Prof. Dele Layiwola early in the year finished his tenure as Director, Institute of African Studies of the University of Ibadan, Ibadan. A professor of performance art, Layiwola spoke with ANOTE AJELUOROU about his tenure, the objectives of the institute in synthesizing African indigenous knowledge and making it available for use. Specifically, he traced the origin of the institute as situating knowledge within the African context away from its European, colonial imprint
What major highpoint characterised your tenure as director of the institute?
We were able to accomplish a few things. We were able to upgrade and review our curriculum. We were also able to upgrade the environment such that we are now able to receive guests and hold international meetings here.
What sort of knowledge dissemination does the institute engage in other than the traditional ones universities are known for?
Well, you know that our universities are centres of knowledge. The tertiary institutions were founded by Europeans and Americans whose knowledge centres are based and are coordinated or contextualised in their own societies. So, most of the missionaries who came here founded these institutions from the viewpoint of their own backgrounds and their own individual societies and cultures. But in actual fact, it was President Kwameh Nkrumah of Ghana, who first muted the idea of African Studies in an African University. When the University of Legon was founded, he was the one who thought that knowledge ought to be indigenised and contextualised in the societies that produced them.
He said that the knowledge systems that were brought to Ghana or Africa in general, had their roots in European cultures and that was why Africans had the books but they were not able to make any headway or breakthrough or were not inventive with the knowledge that they had acquired through Western education because the root and the philosophy of such education had its roots buried in Europe and America.
So, he felt that an Institute of African Studies will seek to indigenise knowledge, will seek to impart and root the knowledge that had been transferred from Europe on an African soil and in an African culture. And that once you have done, the knowledge will become more meaningful; the inheritors will be more dynamic with it and it will also chart a future for them and for their own society.
So, he founded the first Institute of African Studies on the continent at the University of Ghana, Legon. That was just some months before the one here at Ibadan was founded in1962. I think Nkrumah founded the one in Ghana in 1961. He funded it directly from the Presidency because he felt that the political leaders of the day must be interested in the town and gown interaction of the capital base of knowledge and the centres of governance. So, that is how he founded the Institute of African Studies in Ghana. We pretty well patterned the Institute of African Studies, here at the University of Ibadan after the Institute of African Studies at the University of Ghana, Legon.
You said you just upgraded the curriculum of the institute. The impression people out there get is that universities do the same thing every year. What exactly do you mean when you say that you just reviewed the curriculum of the institute?
We felt that what our predecessors taught might be suitable for the people of that time. The knowledge-base in Ibadan, for instance, especially as the first university on the continent, and to some extent in West Africa, (I mean, I know Forah Bay was there but the University of Ibadan is a pioneer institution in west Africa; I mean those single honours degrees of those days were meant to train persons who would take over from the colonial masters. They did not foresee the kind of complexities that our societies went through soon after independence, and which was tragic for Nigeria, which ultimately precipitated the Nigeria Civil War in 1967.
If you read Prof. Wole Soyinka's Seasons of Anomy, you see the elite in that novel, the university graduates who took single honours degrees and got into public service. Also, if you read Prof. Chinua Achebe's A Man of the People and No Longer at Ease, you will see what I am trying to portray. That the students who were the product of the education we inherited from the colonial masters were not sufficiently grounded in their own societies. And there was that era when people asked, ‘how can you have an Institute of African Studies in an African university?
But after a while, those of them who used to argue like that capitulated and saw that truly there is a need to have an Institute of African Studies, which will indigenise knowledge and study the ramifications of knowledge-bases in Africa and contextualise them on the African soil and on the African predicament and the African condition. We only do postgraduate studies here. You will find the actual component of what we have here because here, we insist that whatever knowledge you are bringing from any of the faculties, and we are represented in all of the faculties, must have a basis and an implication for development in Africa or for the future of Africa. That is why you find that those components of humanities taught in the major departments have some major research base here, which is slanted towards Africa.
For the average man on the street, what exactly does that mean?
Now, let me illustrate it with a few examples. You will notice that the playwright, Prof. John Pepper Clarke started his career from here at the institute; he was a research fellow here. This is how he came up with the Ozidi Saga, a major research into the culture and folklore of his people, the Izon (Ijaw). If he had sat down at the English Department, he would not have been able to do that. Also, it’s noteworthy to see that we have various units in this place. You have the unit that deals with Indigenous Knowledge Systems, which gets the names and the stories about herbs and can pass them onto the Biochemistry Department and his colleagues in Biochemistry in the College of Medicine for analysis and use. These are what our people believed in and this is what they think this one is used for.
Now, what is the scientific basis of this? They are able to collaborate and bring out research in this area. That is what will make meaning to the original owners of the knowledge of the plant or herb, which he discovered. From here, and the stories and folklore around the herb or plant could find scientific component and application.
Also, you find that in most of our performances (drama) here, there is research and practical performance, and they are predicated on the fact that if these performances are indigenous then they must be distinct from the plays of Shakespeare, of Shaw, or of Beckett. So, you find that our researches are largely based on things African and in Africa. I do know that every year people go to America in the name of going for African studies. Why must you go and study African literature in the United States? It doesn’t make meaning; it’s like standing logic on its head.
In actual fact, a lot of the output of the researches that we have here we send to the departments for them to test. For that reason, we have an outlet called the Wednesday Seminar, and it is very popular. And you could come and give a paper irrespective of your faculty. We have every major faculty represented on our board so they can all come and see what we are doing and present papers. Some have been here to present a paper on lightening. You know the concept of lightening; it is believed among the Yoruba that Sango is the deity for electricity. Rainmakers sometimes say they want to link the traditional theory of rainmaking with the scientific component of it. We welcome them because research has no boundaries. We are happy to help people make a cultural meaning out of their lives and their studies.
