Elizabeth Colson

Job title: 

Remembering Elizabeth Colson, 1917-2016. 

Elizabeth Florence Colson died on Wednesday August 3, 2016 while sitting quietly on her verandah in Monze, Zambia bird-watching. Dr. Thea Savory,

Photo of Elizabeth Colson

 Elizabeth Colson’s good friend and on whose farm Elizabeth lived, wrote that the 4½ hour funeral that Friday was a

 lovely tribute to her life. There was singing, speaking, reading of messages, drumming, dancing, cow horn blowing, a Scots guards, an abundance of flowers and many 100kg bags of maizemeal, two cows and 100 cabbages cooked and consumed. “Elizabeth would have loved it."

Elizabeth Colson was a member of the community of Africanist scholars here at UC Berkeley from 1964 when she came to teach in Anthropology until long after her retirement in 1984. In the early years, she was part of an interdisciplinary group of faculty, which also included Desmond ClarkRaymond KentJohn LeticheCarl Rosberg, and William Shack, that laid the foundations for African Studies at UC Berkeley. Her significant impact in shaping the practice and ethos of Anthropology and African Studies here and beyond is evinced by the observations, eulogies and tributes from former students, colleagues, friends and family members that follow. Links to online resources illuminating her life and contributions, especially on her work in the Gwembe Valley, can be found at the end of this page.

More memories can be found on the Elizabeth Colson Facebook Memory page:

Contributors: Andy and Zilose Lyons, Lesley Sharp, David Hughes, David Leonard, Lenore Ralston, and Robert Colson. Tributes from Laura Nader, Pamela Shurmer-Smith, and Alex Golub are also linked below as are other resources.

From Andy and Zilose Lyons, Andy is the Academic Coordinator of the Informatics and GIS (IGIS) Statewide Program (PhD, Environmental Science, Policy, and Management). Zilose is Program Manager at the Center for Emerging and Neglected Diseases, (BA Development Studies):

Facebook Memoriam Post by Andy Lyons

From Lesley A. Sharp, Barbara Chamberlain & Helen Chamberlain Josefsberg ’30 Professor of Anthropology, Barnard College & Senior Research Scientist in Sociomedical Sciences, Mailman School of Public Health, Columbia University:

Sharp, Lesley A. 2017 'Elizabeth Colson (1917-2016) Anthropologist, Africanist'. Obituaries. Royal Anthropological Institute, June 2017. (available on-line: https://therai.org.uk/archives-and-manuscripts/obituaries/elizabeth-florence-colson)


When I started my graduate work in medical anthropology at UC/Berkeley in fall, 1983, an admissions form asked if we’d like to work with anyone in particular on the faculty, and I suggested Elizabeth Colson. I knew just a little about her work, having taken only one undergraduate anthropology class, but given her seniority, I thought she’d be a good choice. I had managed to audit a class with Helene Codere at Brandeis after I’d graduated, and liked the hard-edged, no-nonsense approach that I have come to associate with senior women in anthropology, and so I was thrilled to learn that Colson had indeed been assigned to me as my advisor and, I hoped, mentor. When we first met, however, she made it very clear that when the year ended she would no longer work with me—she was scheduled to retire at the end of the year and was taking on no new students (as I later learned, this was a result of an mandatory retirement age that was in effect at the time). Working with Colson was both thrilling and terrifying. She never seemed to forget anything—what she had read, what you had said or written, what she herself had uncovered in the field—and in addition to her steel-trap mind she had zero tolerance for mediocrity. If you made an error she had a habit of slamming her fist on the desk and insisting you rethink your answer. It was a hard-knocks approach to learning, for sure, but I loved her fierceness from the start, and I always felt that she pushed me hard because for some godforsaken reason she believed in my potential to do well in my studies and in the world. I have always carried that with me—the sense that Colson would always expect the highest quality of work and that I shouldn’t fail her in this.

