In the Company of Women On Writing and Reading Women as Historical Actors

During and beyond Women’s Month, celebrating women should extend to the kinds of stories we tell about women. These stories should reflect the diversity of their lived experiences, the multiplicity of their work, and the varying ways women express their individual thoughts and perspectives.

In A Dialogue, a 1974 book by James Baldwin and Nikki Giovanni (being a transcript of a now viral conversation the two had in 1971), Baldwin stated that ‘The responsibility of a writer is to excavate the experience of the people who produce them.’ While this is a noble task, I think it is a challenging one—especially for me, following the years I have spent studying history.

Three years into my undergraduate studies in history, in 2017, I was aware that the next step to getting a Bachelor of Arts degree was to complete a compulsory research project. I spent months thinking of a topic to write on. My favourite thing about history has always been that it accommodates a variety of themes from both distant and recent past. So, I had options.

Then I asked myself, why am I studying history if my hometown has no ‘documented’ history? This inspired my undergraduate research project on the socio-political history of one of the numerous, hidden communities in Ijebuland in Ogun State. The scope of the project spanned from the earliest recorded times until the 1990s.

At the time, I was extremely proud of the work I did. Two years after I submitted that project—while I was in the same department for my master’s degree—I read it again and I couldn’t get over the work I did. It didn’t seem like I had done enough. I felt like I had to overhaul the project and add something new, maybe highlight the role of a group of people or even examine changes in the socio-economic life of the people in contemporary times. Luckily for me, my undergraduate degree supervisor, Professor Ayodeji Olukoju, knew I was back in the department and asked for my plans for my MA research.

The conversation we had helped me clarify what I wanted to do. I told him I wanted to build on what we had previously worked on together. In that research project, I looked at the socio-political history of the community from the earliest times till 1990. This time, I wanted to add something on women because women are a core part of my hometown and I felt like as an undergraduate I had failed to give them the spotlight they deserved. And in his ever gracious self, Olukoju handed me a copy of a journal article he co-wrote with Adesola Afolabi in the second volume of the Ogun Journal of Arts, titled ‘Women in the Agricultural Economy of Ogun State: Case Study of the Remo Kolanut Industry (1920-1987)’. That was the motivation I needed to dedicate a chapter of my research to the role of women in the agricultural economy of my hometown since independence.


Afolabi and Olukoju’s paper examines the changing role of women in the Remo kola nut industry. The authors highlighted how women moved from mere gatherers, processors and retail traders to cultivators, wholesalers and long distance traders, whose commerce reached as far as Northern Nigeria. One reason for the direct involvement of women in kola nut cultivation was to satisfy growing demand and to allow their communities cope with the pressures of the rapidly changing Nigerian society. The active participation of Remo women in the kola nut industry enhanced their social and economic status. In just a few years, women went from gatherers, processors and retail traders to cultivators, wholesalers and long-distance traders to Northern Nigeria. All of these were quite similar to the experiences of many women back in my hometown.

In my hometown, women have long been involved in the harvesting, processing, and marketing of agricultural produce. Just like many towns in Ijebuland, cassava farming and garri production is a core part of my people’s lives. Additionally, most of the tasks connected with food production are led by women. My research looked at the period staring from 1960 when Nigeria was in the transitional process of independence; as such, I drew similarities from Nzemeka Justus Adim’s findings in his 2018 article titled, ‘The Role of Barracks Women in the Nigerian Economy. Adim explained that the involvement of women in economic development was informed by the fact that most husbands could not provide full support for their wives and dependants.

In my hometown, many women had taken to farming or the processing of the cassava that they purchased from other farmers because their husbands (who had moved to larger cities in parts of Ogun State and beyond) were not able to provide for their families. In other cases, while their husbands were involved in harvesting and transporting cassavas to homes or sheds, the women were primarily in charge of processing into garri and taking them to other markets and villages for sale.

In their work, Afolabi and Olukoju revealed that: ‘Since the 1960s, women experienced transition from being suppliers of supplementary labour on the farm to being owners of kola farms in their own right and employers of labour for cultivation.’ In this time, the women in my hometown transitioned from helping out on farms to owning cassava farms, purchasing them from male cultivators who were not willing to go through the laborious task of processing the crop, and employing young people for cultivation.

