral histories to speak to questions about how the disease occurred in a particular place, and how people understood it and interacted with it, trying to understand how the disease unfolded and how people produce knowledge about it. From there, Dr. Conz aims to create a narrative that everyday people, scientists, or policymakers can learn from. Says Dr. Conz, “I hope the lessons of the past can inform the way scientists, researchers, and policymakers think about the present in a tangible way.”
Christopher Conz with Friend and Interviewee Mokhafisi Kena (1925-2016) in Qacha’s Nek, Lesotho, January 2015. Received from: https://christopherconz.com/photos/
Dr. Conz is aware of how his research takes place in a political context, and that understanding pellagra and malnutrition as only a technical issue misses the root of the problem. Knowing the political and social context surrounding the disease reveals how connected it is to grave inequalities and injustice. In addition to engaging with technology, science, and environmental changes, we must also take into account the system under which people live and struggle. For Dr. Conz, the people he speaks with are more than just research subjects. Entangled in their social networks, he has become invested in their well being, making friends along the way. For Conz, these bonds are important. “As a historian, I’m first and foremost a humanist. I want to understand the human condition,” he says.
What’s next for Dr. Conz? He plans to finish his book that focuses on his research in Lesotho while also focusing on a few case studies throughout Africa of farmers who resisted trends towards large scale agriculture that do more harm than good. These histories of resistance and agroecology, which is a set of ideals for cultivation of food and working with natural systems to provide sustenance, will bring Conz out of Lesotho to a more transnational level. He hopes to collaborate with colleagues throughout the African continent to bring together individual stories and create a narrative of cultivating change. These narratives have global implications for other urban justice food movements, showcasing the important political and social dimensions of farming systems throughout the world.