That first year, Nancy Abelmann (who, very sadly, died this past year) and I came up with a rather hair-brained idea to try to catalogue all of Colson’s work as a means to celebrate her career and retirement. There was no internet in 1983-4 (and, indeed, our class was the first, I think, a few years later to use a newly installed mainframe computer to write our dissertations), and so we spent an absurd number of hours in the Lowie Library tracking down what Colson had written. Every now and then she would offer a title or two, but she pretty much left it to us to see what we could find. I know now that she saw it as a learning exercise for us—how to sleuth out even the most obscure titles culled from a wide range of venues—and by the end of several months of work we were, quite frankly, exhausted. It was a herculean task, and we knew we had only scratched the surface of her work after months of work. She was outrageously prolific. Reading through these materials gave us a sense of the profound breadth of her knowledge, and her decades of dedication to the same field site (which continued for yet another three decades after she retired!). Nancy and I were simultaneously in awe of Colson’s accomplishments while also feeling quite small in her shadow. We had aspirations of pulling in other senior collaborators (Thayer Scudder was especially helpful), but in the end we realized we were a bit naive in thinking we could put together a volume of her opus for publication. And amidst all of this she was busy writing new works—indeed, each month without fail you could find her in the library sitting for hours reading through all of the latest journals in anthropology. Needless to say, I still have a file of many of the papers and articles by her that we uncovered.

Colson was wrong in her statement that her guidance and mentoring would cease as of 1984. In fact, she has kept track of me throughout my career. Throughout the years I have received letters and, more recently, emails from her where she discusses my latest publications and offers precise and insightful commentaries. She never pulled her punches, and I loved her for this. I have always known that a letter from Elizabeth Colson would be warm, thoughtful, and right on the mark. As for calling her Elizabeth, this took decades—I did not find the nerve to address her by her first name until I was well into my career, and only after I’d been promoted to full professor. It was only at that point that I felt I had earned the right to address her by her first name—she was that formidable a presence in my life.

One final thought, and then I’ll close. I was trained in the 1980s, which means that I was immersed from the start in critiques of our discipline, where Africanists’ especially were reassessed as the “handmaidens of anthropology.” In response to this critique I have always held up Colson’s work as my parry—she most certainly conducted research under a colonial regime, but her work—deeply inspired by Gluckman’s radicalism—was always about identifying, investigating, and documenting the sudden, long term, and lifetime consequences of forced resettlement in the name of colonial progress. Indeed, only last month I found myself engaged in a rather heated debate with another (non-anthropologist) scholar who attempted to apply this facile argument to the entire profession. My response in the end was “you need to go read Elizabeth Colson.”

I will miss her terribly. She was a modest giant in the field and a truly remarkable human being.

From David Hughes, Professor of Anthropology, President, Rutgers AAUP-AFT faculty union, Rutgers University:

What I can say is that she was the most picky reader of my dissertation. Professor Colson had an eye for the detail of any argument, especially those involving rural African politics, chiefs, land tenure, and so on. I felt that, if she approved of one of my chapters, I had weathered a kind of empirical-critical storm. She kept us all tethered to the ground, with a fidelity to informants and their lives which was becoming less and less and fashionable. I wish I could have done her kind of longitudinal, generational research. Certainly, she and her ethnography inspired me

From David Leonard, Professor Emeritus, Political Science, UC Berkeley:

It was my privilege to work with Elizabeth Colson as a fellow Africanist on the faculty at Berkeley and as a collaborator on a USAID research project. She was a woman of extraordinary intelligence, insight, discipline and generosity. She finished her Ph.D and came onto the academic job market just after World War II, at what was easily the most difficult period for female scholars in at least the last 120 years. To survive in that environment she had to measure her words, but if one paid attention one realized that behind her silence was a clear-eyed intelligence registering, analyzing and quietly contributing to the collective enterprise. She was a wonderful and demanding teacher. Her contributions to anthropology began in the late 1940s when she was hired to track the welfare of the Tonga people living in the Zambezi River valley who were being displaced by the construction of the hydroelectric Kariba Dam. She continued to follow these villagers until her death, leaving us a 70 year account of their genealogies, ethnographies and changing life chances. This work won her Berkeley’s highest faculty honor at the time of her retirement. I believe hers is the longest continuous community record in anthropology. When she reached Berkeley’s mandatory retirement age of 67, she hired a male post-doc to continue the field work. After a few months he quit, saying the living conditions were too difficult. So Elizabeth went off to Zambia again to do the work herself — and she remained there in the field until her death.

