Interview with Nwando Achebe

Professor Nwando Achebe is the author of The Female King of Colonial Nigeria: Ahebi Ugbabe which won the Barbara “Penny” Kanner and Gita Chaudhuri Book Awards in 2012. She is also a Professor of History at Michigan State University. She received her Ph.D. from the University of California, Los Angeles in 2000.

In 1996 and 1998, she served as a Ford Foundation and Fulbright-Hays Scholar-in-Residence at The Institute of African Studies and History Department of the University of Nigeria, Nsukka.

Her research interests involve the use of oral history in the study of women, gender, and sexuality in Nigeria. Her first book, Farmers, Traders, Warriors, and Kings: Female Power and Authority in Northern Igboland, 1900-1960 was published by Heinemann in 2005. Her award-winning second book, The Female King of Colonial Nigeria: Ahebi Ugbabe is a full length critical biography on the only female warrant chief and king in all of colonial Nigeria, and arguably British Africa. The writing was funded by a generous grant from the Wenner-Gren Foundation.

In the summer of 2013, she will be directing an NEH funded “Africa in World History” Institute for High School Teachers.

 

 

You grew up in a renowned literary family; how much of this background contributed to your emergence as an accomplished writer and researcher in your own right and at what point did you decide to become a researcher and writer? 

My parents have always encouraged us to map our own path; and to do what it is that we have chosen to the best of our abilities. From the time that I was a little girl, both parents encouraged me to write. I was editor-in-chief of our school literary magazine and I went on the win a number of literary prizes. But, my parents also encouraged my love for performing arts. I was a member of my primary and secondary school drama clubs and also a member of band. It was therefore not surprising that I would choose performing arts, with a concentration on theater, music and dance as a major for my first degree. After my first degree, I decided to study to become a documentary filmmaker. It was during this program at University of California, Los Angeles that I fell in love with African History. My excitement about African history developed, because for the first time in my academic life, history was taught to me as a story—a story that had a beginning, middle, and an end. It was a story that I could relate to; in other words, I could see myself in history. I decided from that point that that was the kind of scholarship that I wanted to produce; to reconstruct the history of a given African people (in my case, the Igbo) in a way that they not only could relate to, but, that they could truly see themselves emerge from the pages of my scholarship. In fact, one of the greatest tributes that I have ever been paid by a prominent historian of Africa was when he said that I do not write like a historian, I thought that I wrote more like a creative writer.

 

You have published two books so far: Farmers, Traders, Warriors, and Kings: Female Power and Authority in Northern Igboland, 1900-1960 and The Female King of Colonial Nigeria: Ahebi Ugbabe. Thelatter went on to win the Barbara Kanner and Gita Chaudhuri Book Awards. Are you working on any other book at the moment? If yes can you give us a peep into what to expect?

Historical writing unlike other types of writing, oftentimes takes years to materialize. My first book came out of my PhD dissertation of the same name. The field work alone took me about a year and a half to do; the transcription, translation of oral sources, as well as writing took another year to complete. Then it took another 3-4 years to go through the review process and be published. My second book, believe it or not, took a total of fifteen years of back and forth research to reconstruct the world of the female king Ahebi. The publishing was quicker—the book came out about 6 months after I delivered the final draft to the publishers. I am presently working on two full length historical studies—the first is a textbook on women and gender in Africa; and the second, which is my much longer term project, will examine, through a collection of life histories, British colonial enterprise in Nigeria. So, I am moving from writing about Nigerian women, to writing about the worlds of British men who chose to live and work in colonial Nigeria.

What do you like to do when you’re not researching or writing?

I find that I have very little time for extra curricula activities. I am employed at Michigan State University as a full time teacher and researcher. So, when I am not researching or writing, I am teaching. This coming summer, I will be leading an intensive 4-week, National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) sponsored “Africa in World History,” summer institute for High School teachers, in which the institute participants will learn how to integrate Africa into their world history teaching curricula. I am also editor-in-chief of a new journal on West African history, jointly published by Michigan State University Press, as well as Michigan State University’s African Studies Center and the History Department. I expect that the maiden issue of the journal will come out in January of 2014.

 

In 1996 and 1998 respectively, you served as a Ford Foundation and Fulbright-Hays Scholar-in-Residence at The Institute of African Studies and History Department of the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. Given your experience and exposure, how would you compare the research environment and resources available in both Africa and the west both within and especially outside the academia?

In my view, the major difference would be access to resources—whether it be funding, computer/internet access, or library resources. In the US, there are a number of competitive grants that researchers can apply for to fund research.  These resources are not readily available to our counterparts in African universities. The same can be said about the Nigerian researcher’s accessibility to the internet, or new books and new scholarship: for the most part, African universities tend not to have the kind of access that US universities do to new books, journal articles etc.

