Doctor Aidan Southall: Urban anthropologist who pioneered the study of African cities

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The Independent Online

Aidan Southall helped invent urban anthropology, was a pioneer in the study of African cities and became a fellow of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain – because of a banana boat.

The Warwickshire-born son of an Anglican parson, Southall earned his bachelor's degree at Cambridge University, where, as he put it, "I didn't write Greek poetry well enough to suggest I would have a brilliant career in classics." So his tutor suggested anthropology, and during Southall's gap year in 1939, he hopped aboard a banana boat headed for Jamaica.

The captain dawdled his way to the island because the bananas weren't ready for picking, giving Southall time to watch flying fish and read two classics of early anthropology: Argonauts of the Western Pacific by Bronislaw Malinowski and The Mind of Primitive Man by Franz Boas. The books, combined with a stay in Jamaica where he met a teenager named Michael Manley, who later became the country's prime minister, changed his life. "I became more open to the outer world and its intriguing attractions," he said.

In 1945 Southall flew on a British Airways flying boat from Southampton to Uganda via Cairo, a trip that, despite using a form of transport theoretically faster than a banana boat, took several weeks. He began teaching at the University of East Africa (now Makerere University) in Kampala, Uganda, where he served on the faculty for 13 years. He also did doctoral fieldwork (PhD, University of London) for two years among the Alur people in north-western Uganda, becoming one of the first post-Second World War fieldworkers who established anthropology as a systematic discipline in Africa.

The Alur didn't know what to make of Southall: "There were three categories of white people for the Alur – government officials, traders and missionaries – and I didn't belong to any of them," he said. His 1956 book, Alur Society, was a pathbreaking approach to historical ethnography when that was rare in anthropology.

During the 1950s, when most anthropologists were studying rural and village cultures, he turned his attention to towns and cities as urbanisation gathered speed in Africa. Ranging broadly on the continent, he gained fluency not only in the Nilotic languages spoken by the Alur, but also in Luganda, Swahili and French.

In 1961-62 Southall served as a visiting professor at the University of Chicago. He also taught at the University of California, Los Angeles (1962); Syracuse University (1964-69); and the University of Wisconsin-Madison (1964-90). (One of his Syracuse students, Donna Shalala, became chancellor of UW-Madison, then secretary of health and human services under President Bill Clinton, and is now president of the University of Miami.)

Southall was an active international leader in urban anthropology up to and beyond his retirement in 1990. In 1989 he co-chaired the First International Urban Anthropology Conference, held in Beijing, China. In 1998 his sixth book on urban anthropology, The City in Time and Space: from birth to apocalypse, was published by Cambridge University Press, and it is still in print. A University of Chicago reviewer called the book "a tour de force" and said that Southall "is probably the only scholar who could have written this book, which distills a lifetime's reflection on the most complex artefact ever devised by man into a narrative intelligible to all with a serious concern for the human environment."

In addition to the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain, Southall was a fellow of the International African Institute, the African Studies Association of the USA and the American Anthropological Association.

Southall witnessed many "intriguing attractions" during his long career, but few of them were more startling than this one: On a warm equatorial day in the early 1950s, he was sitting with a chief of the Alur people on a Ugandan hill. As they talked, fat black clouds billowed on to the horizon. Southall glanced nervously at the approaching storm, but the chief continued to talk, seemingly oblivious to the deluge headed their way. Suddenly, the chief stood up, raised his arms and addressed the storm. Lo and behold, the storm missed their hill, to Southall's amazement. The chief, renowned among his people as a rainmaker, had turned rainstopper.

Aidan Southall, anthropologist: born Nuneaton, Warwickshire 20 September 1920; married Christine Obbo (one son, one daughter); died Lisle, France 17 May 2009.