What is History?


Young people will have the idea that History is learning about the past. However, there are different ways to carry out this learning.

  1. They can be told the story of the past by their teachers.
  2. They can read about the past from story and textbooks.

    Both of these are important, but it would be a shame to ignore the wealth of historical knowledge that is held in the heads of family members and of the community more widely.
  3. Oral History: Families in Uganda have, for centuries, passed down in stories what has happened to their families in previous generations. Every family has its unique story, but broad patterns re-emerge across families. This story telling tradition has given rise to, what we now call, Oral History. By tapping into these stories and the experiences of their elders, young people can gain a valuable insight into the past in a way that is likely to be richer and more personal than anything they will find in textbooks.

In this Living History Project, we aim to encourage young people to learn about the past from their own families, and to record what they find, for themselves and for the benefit of people living elsewhere and future generations.

Activity 1:
Introductory Question and Answer

A. For Primary Schools

In primary schools, History teaching gives children an idea of what life was like in the past and develops awareness that life has not always been the same. The focus at this level tends to be on Family and Social History, which looks at how the lives of individual people, families and communities change with the passage of time.

A useful starting point for teachers is to use leading questions to draw out what their children already know about changes in the recent past.

Example Dialogue (Note: key words that teachers might wish to expand upon are highlighted in bold):

  • Long ago people would have made containers for storing grain or carrying water from wood, clay or animal skins. Do you have any of these old things around where you live?
    What new materials do we have today? (Possible answers: metal, glass and plastic.) What are these newer materials used for at your home?
  • What were traditional homes made from, in times gone by? (Possible answers:  sticks and branches, mud for daub and grass, reeds and palm fronds to keep the rain out.) How are newer houses different? (Answers: newer houses use bricks, cement and corrugated iron or tiles for the roofs.) Do you think houses have improved over time?
  • Even the food we eat has changed. Long, long ago, human beings everywhere survived by hunting and gathering. What sort of food do you think they would have eaten? (Possible answers: fruits, berries, wild plants and bush meat.)
    These days our food is cultivated on farms. We grow food crops and rear animals. Let us make a list of all the foods we eat today.
  • What food do you think your grandparents ate when they were young?
    How was it different from what we eat today?
  • Those people who work and live in a town, such as Kamuli, Jinja, Masaka, Gulu, Kasese or Bundibugyo, or in a city, like Kampala or Mbarara, can buy, in markets and supermarkets, a wide variety of food to cook at home, and they can also eat out in cafés and restaurants. What sorts of food are available to people living in towns and cities?

    (Possible answers: staple foods such as maize, matoke, millet and rice, root crops (e.g. cassava, sweet potatoes, groundnuts, yams, Irish potatoes), vegetables (e.g. dodo, nakati, borr, cabbage), fruits (e.g. bananas, pineapples, pawpaw, mango, passion and jack fruit), and meat such as chicken, goat, pork, beef and fish.)

    The variety of food is increasing, especially in towns, where you find chapati and rolex (omelette rolled in a chapati), kebabs/skewers, samosas, kabalagala (fried banana cakes) and in the cities you will find that foods from other countries, such India, China, Thailand, Ethiopia, France and America, are becoming very popular. Trading with other countries brings in new foods and cooking ideas.
  • Long, long ago, what did people use to make clothes? (Possible answers: animal skins, bark cloth, woven from local materials.) What are clothes made from today? (Cotton, wool and man-made fibres.) Where do people get their clothes?
    (Answers: Mainly bought from markets, some made locally or at home.) Shops and international trade have increased variety. Is anyone wearing a shirt from another country? (Football shirt for Manchester United, Chelsea?) Did your grandfather wear a football shirt when he was young like you? Why not? (There was much less trade.)
  • What do people use to buy clothes and other things? (Answer: money) Where do they get money? (Answer: they have to earn income by working and selling things). How does your family make money? How did people make money in your family when your parents and grandparents were young? (Teachers could mention here that there has been a move away from a subsistence economy and towards a cash or exchange economy, and the distinction between cash crops and food crops, though these days many farmers sell surplus food for cash.)
  • Where did most people used to work? (Answer: on the land growing food for subsistence or sale.) What about today? (Answer: Many people earn a living by working for others. They get paid for their labour and skills by businesses and by government.) So, the way people make a living has changed over time.
  • Do you expect to be doing the same as your family when you grow up? What do you think you will be doing when you are 30?

