Messages from Scholars about History and Culture

The Advantages of Quick Writing Bursts

Excerpts with Reflection

Timothy Nicholson

Excerpts from “Intimate Decolonization: Strategies for Reconceptualizing and Teaching the End of European Empires,” World History Connected, 15, 3, 2018.

In recalling her time as a student in India in the late 1960s, Adeline Akoth Opondo shared the experience of her classmate and friend, stating: “Mariam got pregnant and the man was very happy; little did he know that the family would never approve of their union. Before long the lady [Miriam] started getting threats from the family to a point where she was told to abort or else be thrown to jail or deported from the country….The family wanted to know why their son could sleep with and decided to impregnate an inferior species…” Scattered throughout East Africa are small numbers of families, like those of Opondo, consisting mostly of African men and non-African women, now in their 70s, and mixed-race offspring, now in their 40s or 50s, who are physical reminders of East Africa’s contact with the outside world during the waning years of colonial rule and the first years of independence. As students in the 1950s and 1960s, African men and women travelled in increasing numbers to diverse areas such as India, the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom and the United States in search of a university education before returning as nation-builders of their nascent states. These experiences provide important case studies that contemporary students can relate to and obtain a different understanding of the decolorizing world than offered by traditional, politically focused narratives.

The desire for access to higher education can personalize the topic of decolonization, as African students studying abroad possessed similar goals to college students today (the hope for better employment, higher standard of living and middle-class status) that a university degree promised in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Thus, paying secondary school fees and fighting for a scholarship were seen as important investments for the individual, family and community. Also providing some relatability to contemporary students is the idea of how personal connections are needed; East African students quickly discovered that the ability to attend university abroad required ties to the wider British world. Help came in the form of teachers or, frequently, missionaries, who often went against colonial regulations to help students travel abroad. In addition to serving as the primary connection between local communities and the outside world, teachers helped disseminate information regarding new educational and scholarship opportunities. Finally, examinations of rising nationalist politicians raise important and relevant classroom questions regarding the politicization of education (that also can be further connected to the development of nationalist narratives) and the funding of education. Kenyan leaders such as Tom Mboya, Oginga Odinga and later Jomo Kenyatta worked to expand their political base and foster their international connections through the provision of international scholarships. In Tanzania, local politicians did largely the same, although much more of their effort went to helping students reach secondary school and developing local institutions. For those lacking these connections, the students established their own transnational networks—writing to any politician or group at the local, national and international level that might provide some assistance. Thus, East African students epitomize the transnational mobility of colonized or formerly colonized populations as they circumvented colonial and postcolonial travel regulations and forged new connections that pushed global integration.

The memories from Opondo, who graduated in the early 1970s, demonstrate the potential dangers of transnational intimate encounters, as well as the insight that oral histories can provide. After learning of scholarship opportunities from a newspaper advertisement she read at work, Opondo applied for a scholarship with the hope of attending Makerere University in Uganda, as she did not want to be away from her family and community for four years. After failing to secure entrance to Makerere, Opondo accepted an Indian government scholarship offer to study economics at Punjab University, becoming a member of the class of 1973. While abroad, she starting dating and fell in love with an Indian man, with whom she discussed marriage and other long-term plans. However, this multi-month relationship, which went against the desires of her boyfriend’s family, also resulted in an unplanned pregnancy. Learning from the experience of her friend mentioned at the start of this article, Opondo vowed to keep the child—although done in secret, refusing to tell her boyfriend; thus, the racial transgression was never made public. By quickly escaping India, Opondo escaped any larger social condemnations but it was at a high cost to herself and her daughter, a process reflective of the student experiences. Students conducting oral histories of postcolonial migrants and regarding such intimate encounters can realize the poignancy of these experiences and feelings of marginalization that the written sources often fail to convey.

