Thursday, 28 July 2011

Achebe-Ogundimu: Why I Devote My Scholarship To Women History

Nwando Achebe-Ogundimu is the daughter of Nigeria’s legendary novelist Prof. Chinua Achebe. She was recently made a professor, one of the youngest professors so made at the Michigan State University, U.S., where she teaches History. In this online interview by ANOTE AJELUOROU, Achebe-Ogundimu states why she is a gender historian, her concerns for the place of women in society and why educating the female child equals educating the entire society for its advancement.

CONGRATULATIONS on your recent elevation to full professorship. You are reputed to be one of the youngest so appointed. How do you view it? I am most grateful as well as humbled to have gotten to what is the pinnacle of my profession at a relatively young age. I got my PhD in 2000; and at that time, I dared to dream. I mapped out a goal for myself; and that goal was to become Associate Professor by 2005 and full, by 2010. My dream worked out for me.  However, getting to this rank did not happen merely because I dreamed it. It took a whole lot of sweat and hard work. I strived to be the best that I possibly could.

I also armed myself with information. From the time I graduated with my PhD in African History, I knew exactly what I needed to do to accomplish my goals. I became Associate Professor after the publication of my first book, Farmers, Traders, Warriors and Kings: Female Power and Authority in Northern Igboland, 1900-1960 and a series of peer-reviewed articles; and full professor after the publication of my second book, The Female King of Colonial Nigeria: Ahebi Ugbabe, as well as a series of peer-reviewed articles.

What particular memory does it evoke in you?
I do not know that my achievement evokes any particular memory. What it does speak to is how rewarding direction and hard work can be.

Your father, the legendary writer, Chinua Achebe, wrote his famous novel Things Fall Apart when he was 28. You now seem to share some affinity with him. What’s your thought on such comparison of genius?
I do not know that I can in any way compare myself or my achievements to that of my father. He in fact wrote Things Fall Apart at age 26 and it was published when he was 28. At 26, I was still a PhD student trying to figure out exactly what it was that I wanted to write my dissertation on. However, I must say that having the parents that I have — my mother Professor Christie Chinwe Achebe received her PhD in education 25 years before me and has been a full professor of Education since 1986 —encouraged me to aspire to be the very best that I could be. My parents are the most supportive parents that anyone could ask for.

Your recent work on a female king The Female King of Colonial Nigeria: Ahebi Ugbabe is revealing in theme. What prompted you to write it?
I was opportune to study African history at the University of California, Los Angeles, at a time a number of African-born students were enrolled in the PhD programme. I believe that there were about 13 of us studying in what was the top ranked PhD programme in African History in the U.S. During our studies, our professors exposed us to some of the most acclaimed writing on African peoples; and because there were a number of women in my cohort, our professors attempted to introduce us to the existing scholarship on African women.
Now, mind you, this was in the early 1990s when the field of African Women’s history was not as established as it is now. Well, I remember having to read one particular article on Tswana women called “Beasts of Burden: The Subordination of Tswana Women” and being incensed by the author’s Eurocentric portrayal of African women. I demanded to know from my professor and the students, why the author was calling Tswana women ‘Beasts of Burden’. After all, I was an African woman; my mother is an African woman, my grandmother was an African woman, and we most certainly are/were not ‘Beasts of Burden’.
Moreover, the evidence that the author was using to typify Tswana women as ‘Beasts of Burden’ —  the fact that women would strap their children on their backs and go farming — did not make them so; it merely made them hard workers, as far as I was concerned. I decided, however, that instead of getting angry at these authors — another one claimed that African women were sold to the highest bidder for their productive and reproductive labour — I would have to get even. And, I could only do this by writing my own counter-narrative of African women.
I felt that once this was done, that I, as well as the countless African women that I knew, would truly see themselves in history. This is what prompted me to become the women’s and gender historian that I am today. I wrote my dissertation (which became my first book) “Farmers, Traders, Warriors and Kings”  to challenge these Eurocentric perspectives and I have continued with this quest to tell the African woman’s story in all of its complexities in my new book The Female King of Colonial Nigeria: Ahebi Ugbabe.
Ahebi Ugbabe was the only female warrant chief and king in all of colonial Nigeria. Her story, as the Igbo people say, allows us to view the masquerade dance from all perspectives. Before I unearthed her history, the canon on Nigerian history was that there were no female warrant chiefs; the canon also informed us that Igbo women were removed from the positions of power that they were so used to filling in the pre-colonial period and as a result lost power during the colonial period.
This same canon informs us that Igbo women, reacting to this loss of power, collectively fought the colonial government in order to right the wrongs of colonialism. Ahebi Ugbabe’s life history allows me to complicate the received narrative of Igbo women, and indeed Nigerian women’s history, by presenting the life history of one woman who not only did not lose power during the pre-colonial era, but was able to empower herself in a manner that would not have been possible during the pre-colonial era because of her collaboration with the British colonial masters as well as the Attah of Igalaland.
I became fascinated with her story, because here was a woman who was able to introduce the autocratic office of King into Igboland, where it had not existed previously. And mind you, she does not introduce the title of Queen; rather, she ingeniously transforms herself into a man in order to become a king and into what I call a “full man” in order to control and bring out a masquerade. You will have to read the book to find out what eventually happens to her.