B. Extension Work for Secondary Schools

The above sequence of questions could also be used with lower secondary school students.

However, at secondary level, teachers might want to bring in more aspects of social and political history, such as:

  • Over the passage of time there has been much movement of people in Uganda. Have your family always lived where they do now? Did any of your ancestors come from another place? Did your mother and father come from the same place? If they have moved from somewhere else, they have migrated.
  • In Uganda, as in many other countries, people have been moving from rural areas into towns and cities. This is called Rural to Urban Migration. Do you know people who have moved to live and work in town or to the capital, Kampala?
    Has anyone moved in your family? Do you keep in touch with them?
  • In the past most people worked on the land as farmers. Farming is part of the primary sector of the economy. Today, some people work in secondary industry (perhaps in a factory), where they make articles for sale. Many others work in the service sector. What jobs do we include in services? Do you know people who work in a service occupation?
  • We have seen in recent years that the lives of people are changed by the development of new technology. What new technology do you think has made the biggest difference to lives in Uganda? (Possible answers: hydro-electricity, water pumps, the internal combustion engine, communications technologies (radio, TV, mobile phones.)
  • The history of a country is also affected by its politics. This concerns how the country is governed and how decisions are made about taxes and about spending on such things as roads, health care, education and training. Can you think of ways that the government has brought changes in Uganda?
  • Political stability is important to people. Most countries in their history have experienced periods of political instability (when there are sudden changes of government caused by violence or civil war.) Uganda has experienced periods like this. What do you know of these? What have people told you about life in times of instability and fighting? Which do people say were the worst periods? What do they say were the best periods?

All these things affect the story of a nation. They affect what is written down and recorded as its history. We can learn much from studying the past.

The French Emperor, Napoleon Bonaparte, is reported to have said that: “History is the version of past events that people have decided to agree upon.” This view is controversial! It implies that countries will choose to tell those stories of the past that fit in with an accepted story or narrative of how they wish to imagine their nation’s story. Others argue that History can be objective.


Objective Truth This is an account based on factual evidence. It is taken to be the true story of what happened. In the case of History, this implies that there is a sequence of events that actually happened, and the purpose of History is to tell about them as accurately and as impartially as possible.

Most historians probably aim to research the truth and tell, as objectively as they can, the true story of what happened in the past. However, this is often difficult in practice, because we all hold different opinions, and we have different beliefs and values about what is important. Some books of history will miss out what another historian would include, because they make different judgements about what they think is worth writing about. This can give rise to selection bias.

Impartial – this is when writers try to set aside their own feelings and prejudices and do their very best to give a fair and balanced account of events.

Subjective – if an account of history is heavily influenced by the values and politics of the author, it is said to be a subjective account. Someone else might see the same facts and interpret them in a different way.

What different people have said about the study of History:

“Those that fail to learn from history, are doomed to repeat it.”
Winston Churchill (The British Prime Minister who described Uganda as the Pearl of Africa.).

“A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots.”
Marcus Garvey (The Jamaican political activist.)

“The more you know about the past, the better prepared you are for the future.” Theodore Roosevelt (Former American President.)

“History is who we are and why we are the way we are.”
David McCullough (American writer and historian.)

“Everyone has a history. What you do with it is up to you.
Some repeat it. Some learn from it. The really special ones use it to help others.
” John Mark Green (American writer.)

“The more you know of your history, the more liberated you are.” Maya Angelou (American poet, singer and civil rights activist.)

“A people denied a history is a people deprived of dignity.”
(Ali Mazrui, born in Kenya, former Professor of Political Science at Makerere University.)

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