David Newbury’s research has focused on three major projects dealing with the historical dynamics of Central and East Africa. They explore a range of issues, from precolonial times to the multiple crises of the 1990s. One project studied precolonial social transformations in the Kivu Rift Valley, the border area between Rwanda and Congo; it traces the relationship of clan alterations to the emergence of kingship in a Congolese community. A second project studied how a devastating famine in eastern Rwanda during the late 1920s led to the reinforcement of colonial power in the region; it assesses the gendered experience of ecological crisis as well as the effects on local politics, on missionary history, on local labor strategies and on regional colonial competition. Yet another research project traced the social transformations in a forest community in eastern Congo, as colonial policies forced a shift from a hunting-gathering economy to agricultural production. More recently, Newbury has studied the historical roots to violence in Central Africa during the 1990s, tracing both the historical effects and the efforts by local actors, at various levels, to rebuild functioning communities and transcend the catastrophes of the genocide in Rwanda (1994), and the two wars in the Congo (1996–97; 1998–present).
Newbury’s publications deal both with issues specific to Central Africa and with broader historiographical and methodological questions. He has published many books (see below) as well as numerous articles on history, method, historiography and the current crises of Central Africa.
He teaches regional courses on East, West and Central African history, as well as thematic courses on a variety of topics; among them are biography and history in Africa, imperialism and environmental history in Africa, decolonization in Africa, famine in historical perspective, and missions and missionaries in Africa. In 2005, he was named Smith’s representative as Fortieth Anniversary Professor, to commemorate the 40-year consortium of the Five Colleges. In 2006, he was honored to receive the Senior Faculty Teaching Award from the Student Government Association.
Newbury serves as chair of the Five College African Studies Council. He holds two positions in the American Historical Association: as member of the Program Committee of the 2009 Annual Meeting, and as member of the Nominating Committee—responsible for all elective positions in the organization. He is chair of the Graduate Student Award Committee of the African Studies Association. He is faculty adviser to the Cooperative Africana Microfilm Project (CAMP), a national project run by the Center for Research Libraries, to preserve documentation on microfilm from all African countries. He also serves as book review co-editor (with Catharine Newbury) of the African Studies Review, the academic journal of the African Studies Association.
Editor (as well as author of introduction and epilogue) Defeat Is the Only Bad News: Rwanda Under Musinga, 1896–1931, by Alison Des Forges. University of Wisconsin Press, 2011.
The Land Beyond the Mists: Essays on Identity and Authority in Precolonial Congo and Rwanda. Ohio University Press, 2009.
Paths to the Past: African Historical Essays in Honor of Jan Vansina, edited by Robert Harms. African Studies Association, 1994.
Kings and Clans: A Social History of the Lake Kivu Rift Valley, University of Wisconsin Press, 1992.
African Historiographies: What History for Which Africa? Books on Demand (division of UMI), 1986.
Vers le Passé du Zaire: Méthodes Historiques: quelques methodes de recherche historique (in French). Institut pour la recherche scientifique en Afrique centrale, 1973.