African students remember a general level of distrust and unacceptance that Indians made clear. The mostly male population of African students abroad were seen by Indians as sexual threats and remember being associated with jungles, primitive and savage behavior and mental inferiority. In affirming this perception of Indian views, one former student recalled that “an African man befriending an Indian lady was an abomination.” The threat of violence also worked to prevent African and Indian students from dating. On one occasion, an African student, Naimasiah, was approached by a group of Indian students who threatened “to rough him up” if he continued seeing his Indian girlfriend. Abortions also occurred, as in at least one instance, a student believed that terminating her pregnancy was the only action available to ensure her own safety, which also ensured that racial boundaries were maintained. Housing-related issues worked to reinforce the Afro-Indian divide by limiting the interaction between the two groups. African students were housed in different dormitories or houses than Indian students, and access to shared space within the home was limited due to fears regarding miscegenation. As Indian students returned to their family home from time at school, their parents worked to reassert their authority over wayward youths who, in the minds of parents, had gone astray while at school. Overall, the life stories conveyed by the interviews demonstrate the tension between official narratives of toleration and welcome and the lived experience of students who constantly fought the racism they faced. Consequently, the African students quickly realized that Afro-Asian solidarity existed only at the rhetorical level; in actuality, Indians worked to maintain, guard and constantly reinforce a distance between themselves and Africans, both inside the university campus and outside of it.

While some Indians either denied or did not remember any anti-African discrimination, other oral histories provide a more nuanced view. For example, one former Indian student, Rai Bahadur, remembered: “We had good relations with Africans. We never experienced such moments. But yes there were some acts of misbehavior from Africans but I would not categorize it as a part of discrimination.”[1] In another oral history, Kashi Nath Singh highlights the levels of discrimination mentioned by East Africans: “Some of them [the African students] were addicted to drugs, but overall they were good and friendly towards Indians…During our time we Indians and Africans have been through injustice and exploitations in those days before, we [Africans and Indians] were linked through mutual empathy like freedom from domination and discrimination.” Here Singh is echoing views that are were seemingly overshadowed by the colonial experience and the shared animosity directed towards the British Empire. If students encounter similar responses, additional questions can be raised about convergences of memories and the impact of present day coverage of Africans (as alleged drug dealers) on their subjects’ memories.

Schools existed as places of contestation over societal rules regarding relationships as students challenged traditional views by establishing their own dating, sexual and marriage partners, something that could be further taken advantage of while abroad. Returning home married to a foreigner was generally accepted by East African societies. The offspring of such unions were accepted at the local level but experienced alienation as their respective nation-states increasingly were defined by Africanness. With regard to their careers, the majority of African students enjoyed success upon their return home and became leaders in government, medicine, and business. Quickly moving into the elite of their respective countries, they helped develop their nation-states, demonstrating the importance of transnational connections in the process of nation-building. The new connections forged by African students provide an alternative view of the last 50 years, as encounters were restricted by the imperial legacy and complicated by the Cold War. This article has worked to raise new questions regarding the continuation of an imperial racialized ideology and how it was embedded in postcolonial institutions, while demonstrating important transnational linkages and blurring the colonial/postcolonial divide.


Just before the birth of my daughter, I sent out a paper proposal for a special issue of a field-leading academic journal focused on world history, in response to a call for papers on a topic loosely connected to my research. Although I fully expected that the proposal would be rejected, I endeavored to link my research to the theme of the special issue and explain the overall importance of my proposed paper topic. Much to my surprise, the proposed paper was warmly welcomed. My daughter was born soon afterward—at which point I needed to write the paper. I was initially overwhelmed with nervousness and trepidation. I would have to develop and write a paper from my research while also caring for my daughter in our household of two working parents. As this was my first publication in an established journal, I recognized the importance of the project and the need for careful writing but quickly realized that finding time to complete the paper would be difficult.

My experience is far from unique; students and academics alike are often intimidated by the challenge of writing significant papers on entirely new material, while also juggling our everyday lives—work, family obligations, hundreds of minor interruptions, and, in my case, exhaustion after being up late nights with a baby. However, the process of writing a well-received article in the midst of a major life change was an important learning experience for me; it helped me become a better writer and taught me important lessons about the writing process.