From Lenore Ralston, Ph.D, M.P.H, who served in UCB administration after working with Elizabeth Colson as an undergraduate student and post-doctoral researcher:

Elizabeth Colson changed my life. It is that simple. She modeled what a strong, intellectual woman might achieve. She helped me develop a global moral compass at the same time she never professed to be anything more than who she was: a highly intelligent woman from America’s heartland with an insatiable curiosity, impeccable work ethic, and extraordinary grit.

At age nineteen I was attending the University of California, Berkeley. It was 1968 and we were having riots with tear gas, protesting the Viet Nam War. It was a singular time. I still attended classes, and had written an essay in one of her classes: Africa South of the Sahara. In the end, it only merited a C. I didn’t care about the grade; by the end of her course I knew I wanted to be an anthropologist, but not a mediocre one. I wrote to her. I was a sophomore “nobody”…. And she answered. This was the start of a close to 50-year relationship.

I am sure many of you have similar stories. Elizabeth would spot potential, and then made it her habit to nurture it. I trusted her with my mind. Actually, I flat out learned how to trust. She helped me financially with my first year of graduate school. I was uncomfortable with the offer: she said “it was done for me, I am doing it for you, you do it for someone else.”

What an extraordinary tradition to become a part of…. She received help going to Radcliffe from Ruth and Wilson Wallis, her mentors at the University of Minnesota. And so I accepted her offer: I did my graduate work at Bryn Mawr College. And after I completed my Ph.D., she took me on as a post-doc, inviting me to work on a US AID project in Berkeley with another colleague, Jim Anderson. This foray is a perfect example of her generosity: I was a newly minted Ph.D., and Jim was interested in joining a collaborative project. She gave us both close to two years of her time, to help us move forward in our careers. We wrote a book together; working with her in this way was one of those peak life experiences. She rounded out more than my anthropology education. She corrected my English, helped me develop a clearer writing style, went with me on little adventures in northern California, took me to the ballet and the opera. And she was forever pinning my ears back, letting me know where I might try harder, without making me feel small or rejected.

Elizabeth was my model of what integrity and strength could look like. She consistently pushed me to “look out” from my personal, ego-centric constraints, through the prism of “structure.” I embraced British Social anthropology -- a structural approach to evaluating personal interactions, societal systems, and global uniformities among all human beings. This was a profound gift. I have used all that I learned from Elizabeth throughout my life as a way of assessing problems and examining their multiple implications.

Elizabeth returned to Africa for many reasons: most of all, I think, because she fell in love with the people and place to which she had devoted herself. I believe her appreciation for the people, the land, the animals, the big sky… it was in her blood, and the call to return could not be ignored. She was a woman who prized her independence, and balked if that was intruded upon. She did not suffer fools gladly. And she chose to leave those of us who loved her in America, to die with those who loved her in Africa. She wished to die on her own terms, in a place she called home.

Elizabeth Florence Colson was one of a kind….. but those of you who spent time with her, were touched by her, know that.

From Robert Colson, her nephew, A Eulogy for Elizabeth Florence Colson, August 5, 2016. Read at her funeral:

Greetings! You are gathered here today to celebrate the life of Elizabeth Colson, my aunt. My cousins and I referred to her as "Aunt E" when we were young and just "E" when we were older, but she was always Elizabeth when we spoke directly to her. Many of you may have known her as “Gwembe,” a name she also liked. I am her nephew, Robert Colson, from New York. Perhaps we met when Susan and I visited several years ago. I regret we cannot be with you today.

Elizabeth was born on June 15, 1917 in Wadena, Minnesota, the second of four children to Louis Henry Colson and Metta Louise Damon Colson. Her father was the son of a Swedish family that came to America in 1856. Her mother’s family traced their roots to the English settlements in America at Plymouth, Massachusetts in 1620. Both held college degrees, which was unusual in 1900. They were in their 40s when Gwembe was born. Her older sister, Katherine, born in 1915, and Elizabeth were inseparable as children, as were her two younger siblings, Barbara (1919) and Henry (1920). Their family life was organized around books, education, and scholarship. The discovery of Pharaoh Tutankhamun’s tomb fueled the imaginations of the Colson children, and ultimately motivated her initial interest in Africa and her pursuit of scholarly activities related to Africa. Her spiritual home was here in Zambia, in the area of the Tonga Plateau, as early as 1950.

