CULTURAL RESEARCH – Professor Dr Andrew Canessa


Professor Andrew Canessa, 51, lives in Colchester with his wife, Laura Pountney. Together, they have seven children. Andrew spent the first years of his life in Catalan Bay of which he has very fond memories, particularly of buying fresh fish and swimming in the sea before going to school. His father, Eric, who worked as a civil engineer in the City Council, decided to leave Gibraltar for Holland in 1975, taking his family with him, and two years later, the family moved to Washington D.C. where he worked for the World Bank and his mother (née Laura Xerri) worked as a Spanish teacher. This moving resulted in Andrew going to seven primary schools in four countries in eight consecutive years, ending up as a boarder in St. George’s College, Weybridge. These were not happy years but on leaving school, and after a stint on a kibbutz in Israel, he went to study economics at the London School of Economics but later transferred to Anthropology after taking an introductory course in his first year. He says he never looked back and has very much enjoyed working as an anthropologist his entire professional life.

Family camping trip on the Loire

However, Andrew didn’t go straight into an anthropology career because after leaving the LSE, he worked at a boys’ school in Sudan as an English teacher. He later added French to his duties since there was no one else who could do it despite the fact that he only had an O level in French and the text book was in Arabic/French. He counts this as one of his greatest achievements in life. He was the only European within hundreds of miles and so initially was something of a curiosity. He responded by growing a long beard and wearing local djellabas and a turban. He had no choice but to learn Arabic since, without it,  there was no possibility of communicating with people. His local name was Abu Diggin, the bearded one, because most men didn’t have facial hair although keenly wanted to have one as stipulated in the Koran. He rented a standard round grass gotía hut on the edge of the village with water source a stand pipe at the bottom of the road which was shared with neighbours. The advantage of this location is that it was near the water hole so migrating Kabbabish, Umbororo and Baggara, among others, were regular visitors. Among his most cherished memories is learning how to ride a camel with the Kabbabish who are legendary camel herders. There was not a great variety of food and his mother’s food parcels were looked forward to. Each parcel and letter took five weeks to arrive. He cooked for himself but went to market each day for fresh coffee with the beans being roasted in front of him. He also enjoyed the freshly made dough balls. Breakfast, always ful beans and fried onions, the main meal of the day, would be served at the school.

Getting about in the rainy season, highland Bolivia, 1994

During the school holidays, he took advantage to go on solo trips round Sudan. At Christmas, he went to the Nuba Hills, located in South Kordofan which is home to the Nuba people, famous for their wrestling. Andrew was keen to visit and he had to bluff his way through various police posts as he did not have the requisite papers. There were already tensions in the Nuba hills and today very few Nuba live there, having fallen victim to a genocidal civil war. The second vacation (occasioned by a strike) was spent near the Ethiopian border where he suffered the misfortune of being arrested as a spy. This was most unpleasant and he was roughed up a little but he eventually persuaded his interrogators that he really was just a school teacher. Explanation accepted, the policeman stopped the next car and instructed the driver to take Andrew to his next stop.

Flooded jeep failed to cross the river, Bolivia 1995

His final trip was to Darfur in the western Sudan. His village was on the railway line with a timetable which had not been altered since the British left in 1955. The time table said that the train left on Tuesday afternoon at two thirty, hours passed and still no train; it finally arrived two days late. Andrew tried to buy a ticket and reserve a seat but was told this was not possible as everything was booked.  He bought a third class ticket which, in effect, meant the roof and that is how he travelled for the four days of the journey. This was less dangerous than one might think: the train was so slow it was overtaken by camels. At one point, the train ran out of charcoal but eventually the destination was reached and he trekked along the beautiful Jebel Mara mountain range where, among other things, he was harassed by baboons. To this day he doesn’t like baboons. After two weeks of trekking, he needed to get onto the camel train to a local market from where he could get a lorry to the regional capital, Nyala. One foot played up and became badly infected which made walking painful and difficult and he missed the camel train to Kadugli.  There was no alternative but to walk there and arrive in time before the lorries left in the evening. He set off at first light with a full water bottle and a couple of oranges and during the entire day only came across two people who indicated his destination, Kadugli, in the distance. Oranges eaten and water bottle emptied, he continued but discovered that the trees they were pointing at were just that – trees. He was ultimately obliged to dig into a dried river bed to find water but made it just as the sun was setting. Everybody laughed at the sight of this European coming out of the desert hardly able to walk. To make matters worse, the only hotel in Nyala when he finally arrived the next morning was full so he spent the night in the local jail, mostly playing cards with the officers.

Crossing the Jacha Jawira on the way from Wila Kjarka, Bolivia

On his return to the UK, he started his PhD in Anthropology which involved two and a half high years in an Aymara speaking community in Bolivia. There was no road and mail arrived once a week at the market town, several hours’ walk away. Andrew had to learn the Aymara language (much harder than Arabic) but the effort was worth it and he was eventually able to conduct all his research in the language.