You seem interested in society’s underdogs — women, children, farmers. Why do you feel drawn to them to want to write about them?
I am not sure that underdog is a word that I feel comfortable using in reference to women, children and farmers — yes, perhaps in the 20th and 21st centuries. But history informs us that Nigeria women (particularly the Igbo women that my writing is on) and farmers held their own during the pre-colonial era. Therefore, I do not view women as underdogs. The system that was in operation pre-colonially was what Professor Kamene Okonjo calls a dual sex system in which each sex managed its own affairs. In my writing, I call it a complementary system, which means that the women’s world was not subordinate to the men’s; it was merely complementary.
My scholarship is also as much about what I call the female principle, which embodies all femaleness in society. In fact, I argue in my work that one only tells part of Igbo history when one focuses exclusively on the human physical realm. Therefore, in my work, I document the histories of the female principle in the spiritual realm (which I contend is a higher realm than the human) and this allows me to write the histories of goddesses, priestesses, female medicines, female masked spirits, etc.
So that when it comes to politics, for instance, I argue that the real rulers of Igbo towns were the spirits and that human beings were merely there to interpret the will of the gods.
Conceptualising the Igbo world in this manner, allows the historian to tell the complete history.

History would seem to wear a masculine garb as it tends to favour the strong, the conqueror. Is your new book a redemptive work out to achieve a balancing act?
By focusing on women, I believe that my book balances out the silences in history. In the vast majority of written work — both archival and general scholarship — women if presented, have appeared as footnotes in texts. My work therefore as you indicate attempts to balance the received canon.

What would you say about the place of women in history? Have they been given their due? If not, why so?
I started to answer this question earlier. No; women have not been given their due in history; and part of it has to do with the people who are writing the history. Much of our history has been written by male scholars, who are not interested in women’s worlds. This is beginning to change as more women as well as male scholars, who have been trained as gender historians, are beginning to make their mark. Therefore, a rich history on women and gender in Africa has and continues to emerge.

There are many heroic women in history both in Nigeria and the world like Idia, Amina, Moremi, Ugbabe. How much of these women’s heroism have generations of women appropriated either to lift themselves or impact their societies?
Not enough. I think that women in Nigeria today have a lot to learn from the fine example of our foremothers. And this is why knowing our history — knowing where the rain began to beat you, as the Igbo say — is very important. For if we know and own our history, how can that not give us pride as women to strive to achieve and be the very best that we can?
A lot of the women that you have mentioned got to the pinnacle of their societies by overcoming far greater odds than most women have to overcome today; and they did so with grace and dignity. So for me, Queen Amina, Iyoba Idia, Nwanyeruwa and the Igbo women who made war on the colonial government during the women’s war of 1929, Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, Margaret Ekpo and the unrivalled sacrifices of Princess Moremi Ajasoro, King Ahebi, Princess Inikpi, Princess Oma Idoko, etc, etc are and will continue to be my mentors, fine examples for all women. When I think about their achievements, they inspire me to be the very best that I can be.

What specific lesson should women and, indeed, society take away from your new book?
King Ahebi Ugbabe was a flawed character, who lived a very complex life during a very complex time (1880-1948). She was at the tender age of 13 or 14 offered in marriage (igo mma ogo) to a powerful deity in Enugu-Ezike called Ohe for a crime that she did not commit, but one that her father did.
This strong and resilient girl, who was described to me as nwatakili walu anya (a person who did not listen to reason) did the unthinkable. She refused to be dedicated, and as a result, was forced into exile to Igalaland. Because she had no skills, sex work became a means of survival, a means to an end. Ahebi thus became a sex worker, and eventually trader extraordinaire. She learned to speak many languages including Pidgin English, Igala, Nupe and, of course, her own Igbo.
During the years of British penetration and eventual colonization, Ahebi befriended the British invaders, accompanied them back to her hometown and with the help of the British (she was the only one in her community who could speak Pidgin English), she was able to assume two positions of great importance — the positions of headman and warrant chief.
Therefore, the lesson that one can, and perhaps, should take from Ahebi’s story is that as women, no matter what hand we are dealt, we must be active participants in the making of our own realities and histories. We must not sit back and succumb to what might seem to be the hopelessness of whatever situation that we find ourselves in. There is always a light at the end of a dark tunnel.
In terms of the lessons that society should take away from Ahebi’s story, I think that that is simple. As societies, we must treat all citizens with respect and equality. It is obviously unjust for a child to be sacrificed for a crime that her father committed. These unjust practices have to stop. And as a society — men and women — should lend their voices to speaking out against all unjust practices.