Elizabeth took a deep interest in the personal development of people around her, including young people in her family. My personal experience of her influence dates from the early 1950s. Elizabeth would stay at our house for six weeks when she first returned to America after several years in Africa. We came to know each other well; she encouraged my interests in scholarship and in one of her favorite hobbies, stamp collecting. She sent me stamps and letters from all the places she visited, which gave her the opportunity to encourage me to pursue more education in every letter. When I was here several years ago, I met many people from Zambia who share with me the experience of her passion for and support of education.

Elizabeth became close friends with my mother during her visits. While they were six years apart in age, they shared growing up in Wadena, Minnesota. They also were both leaders in their spheres of influence at a time women were not always welcome. They were both incredibly courageous in pursuing their careers and interests. Elizabeth especially became a role model for younger women pursuing academic careers; almost everywhere she went she left her mark on elevating the education, status, and power of women.

I cannot recall from anyone ever winning an important argument with Elizabeth, even though many of her views were novel or controversial at the time. She was always better prepared than the other side. She had more facts, she organized them more clearly, and she was more skilled in laying them out than anyone I’ve known. She also had a steel-trap memory. She could remember facts and events, and what had previously been said, so completely that I once asked her if she had been born with an innate ability for recall. She responded that she had learned that skill while a graduate student through arduous effort for many years in order to succeed in academic activities. I admired her single-mindedness and tenacity.

Everyone here will miss Elizabeth's presence among us. Her touch influenced the lives of many people in many places. When she took a personal interest in you, she expected you to perform to a new standard -- hers. If you did, she was generous in her support, advice, and sponsorship. She expected us to pursue important careers and causes, creating better lives for those around us. Like you, my cousins and our children loved her very much and will miss her dearly. I hope to continue to live my life in a way that would please her. Please join me in living your lives in a way you know would make her smile.

Elizabeth Florence Colson, rest in peace.

Laura Nader, “Elizabeth Florence Colson: In Memoriam,” Anthropology News, August 19, 2016

Pamela Shurmer-Smith, “Professor Elizabeth Colson 1917-2016.” Blog post in Remants of Empire, August 4, 2016. https://remnantsofempire.com/2015/03/03/blog/.

“Rex” Alex Golub, “Vale Elizabeth Colson.” Blog post in Savage Minds August 10, 2016, http://savageminds.org/2016/08/10/vale-elizabeth-colson. Includes links selected open access sources at the end.


“Anthropology and a Lifetime of Observation: Elizabeth Colson.” An oral history and digital collection in the University History Series Calisphere. Introduction by Laura Nader. Interviews Conducted by Suzanne B. Riess in 2000-2001. http://texts.cdlib.org/view?docId=kt7w10088w&doc.view=entire_text

Web site for the Seventh Anthropology Emeritus Lecture Honoring Elizabeth F. Colson, October 20, 1997: http://www.lib.berkeley.edu/ANTH/emeritus/colson/

The Life and Work of Elizabeth Colson. A UC Berkeley Library page with links to resources on the life and work of Dr. Elizabeth Colson (1917-2016). http://guides.lib.berkeley.edu/Colson

Annual Elizabeth Colson Lecture, Refugee Studies Centre, Oxford University.
Podcasts are available: e.g. for the 2016 lecture “Peaceland: Conflict resolution and the everyday politics of international intervention” given by Dr Séverine Autesserre on 4 May 2016
https://www.rsc.ox.ac.uk/images/general/annual-elizabeth-colson-lecture-2016-podcast/view. For other years, search the RSC web site: https://www.rsc.ox.ac.uk/@@search?categories=dg-Annual%20Elizabeth%20Colson%20Lecture

Lisa Cligget’s site on the The Gwembe Tonga Research Project https://anthropology.as.uky.edu/cligget/gwembe-tonga-research-project

Online biography by Jennifer Cash, May 1998 for Indian University’s site, Sociocultural Theory in Anthropologyhttp://www.indiana.edu/~wanthro/theory_pages/Colson.htm

Elizabeth Colson Wikipedia article: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elizabeth_Colson


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