Robert Maxon

Robert Maxon

Robert M. Maxon is the author of East Africa: An Introductory History

What do you hope your audience will take away from this work?
A good appreciation of the history of East Africa and also a good appreciation of where East African countries are at present - the difficulties and challenges facing these countries, as a result of past economical and political challenges.

Tell me about the time you spent in East Africa.
I have spent a lot of time in East Africa. My first experience was in 1961, at Makerere College (now University) in Kampala, Uganda. My main area of study was East African education, but I sat in for history and geography classes as well. This was undertaken as part of the training for the first Teachers for East Africa Program. I was then posted as an Education Officer for the government of Kenya, serving as a high school teacher (history, English, geography, Swahili). I held that profession for three years, then went back to the U.S for graduate school. I was in Kenya primarily from 1968-1969 for research on my dissertation, then I would go back for varying amounts of time for research from 1978-1979, 1989-1990. I have had three periods since then which allowed me to carry out research as a visiting professor at Moi University.

What are your reasons for continuing to revisit the people and history of this region?
It is my area of expertise. I have been employed by the taxpayers of West Virginia to be an expert on that area - that may sounds facetious, but it’s an area of interest to me. I am particularly interested in the history of Kenya. A number of graduates from our program focused on East Africa for their concentrations, so my many visits helps to keep me up-to-date.

Why Kenya?
The fact that it is a fascinating country. I am interested in the continued problems and challenges the country faces as a product of past history. I also have family ties - my wife is Kenyan, so there are family connections

Describe the research that went into this book.
This is the third edition of the book, so it has been long researched. I've been teaching East African classes that we first introduced in 1973. In doing that, there was a necessity to research the history of the country. I based or started my research on what I used in class for a number of years, then reading into the varying aspects of the history meant looking at the relevant secondary books and, particularly, archaeology journals of their early history. I then used my own history of their colonial periods, because that's what I concentrated in. I looked at a lot of secondary sources and primary sources that I used in my own research, like the archives in Kenya and Great Britain.

What sets this edition apart from the other two?
We have added additional material to bring a better account of events up through the first decade of the twenty-first century. We added and altered a good deal of material having to do with the early history of the East African region. This was necessary because of the changing archaeological records. We have to depend a lot on recent archaeological findings and their interpretation. I was concerned about revising certain parts of the book that I felt needed to be updated, because of my own research.

What frustrations go into writing historical nonfiction?
The question of trying to get everything right for a textbook is frustrating. It is very important to not have factual errors creep in. There is also always the problem of wanting to write more then would be feasible in a relatively short textbook. We can’t include everything, so we have to make decisions about what is really important and interesting, and then, what can we really do without.

What is rewarding about writing historical fiction?
I think getting a story that can be relatively easy to read, as well as a good background and introduction to the history of the region, is always a satisfaction for the historian. It becomes a challenge to meet all those goals - to write something that is readable and easy to understand, as well as appealing to the specialists.

Describe the feeling of being honored with having the Robert M. Maxon Graduate Scholarship in Modern African History named after you?
I appreciate the thoughts of my colleagues, who were influential in the history department, to have that honor set up. It is very much a testament to the graduate students that completed PhDs in the African history - their success in the positions they have today and their publications that made our program so well known.

What difficulties arose when including all the maps in the textbook?
I got a lot of help from the specialist in the geography department. Professor Kenneth Martis supervised it. I was very pleased with how the maps came out. They were quite accurate, which is a positive thing about the book and sets it apart from other histories of East Africa

How long did it take to complete this manuscript, from conception?
The original depth took about four or five months to put together, but it’s been revised for the first edition, the second edition, and the third, so each of those books took a month or two to focus on. The original I had worked on extensively during one of my sabbaticals, and was able to take advantage of being in east Africa, which helped me access a lot of the sources that were more difficult to obtain in the U.S.

Why is this book more valuable to a student of history than another title that covers its topic?
Well, because it is based upon thorough and very up-to-date research, as well as adopting more the perspective of the peoples of East Africa then some of the other previous books, which have been written more from an outsider's perspective. The maps are a strong positive. Another strength is the basic adopted terminology and spelling in the book is very relative to the people of East Africa.

Do you have any projects coming up?
Right now, I am trying to finish some contributions to the third edition of the Historical Dictionary of Kenya - I am one of the authors. I was coauthor of the second edition as well, and now we are moving to the third edition. I am also writing a foreword to a new book,The Economic History of Kenya, which will come out later this year or next year. I am working on a book that I hope to get finished fairly soon that focuses on the evolution of the Independence Constitution for Kenya, covering the periods of 1961-1963.

Do you have any travel plans coming up?
I hope to travel to Kenya by the end of the year. I have a lot of projects I’m starting that I have to go there to do some research for. It’s the story of a famous murder case that occurred in 1959-60 in Kenya.