One would have thought that the Institute of African Studies would be looking more at the humanities...
African medicine is taught here; so, too, are religion and belief systems. We have a herbarium or a laboratory for ethno-medicine. We have a museum here with a vast collection of artworks, which have their own prominence and can be looked at from the viewpoint of the society that produced them and the material art, how they produced were produced. There is no single way of looking at the world, how meaning is brought out of various societies. By simply inspecting an artwork from a given society, we can tell you quite a lot from the history of the artwork itself. We also have a laboratory in the sense of having a museum and a vast collection of artworks. We do have a Performance Unit, an Ethno-musicology Unit, a Folklore Unit, the unit that deals with linguistics and folklore. We also have a unit that deals with African and oral history and more recently we have a unit that deals with Conflict Studies.
It sounds like a university within a university…
Yeah, quite so; a university within a university!
The white man would argue that the African man was never inventive in terms of technology since essentially, the continent is still far behind other continents in this regard. How does this institute react to that kind of view?
Well, there are prejudices across cultures. Occasionally, too, our people have made such statements to the fact that the white man has no culture. Or that some foreigners are not cultured in the sense that every name we have has a meaning. Here, you don't name a man stone without reason. One line of a name may tell the whole history of a linage, where they are coming from, where they are going or why they are where they are.
If you look at our mode of dressing, it is highly symbolic; so, too, our sense of colour. If you look at our adages and proverbs, they tell a lot about our own history, about our own culture. Some of the most inventive users of even the English language today are Africans because when they look at the background and the etymology of their own languages, the etymology of the wealth in their own language, they are able to adapt them and use the English language in a version, which is refreshing and completely different. And this has been widely acknowledge of Wole Soyinka and Chinua Achebe, that they have come to put a new freshness into the English language itself to the extent that they have changed it from what it was originally and enriched it simply by applying the background of their own African languages to it.
So, to turn around and say that the African is not inventive is a statement which is not only racialist, it is irresponsible.
But how can Africa explain her technological backwardness?
We are still suffering from the fallout of slavery. 400 years of moving people, of displacing people, of upsetting society, especially those of them who were preoccupied with inventiveness, creativity and so on. We are just lucky even with the artworks that are left. People were simply displaced and taken to foreign lands where their energies were used to build civilizations in other places. It is a pity; I know that slavery and colonialism have damaged the psyche of the African. And it is not as if we are less endowed, as a number of those who make waves in the scientific world today are Africans.
Philip Emeagwali, in spite of all the prejudices, has been able to hold his head high in the world of computers. There are a lot of Africans who work for Space Stations and NASA in the United States I do believe that if we have the political will, we can make a breakthrough in technology. After all, many of those who have carried out startling surgical operations in the United States are Nigerians. They perform excellently outside their own home places, but when they come back home, there is a lot of handicaps.
But that does not seem to be the case with the Japanese or Chinese, and some language experts argue that it is because the Chinese and Japanese more or less think in their own languages, and that is why they have advanced the way they have?
It is true, I agree with that.
This institute as conceived by Nkrumah of Ghana was to be a think tank for governance but what we find now is a disconnect between governance and centres of knowledge generally in this country. How did this happen and how can it possibly be redressed?
The process of patronage and nepotism is rife, where people put square pegs in round holes simply because somebody is either their brother or is their crony who will move capital for them. Or move huge sums across the border. Or who they can use? That era is still very much with us. Sometimes, there are people who dread their colleagues simply because this colleague will beat him at an interview; so, he would prefer to take the wind out of the sail of that colleague.
I know that education is a thing of the mind in this country. It is unbelievable to look at the quality of the polity, look at their manifestoes, look at what they say even at campaign rallies and look at the quality of minds that we have.
Like you say there is a disconnect, but we must begin now to build this tradition of excellence. Which is what other people do. We go abroad and we see it; we should not only go abroad to shop alone. And, the fact that somebody has bagged two or three degrees does not mean that he is a true leader or he would give you the kind of education and the kind of salvation that you need. It must be the knowledge-base that is holistic in terms of mixing the best out there in society.
Many of our farmers who have been tilling the land for many years can predict to you when the rain falls, the quantity of water, the varieties of tubers they have here, where one will do better. Some of them will just hold the soil in their hands and tell you what will be good in it. They are scientists in their own rights. There is no reason why we cannot incorporate the knowledge that they have with the one that we study from books from abroad.
We don't have to go very far just across the border here in Benin where that Reverend Father who runs the Songhai Project. The small community is self-sustaining. It produces all the fruits and even exports some; generates its own electricity. He was a professor in the United States and saw malnourished school children and they said they were from Africa and he wondered that with all that landmass. He left his post in the United States and came back. He is a Nigerian. He came to Nigeria that he just needs a bit of land but they didn't give him so he went to Benin Republic. They gave him land there and he has transformed the place.
When they saw what he was doing they said do more. I understand that he is coming to start a project like that in Port Harcourt. It is not as if we don't have the expertise; I think it is the will power. When did countries like Malaysia, Singapore get their independence? Malaysia came to take palm kernel from NIFOR in Benin, Nigeria. Now Malaysia is the greatest exporter of palm oil; we even import it from them. It is amazing the potential we have and where we are. It is a terrible irony. I think the leadership is wrong. And it is like a wagon; once it is wrong in front, it will continue to go wrong. Generations following like a railway wagon. Once it misses one track, the rest will follow.