So important was the participation of women in cassava farming and garri production in this period of study that Ijebu garri became the most popular variety of processed cassava in Nigeria. Moreover, women were involved in determining the prices of garri. Ultimately, the participation of women enhanced their social and economic status. Many women could now send their children to schools, and cater for their families without relying on their husbands who left the village (temporarily or permanently) to seek greener pastures.

A woman I interviewed told me:

I got into the business in 1998/9. My father’s farmland was left uncultivated after his sudden death and my husband was planning to leave the village around this time for work in Ibadan. I paid a group of Fulani and Hausa herders in the village to clear the land and since then, I focused on the farm. Business started slowly because I had to wait for the first harvest, but it picked up after that. I was now able to process cassava into garri and fix prices per bag. I started from selling to our neighbouring villages to selling to market women in Ijebu-Ode. At one point, I had some customers from Lagos and Ibadan.


My love and interest in history is even more prominent in the books I read. One of my favourite genres is historical fiction and some of my favourite books are historical fiction written by women, and stories that centre women as historical actors. The authors of these books often reveal that they chose to tell the stories of these women because their stories have been forgotten along the course of history.

In the author’s note of her 2020 Booker Prize longlisted novel, The Shadow King, Ethiopian author, Maaza Mengiste, explained why she decided to focus on the stories of women’s participation in the Second Italo-Ethiopian War or better still, the Italian Invasion of Ethiopia in 1935. Mengiste explained that: ‘The first stories I heard of the war between fascist Italy and Ethiopia came from my grandfather.’ Her grandfather’s tales focused on the heroic but poorly equipped Ethiopian fighters who struggled against a modern European army. However, there was her great-grandmother, who like other Ethiopian women, enlisted and went to the war. For Mengiste: ‘My great-grandmother represents one of the many gaps in European and African history.’ Hence, The Shadow King ultimately ‘tells the story of those Ethiopian women who fought alongside men, who even today have remained no more than errant lines in faded documents.’

Slavery is one of the many events that has shaped African history, and Victoria Princewill’s 2021 debut novel, In the Palace of Flowers, sought to explore a lesser discussed slave trade. In the nineteenth century, Arabs and Europeans sold African women into slavery across the Indian Ocean. These women were born in Mombasa, Zanzibar and Ethiopia. Some of them ended up at Persian ports, where they were later bought and sold to wealthy male elites in the Ottoman Empire and Iran who used them as domestic helpers, female attendants, and concubines.

Princewill’s book was inspired by the only existing first-person narrative of an Abyssinian slave in Iran. Her book explores the untold story of Jamila Habashi, an Ethiopian woman who served in Nasser al-Din Shah Qajar’s royal court in the twentieth century. In an interview, Princewill revealed that she came across the story Jamila’s story in an academic paper by Anthony A Lee.

According to Princewill:

She [Jamila] had written a letter that detailed her existence but only really her ancestry, her status as an enslaved woman in Iran and the men between whom she was sold. Hers was the only readily available story and the mere fact that it had survived when there was a concerted effort to erase the history of Abyssinians in Iran made me determined to do justice to what I took to be her own perseverance and to give her the humanity she had been denied.

Whether it’s the story of African women navigating the changes of their current world, or that of women as historical actors re-imagined to reach more readers, celebrating women should extend to telling their unique stories to the world. Many writers have successfully done that, and I am hopeful that many writers will continue this emergent tradition in the future.

‘Some people told me to worry less about making money since I had a husband who should be more concerned. But I thought of the nearest future. How would I send my children to school if I cannot cater to our immediate needs? I had to take this business seriously because I wanted better for myself and my family, ’ another woman told me during my study of Ijebuland. And while my MA thesis is still under supervision and has not been graded, this comment means a lot to me. Rather than feeling fulfilled or accomplished for completing this work, I mostly feel inspired. Seeing how women in the place where I and my ancestors come from—a place that I love so much and one that holds so many great memories—took control of their lives made me think: I know there are more stories like this and I hope I get to tell them, and even read about them in the coming years

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