But Ugbabe fell into bad times (prostitution, etc) and played into the stereotype prism. What should readers make of such tragic fall from grace?
Because of the hand dealt Ahebi as a child, I do not see her choice to become a sex worker as a fall from grace. I know that this will probably be perceived by many as a controversial stand. I rather view her as a girl who was able to take an injustice (dedication to a deity, and rape) and turn it into a justice for herself.
In my book, I problematise the very institution of prostitution in pre-colonial and colonial Nigeria. I do not view it through moralistic terms, but look at sex work as women’s labour. So that during a time when so much injustice was levelled upon Ahebi, she was able to use her body for financial gain and also to establish connections with the British and the Attah Igala, which would eventually serve her well.

Ugbabe’s rise to fame and power would seem accidental or incidental upon the political climate at the time. How can 21st century Nigerian women be persuaded to appropriate her genius?
I do not think that her rise to fame and power was accidental or incidental. In my view, Ahebi is relatable to all people. In my book, I argue that she is in a sense ‘an every woman’. There are certain aspects of Ahebi’s story that every individual can relate to: Whether it is her genius in establishing a school in her palace in which young boys and girls — both free and enslaved — were educated in the exact same manner, taught the exact same courses, without any form of discrimination; or her having her palace serve as a sanctuary for wives whose husbands had abused them. These issues — of universal education and women’s rights —  still plague us today in our country and continent.
Therefore, Ahebi Ugbabe was extremely forward-thinking. The education of girls is perhaps the most important investment that any country can make in its future. It has a powerful impact on a girl’s future productively.
Studies have shown that girls with more education grow up to be women, who have fewer and healthier babies as well as women, who make more informed choices about caring for their families.
There is also a correlation between how much education a woman has and how skilled a worker she eventually becomes. Moreover, almost every aspect of what is deemed ‘progress’ — from nutrition to family planning, child health to women’s rights — is profoundly affected by whether or not a country educates its girls. In fact, a number of studies have shown that educating girls and women is the single most effective strategy in ensuring the future well-being and health of generations to come, and the lasting success of a nation’s economy.

Nigeria went to the polls recently and there was a shortfall in the number of women elected. Does this worry you?
It certainly worries me; for it does not seem as though we have been able to get back to the gender parity in politics that the various ethnic nations that make up Nigeria of today were blessed with during the pre-colonial era. In saying that, however, I am not merely suggesting that Nigeria introduces legislation or measures that are intended to blindly re-introduce women into the political government of our nation. We need qualified candidates.
And this also speaks to the ethnocentrism that is so present in Nigeria today. We have to get to a point where we elect and appoint the most qualified candidates. So, how then will women be given a fair shake? Well, in my view, it starts from much earlier on, as the saying goes: ‘when a country educates a girl, it educates the nation!’ We need to make sure, as a country, that our young girls are given the exact same opportunities to education as our boys are.

Thirty five per cent representation of women either in elective or appointive position for women. How does this appeal to you?
It is a start, but what percentage of the entire Nigerian population are women? I think that we can do better. And in that way, serve as an example to other African countries. After all, we can look to countries like Rwanda, which in October 2003, came closest to reaching parity between men and women of any national legislature worldwide. Currently, 48.8 per cent of Lower House seats and 34.6 per cent of Upper House seats are held by Rwandan women.
We cannot also forget the examples of Uganda, Mozambique and Liberia. In the case of Uganda, between 1994-2003, Dr. Wandira Kazibwe served as vice president. A year later in 2004, Mozambican Luisa Diogo became the first African woman head of government. She served as Prime Minister until January 2010. Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf followed suit, becoming the first female president of Liberia in January 2006. We have a long way to go in Nigeria.

History is not being taught in most Nigerian secondary schools any more. How do you respond to such development? What impact would such have on a nation in quest of identity, socio-political and cultural engineering like Nigeria?
What an unforgivable travesty!!!!! What are we teaching if we are no longer teaching history? How do we expect our youngsters to learn from the past — the mistakes and accomplishments of our forbearers — to have a sense of self that propels them to want to strive to be better? Countries like the US are trying to figure out how best to re-introduce Africa into their history curricula and we are deciding to do away with it. Our own history? That move is not good for our nation; and we will come to regret it.
What identity? What socio-political or cultural engineering? A nation cannot have any of that until it understands from where it has come. Many of the issues plaguing our nation today, whether it be the issue of ethnocentrism, unequal participation of women in government, etc, can be understood when we understand our history. How we came to be; how our current realities came into being. There is no moving forward, without a total and complete understanding or our past, period!

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