RCAH Professor John Aerni-Flessner Publishes Book on Colonial Africa

October 1, 2018

  • New book focuses on the end of colonialism in Lesotho, Southern Africa.
  • Aerni-Flessner’s research will help students better understand how Africa fits into global themes.
  • Through the experience, he learned to be an “active observer.”

By Kara Dempsey '19

Professor John Aerni-Flessner of the Residential College in the Arts and Humanities (RCAH) at Michigan State University has published his first book, “Dreams for Lesotho: Independence, Foreign Assistance, and Development,” featuring his extensive research on the history of development at the end of colonialism and after independence in Africa, with a particular focus on the country of Lesotho in southern Africa. The book is available from the University of Notre Dame Press.

He will give a talk on the book from 12:15 to 1:30 p.m. on Monday, October 29, 2018, at the MSU Museum Auditorium, as part of the Our Daily Work/Our Daily Lives brown bag lecture series.

Lesotho is where Aerni-Flessner continued his studies after earning his bachelor’s degree, and he quickly began to dig deeper into its history. The book uses archives from governments in four different countries to analyze why people believe in the idea of development, and explores why plans to help eliminate poverty often have failed.

Apart from the difficulties studying a region halfway across the world, Aerni-Flessner said he faced other challenges while researching Lesotho, such as the lack of important documents in the national archives that would have been helpful in tracing the late colonial and early post-independence periods.

“While this limits in some ways the stories I can tell, it has also forced me to be creative in thinking about how to access parts of a story that might not be available archivally,” he explained. To fill in the gaps, Aerni-Flessner relied on oral histories and found other places that keep documents in order to tell the stories he was trying to tell.

When it came to language and cultural barriers, Aerni-Flessner had a network of friends to refer questions to that aided him in his research. Aerni-Flessner said he learned to use his connections in his research when it came to day-to-day observations. There were times when something was happening that would have been impolite or imprudent to inquire about, but having a network of trusted local friends to speak with afterward really helped him get a better understanding of local practice.

“In order to succeed I needed to better understand how the education system worked, and that involved a lot of sitting and observing,” he explained. “But I learned to be an active observer. This has really paid off, both as a teacher trying to fit my teaching to my students’ interests and frames of reference. But also in terms of being a researcher who can now make sense of what I am seeing and hearing from a wide variety of people and sources.”

Aerni-Flessner has taken his published research and implemented it into his lessons in the classroom at RCAH, noting the relevance that historical development issues have in contemporary African politics and economics. 

“I do think that Americans in general and my students in particular should come out of my classes with a more nuanced understanding of how Africa and particular African countries fit into global themes,” he noted.

Not only has Aerni-Flessner taken his research to the classroom and bookshelves, but he also has implemented research and experiences into his own perspective on life and the world. His experiences teaching in Africa yielded much he draws on in his career.

“When we are better informed as citizens, we can ask for the same level of nuance and analysis about African affairs that we do about European, Asian, or even Latin American affairs,” he said. “That is just one reason of many why I think it is important to give people a better sense of the histories, cultures, and contemporary events in Africa.”

Read more about Dreams for Lesotho: Independence, Foreign Assistance, and Development.

In late November 2018, Aerni-Flessner was asked by Lansing Mayor Andy Schor to serve on the Advisory Council Board for a grant the city received through the National Parks Service to help research and document the history of the construction of I-496 and its impacts on the local African-American community. This stems from the work he did last year in RCAH 192 (which he is scheduled to do again in the spring) with his students in researching and creating the website on Lansing Urban Renewal.