My main writing strategy was to force myself to work in short, focused, and intense bursts of writing, at least once and ideally several times a day. This new goal ran counter to my time-tested strategy of avoiding the project for as long as possible and then, at the last minute, writing continuously for as many hours as possible until I was overwhelmed with fatigue. This process forced me to start writing long before the due date—a process that most students want to try but to which few adhere. My new strategy also forced me to develop a much more detailed outline than usual. In the past, I have shunned outlines; I rarely used them and considered them a waste of time. However, to focus my energy and make sure that every minute of writing time counted, I needed to begin each writing session with a clear sense of the direction in which I was headed, the point of the paragraph I was writing, and the connections I needed to make with other paragraphs and the larger paper. I didn’t have time to waste reminding myself of what I already had written.

Once I completed the outline, I would write in 15- to 30-minute increments—the length of a short nap, a Sesame Street segment, or a feeding. I attempted to write as early as possible, when my energy and motivation were at their height, but often my writing time was confined to just after my daughter went to bed. With my outline at hand, I would tackle one paragraph at a time. In each writing session, I hoped to finish just a single paragraph, providing it with sufficient evidence, examples, and analysis before my time ran out. To my surprise, these small bursts of focused writing worked well. I approached the paper with greater focus and clarity, without my mind wandering due to boredom and without breaks to check emails or sports scores.

Thus, the paper was written slowly but productively—one paragraph at a time, sometimes even just one paragraph per day. By focusing on one particular example, I was better able to develop my thoughts on a single source and grapple with my understanding of it—thus, the material was better explained and incorporated into the overall paper.

I ended my sessions by starting the next paragraph, so that the hardest part—the opening sentence—was complete, and I knew exactly the purpose and direction of the paragraph before I started the next session. I would often quickly jot down a few notes or even a single key word to jog my memory for the next time I was able to write. Having the opening sentence (or at least a few words) in front of me saved me time, frustration, and confusion when I went back to the paper hours or even a day later.

This strategy allowed my overall energy and general interest of the paper to remain high. Due to the quick nature of my writing sessions I remained more engaged with the project, did not suffer from any project fatigue and writing the paper remained enjoyable. Without the burden of fatigue or the need to escape from the project, I often would find myself thinking about the paper later in the day and developing new ideas in my head. As a result, I would look forward to writing down the ideas percolating in my head that developed since the previous writing session.

The guest editor supervising the special issue employed a similar strategy, which helped us work well together. The editor had a vested interest in the success of these papers; she had chosen their topics carefully and was writing an introductory piece to connect the articles together. She then requested frequent and detailed progress reports and worked closely with the authors as we completed specific sections of our articles. Between my strategy of writing one paragraph per writing session and the editor’s advice to divide our articles into particular sections, I made quick and efficient progress on my article while also consistently maintaining quality in both writing and argument.

During the revision process, I kept up my strategy of working in small increments and slowly incorporated feedback. Successful revision requires a great deal of concentration in order to make difficult changes; sticking with small but focused revising increments allowed me to make progress every day and address criticism without succumbing to anger. Thus, I avoided revision fatigue, which made the reworking the paper much more effective and tolerable. I also was giving myself time to think about the changes that were needed in a much more focused manner.

The strategy I adopted of small but sustained and productive bursts of writing can be applied to almost any writing assignment. At first, it might feel unnatural, at least for those, like me ,who tend to avoid writing for as long as possible and then work for hours. However, many mentally exhausting papers and assignments can be more productively targeted through many short, intense writing sessions over a longer period of time. This approach might help students working on a writing assignment near its deadline, especially as students tend to leave assignments to just before the due date. Short, intense writing sessions in which writers compose a paragraph, take a break, and then return to the project to develop another paragraph might be a more effective strategy than one longer but unfocused session. Even though writing in this manner went against my usual habits, it proved an effective and successful approach to writing and provides lessons to help others.

  1. Rai Bahadur, interview with author, 14 January 2018.


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