He came across the village on his second attempt to find a field site. On the first occasion, he got lost in the jungle for several days until he found his way out by heading down hill. A stream becomes a river and eventually, it takes you to some kind of community. On the second trip, he arrived at Wila Kjarka and was asked if he would play in a football match the next day. He agreed, despite the fact that he didn’t play but it was an opportunity that couldn’t be missed. At 3,000 metres running up and down in hiking boots was no easy feat but as luck would have it, the ball hit his boot and he scored a goal, quite by coincidence. Celebrations followed and he simply stayed, eventually moving in with Remigio Patty and Agustina Alanoca and their family. They all slept in one large room with two beds: two parents, Remigio’s mother, five children, and an anthropologist. There was not much in the way of privacy but a good position to observe human life.

Agustina Alanoca in her kitchen Wila Kjarka, Bolivia

For most of the time there, he simply did what everyone else did, an anthropological technique called ‘participant observation’. In his case it meant a lot of agricultural labour. The hardest thing to learn was how to plough a field with oxen and people thought it was the funniest thing at first but he finally got the hang of it and it is the agricultural task he enjoys most. He also spent a lot of time with the local shaman, Teodosio, who had a great reputation for being a healer and is famous for making it rain. When he first arrived in Wila Kjarka, people mostly ate potatoes and maize and many people went to bed hungry. With a new irrigation ditch and a road, people have diversified their crops and have easier access to market and are much happier and healthier.

Ploughing, Wila Kjarka, Bolivia

Now, he is Professor at the University of Essex and much of his time is spent teaching, working on his research projects (until recently, he travelled to Bolivia every year), the writing of academic articles, and four books. The past few years has seen him concentrating on his idea to compile an oral history of Gibraltar. He feels the conception of Gibraltarians in the United Kingdom is superficial and he wanted to examine the range and depth of being a Gibraltarian. He received a grant from the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) for ‘Bordering on Britishness: an Oral History of Gibraltar in the 20th Century’, with the backing of The Gibraltar Government. Jennifer Ballantine was seconded from the Gibraltar Government to act as project partner and coordinate the locally recruited research associates. There are several articles in the pipeline and the first book is expected in January 2018.

The entire community working on a new irrigation ditch, Wila Kjarka, Bolivia

The standard method of researching history is to delve into the archives. Oral history involves talking to people and getting their views on their lives and memory of the past. This is a more democratic way of researching history. Gibraltar is fortunate in having extensive archives with most of the material written in English by Colonial officials. This project was designed to enable those interviewed to speak in whichever language was the most comfortable. So there are interviews in English, Spanish, Llanito and Arabic. Among other things, the project traces how Gibraltar went from an overwhelmingly Spanish speaking community with strong kinship and other ties with the Campo to one which is increasingly English speaking and where there are profound economic, political, and cultural differences with Spanish neighbours. People forget today that within living memory, Gibraltar and La Línea effectively functioned as a single town. A big part of the project is recovering these memories and recording them for posterity. The project also shows how the border did more than simply divide people; it created social and cultural differences which were simply not there before or, at least, not as markedly so.

Working with an Andean footplough, Wila Kjraka, 2011

Brexit poses some important challenges to Gibraltar. The research shows that up until now, Gibraltar has always been dependent on the United Kingdom Government for two things: economic and political security. The economic differential between Gibraltar and the Campo – a difference that has existed since at least the Napoleonic Wars – is a big part of what makes Gibraltar what it is. In addition, the border has protected Gibraltarians from the political chaos, repression and violence of 19th and 20th century Spain. In many ways, these two pillars are the framework of Gibraltarians’ British identity: it’s what makes us different from Spanish people and what connects us to the UK. Brexit threatens to change this if it means the UK will no longer be able to lobby for Gibraltar’s interests against Spain from within the EU and it is also unable to secure Gibraltar’s economic future for the same reason. This will undoubtedly mean that the relationship between Gibraltar and the UK will change even though it might look as strong as ever today. After all, there may not even be a United Kingdom in a few years’ time. Britishness is changing in Britain so it will inevitably change in Gibraltar as well. The issue is whether Gibraltar will cleave closer to the UK, which appears likely at the moment, or redevelop the kinds of connections it had with the Campo in decades past. Only time will tell.

Professorial Inaugural Lecture University of Essex, October 2014

“The research has demonstrated Gibraltarians’ extraordinary ability to reinvent themselves economically and socially so Gibraltarians may be able to do so again and meet the economic and political challenges of Brexit. The future of Gibraltar and its people’s identity is, however, likely to look very different indeed”.

words | Mike Brufal