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Obituary for Paul Baxter: 1925-2014

20 Mar 2014

Social anthropologist P T W Baxter made significant contributions to understanding the Oromo peoples of northern Kenya and Ethiopia. He championed their culture which was frequently denigrated by colonial and local elites.

Born in Leamington Spa in 1925, Paul attended Warwick School where he was influenced by his English teacher. Academic ambitions were put aside when Paul joined the Commandos in 1943, serving in Holland and occupied Germany. After, he went to Downing College, Cambridge, studying English under Leavis before switching to anthropology.

On graduation, he moved to Oxford, where anthropology under E E Evans-Pritchard was flourishing. Field research on the pastoral Borana in northern Kenya followed for two years accompanied by wife Patricia and son Timothy, gaining his D Phil in 1954. More fieldwork followed, among the Kiga of Uganda. With UK jobs scarce he took a position at the University College of Ghana. This was a happy time for the family who found Ghana delightful.

Returning to the UK in 1960, he was offered a one-year lectureship at the Victoria University of Manchester by sociology and social anthropology head Max Gluckman after recommendation by Evans-Pritchard. This was followed by two years at the University College of Swansea before permanently returning to Manchester. During the next 26 years Paul contributed significantly to the department and Oromo research, including 12 months among the Arssi Oromo of Ethiopia, before retiring in 1989.

Paul described himself as the world’s most unpublished anthropologist – harsh judgement as a complete list of output is respectably long. He made a wider contribution editing the journal Africa and sitting on the Royal African Society board. Personal ambition for academic prizes was not strong but commitment to students, friends, indeed anyone he could assist, was enormous. Generations of students, home and overseas, benefited from friendship and a warm welcome in his home by himself and Pat.

Commitment to humane values led Paul to publish, in 1978, on the plight of the Ethiopian Oromo. This became a standard text in Oromo studies and a rallying point for the Oromo cause. Paul was not always entirely comfortable with the adulation he received but his commitment to fairness did not waver.

Paul’s life included sadness, particularly elder son Timothy’s death in 2005, but he took great pleasure from his family - Pat, his son Adam, four grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.

Paul Trevor William Baxter: 30 January 1925 - 1 March 2014