I never thought that my research would take me to the basement of the building where the conference of Brazzaville took place in 1944. The room smelt of moisture and hundreds of documents created by the French colonial administration were stacked in front of me on rusty shelves. Even if most colonial files are not decaying in the basement but are located in an arguably safer room, the colonial archives of Congo are not in a good shape.
Knowing the relationship between France and its former colonies (especially Congo-Brazzaville), it might be necessary to ask why these documents are still quite hard to access. The slow disappearance of these archives might be in everyone’s interests. The building in which they are located is only a temporary building shared with the Congolese Centre for Dramatic Arts. Compared to other archives in Africa, the situation seems concerning to say the least.
This is exactly why I planned to travel to Congo at the beginning of January 2015. I have worked on the history of borders in the north-eastern corner of Nigeria but because of the Boko Haram insurgency, going back to Borno in Nigeria was out of the question. My aim was to determine whether future studies on Congolese borders were feasible but I also wanted to help future researchers to study Congo or French Equatorial Africa.
I did not travel there on my own. I went to Brazzaville with Jean-Pierre Bat from the French National Archives. With the support of the director of the Congolese archives, Brice Owabira, and the head of a Congolese ministerial agency in charge of the archives, Raoul Ngokaba, we digitised sample documents taken from the archives. The Institut francais of Brazzaville also helped us digitise the inventories of the files. Cataloguing can take quite a long time and if researchers can have access to the inventories before even setting foot in the archives, this could save us precious time.
The next logical step was to create a website dedicated to the colonial archives of French Equatorial Africa. The site gives details on access conditions for potential researchers and retraces the history of the colonial archives kept in Brazzaville. More importantly, users can find a few sample documents and the inventories of the Gouvernement Général and the Inspection Générale de l’Enseignement. A pdf file containing the reference numbers for a document is always a good way to start a research project.
This project was a pilot project to determine whether this experiment should be repeated in other archives centres in Congo or in the rest of Africa. The answer is yes and, clearly, this is how digital humanities can help researchers to learn more about the African past.