In ‘Comparing the Copperbelt’, we’re telling the social history of copper-mining regions in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Zambia. We’re examining them comparatively, and also in a sense as a single mining region– and then we’re looking at them as classic examples of the new urban environments that Africa experienced in the colonial period as a result of the global demand for minerals like copper. These new communities have been looked at by social scientists over an extended period but what really hasn’t been attempted before – and what’s new about this project – is looking at the creation of these societies from the perspective of the African societies themselves: how Africans understood this new urban identity, the new economies they were linked into, and the new kinds of politics and cultural outputs that were created in these urban space. Our project is about both historicizing the society but also understanding how Africans themselves came to understand them and articulated their view and understanding of these societies through politics, through social organisation, and through cultural outputs – music, painting and so on. Rather than looking at them from the perspective of colonial officials or mining companies, we’re focusing on the African voice as it developed from the 1950s through to the 1990s.
The scale offered by ERC grants is unique. This kind of funding gives us the possibility to run not just a single research idea and a single researcher’s project, but a whole research team. From a History point of view, this is unusual and innovative, so much more common in science than in humanities. In History we don’t often have access to this kind of scale of project so it’s really exciting to be able to put together a whole team of people with distinctive skills. I’ve deliberately gone out of my way to hire people in thematic areas – cultural history, environmental history – to create a more holistic research project that isn’t simply a single thread or a single research idea.
The second key factor is the ERC’s pure focus on innovation and quality of research. Almost all other funding agencies, particularly in the UK, have very clear priority areas into which you have to squeeze your project, so you’re often following someone else’s research agenda . The ERC’s primary focus here is enabling you to convince them that this is the project which needs to be done now. Throughout the process it was great to be able to focus purely on quality rather than having to fit – as often happens with something on Africa – into someone else’s research agenda – this was a breath of fresh air in that regard. Moreover, ‘Comparing the Copperbelt’ was always developed in terms of a partnership with local universities in the region, but it was reassuring and invigorating to see the ERC’s insistence on the involvement of local partners, and the importance of exchange and participation in the whole research process.