 

Can you give us an insight into the methods you usually use when carrying out your research and also share with us your writing regimen and quirks?

I work primarily as an oral historian who writes about Nigerian women and gender history. The kind of research that I do necessarily dictates my adoption of a multi-disciplinary methodology: one that involves the use of life histories, life narratives, proverbs, stories of creation, open-ended interviews/conversations, music, architecture, fine art, literature, geo-mapping, cloth history etc. to uncover and reconstruct the history in question.

 

 

There has always been the perceived tendency for women writers to stress gender issues and themes in their writings and this trend largely continues to the present. Going by the thematic concerns found in your two published research works, would it be wrong to assume that you also feel compelled to follow the trend?

My start in women and gender history came out of my desire to see myself in history. As a graduate student in the PhD program in African History at the University of California, Los Angeles, I was incensed by the images of African women that we were made to read. Could I be that beast of burden that these Eurocentric scholars were writing about? Could I be that woman who was sold to the highest bidder for her reproductive and productive labor? I thought not! I therefore figured that change would not come from getting angry. It would only come if I added my own unique African voice and interpretation of historical evidence to the mix. I realized that I had to conduct my own research, to show African women as I knew them to be. That is why I do the kind of research that I do. I wanted to see myself in history.

 

How do you strike a balance between researching, writing, and teaching?

The balance is pretty much struck for me by my university. I have a 9-month appointment with Michigan State University during which I teach a variety of courses, ranging from general African history courses, to courses of women and gender history. The summer months are mine to conduct research; and in order to do this, I have to apply for external funding. I therefore, very much guard my summer months jealously, because that is pretty much the only time that I can dedicate fully to my research and writing.

 

Your research interests largely involve the use of oral history in the study of women, gender, and sexuality in Nigeria, how do you see emerging technologies (e-books etc) changing the techniques, pace, and quality of research – especially as it applies to the field of history – in the near future?

Unfortunately, I think that e-books are the future. I say unfortunately, because I personally still enjoy the feel of a book, of snuggling up in bed and actually turning the pages of a book. However, e-books are much cheaper to publish; and with published books hitting an all-time low in sales, it is hardly surprising the e-books have become very popular. In my opinion there is absolutely no reason why the quality of research should be any different. In the US, university presses, which publish the vast majority of solid academic research, have begun to publish books both electronically and in paper. The quality of these e-books remain the same, because the books are put through the same vigorous peer review process that regular books go through. In fact, my new book, The Female King of Colonial Nigeria is published in paperback, hardback and electronically. And I understand that the electronic version of the book is doing quite well.

 

History appreciation is at its lowest ebb in many African countries today. In a country like Nigeria, it has even been struck out of the junior high school curriculum for a number of years now. Given the importance of history in assessing the present and anticipating the future, what do you think are the alternatives available to present activists in the History field, to shake the government and the citizenry out of their apathy to History in particular and research in general?

It is simply appalling to read that Nigeria is doing away with the study of history in junior and senior secondary school curricula. We ought to be ashamed of ourselves as a nation, because a people who do not know where they came from, i.e. their history, cannot move forward. We are bound to continue to make the same mistakes over and over again. It is especially absurd when one considers the fact that high schools in Europe and the US are spending money to train their teachers on how to integrate African into their world history curricula—hence the need for teacher training institutes, such as the one that I will be directing next summer. They invest in this training, because they understand the connectivity of the different nations of the world. So, now we have European and American youngsters learning about African history and our youngsters are not. That’s sad, really very sad.

 

Do you have any suggestions to help researchers, especially historians get better? If so, what are they?

I always enjoy picking up locally published history books when I go home to Nigeria. For the most part these books provide professionally trained historians such as myself with important primary source material. However, I must confess that the quality of the published work could be better. We now have a pervasive phenomenon of self-publishing in Nigeria, which threatens the very quality of the scholarly texts being produced. There is after all a reason why it can take the better part of 3 years for a scholarly book to appear in print in the US. This is because all scholarly books are published by reputable university presses; and those presses always send books out to be peer reviewed. So, authors find themselves revising their work many times over before it is accepted for publication. When a scholar sits in his or her home and prints out a book and then takes it to a printer to bind into a book and produce several copies; that does not a scholarly book make. Universities in the US do not accept self-published books for tenure and promotion processes. We need to re-introduce the peer review process (I say re-introduce because we had this process in the 60s, 70s and 80s with such prestigious Nigerian presses such as University of Ibadan Press) in Nigeria.

 

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