Academic and author of ‘Gender, Anti-Colonialism and Nationalism’, Nnenna Ifeanyi-Ajufo, believes it is important that Africans tell our own stories: ‘Look at Africa and the history of Africa. Academic writings about Africa are not largely written by Africans and this has allowed for a distortion of our history.’
First Draft is our interview column, featuring authors and other prominent figures on books, reading, and writing.
Our questions are italicized.
What books or kinds of books did you read growing up?
Growing up, I read all kinds of books. Both parents loved reading and my dad totally enjoyed studying and schooling. He kept going back to school for one course or another. My parents had all kinds of books and my mum had so many novels. I remember reading her novels including Charles Dicken’s Oliver Twist and A Tale of Two Cities, Elechi Amadi’s The Concubine, Ibe Kachikwu’s Cocaine Connection, Flora Nwapa’s Efuru and Iduand many other novels at a very young age. I remember reading her George Orwell’s Animal Farm even before I went to secondary school. Most of the books we were asked to read in school, I read them at home, e.g., Wole Soyinka’s The Lion and the Jewel, Chinua Achebe’s Arrow of God, Zulu Sofola’s Wedlock of the Gods, Ayi Kwei Armah’s The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born, Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge, William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night etc. Sometimes I’d hide and read some of her novels especially the romance novels.
I remember at a time my dad was lecturing at the police academy in Kaduna, he would purchase loads of books for our reading at home, especially books from Spectrum and Heinemann publishers. I read Chinua Achebe’s Chike and the River, Eddie Iroh’s Without a Silver Spoon, and so many other novels. He also purchased children’s books by foreign authors; for example, I read so many of Enid Blyton’s books. My dad’s first degree was in French, and he’d buy books written in French as well. I regret not reading those and making every effort to learn. My passion for reading was also influenced by the secondary school I attended. I attended Federal Government Girls’ College, Owerri and we read novels a lot. It was common to exchange novels. I read loads of books including Mills and Boon and harlequin romance as I got older in school. By SS1 I had read Jackie Collins’ Vendetta.
When I was in SS2, my dad bought a full set of the Encyclopaedia Britannica and that was when my reading interests changed. I had never seen anything like it. I still remember that the last novel I read (which belonged to my dad before the encyclopaedia purchase) was Camara Laye’s The African Child. My dad never knew I read that book because I took it from his room and returned it quietly. Thereafter, having the encyclopaedia at home changed everything. That was all I wanted to read. It was fascinating. This was no mere dictionary, it told me so much about so many things and that was the beginning of researching for me. Every day I now wanted to read, but also write something about what I was reading. Then my dad decided to study law and I began seeing and reading law books and then I went on to study law myself.
If you could rewrite a classic book/text, which would it be and why?
Definitely Walter Rodney’s How Europe Underdeveloped Africa. I first read the book in my final year studying law. One of Rodney’s main arguments is that Africa developed Europe at the same rate as Europe underdeveloped Africa. In that book, he makes the case that Africa’s underdevelopment is a direct product of imperial extraction from the continent, a practice that continues till date. It would be exciting to rewrite that book in the context of the digital economy and the digital divide facing Africa. I would love to draw a narrative of international politics with all the calls for digital cooperation and consider where it will leave Africa on a balance of digital dependence in the coming years. It will be interesting to see that book re-written from the same perspective in the digital age.
Having an encyclopaedia at home changed everything. That was all I wanted to read. It was fascinating. This was no mere dictionary, it told me so much about so many things and that was the beginning of researching for me.
What’s a book everyone should read before leaving university?
It has to be Martin Meredith’s The Fortunes of Africa. He discusses the fortunes of Africa over a period of 5,000 years and explores the rise and fall of ancient kingdoms and empires; the spread of Christianity and Islam; the movement of explorers and missionaries; and the impact of European colonisation. I wish such work was written by an African, however, Meredith has written vastly about Africa and African leaders for years. I love history and reading such a book gave me a huge sense of pride. We were hardly taught African history as we should in the early stages of education. I studied history in secondary school, yet I didn’t know even a per cent about Africa. I wish I had read such a book earlier. It was published in 2015.
What’s the last book/text you disagreed with, and why?
This was Ese Malemi’s writing on customary law and the repugnancy doctrine in his book, The Nigerian Legal System. I am presently writing a piece exploring new legal frontiers for African customary law through law and technology, so I have been reading writings on African customary law. Malemi argues that right from time, the standard of the repugnancy test introduced during colonialism, and which is still applicable in Nigeria, was not based on the standard of English people and way of life, because if English law was the standard, customary law would have been abolished entirely.
One may conclude that Malemi’s submission is ahistorical without taking into cognizance the history and the origin of the emergence of the repugnancy doctrine. He points out that if the colonialists did not frame the repugnancy test, with time and modernization, the Nigerian people themselves would have put validity tests in place to reform customary law to enable it to survive in a modern world. He, however, makes a somewhat amusing conclusion by positing that the repugnancy tests ‘enabled customary law to be constitutional, thereby escaping abolition for being unconstitutional.’ For me, it is a hasty conclusion portending that without the repugnancy tests, Nigerian customs are ordinarily unconstitutional. Customs are made by the people and for the people and where a custom enjoys general acceptability that should rather be the normative basis for adjudging what suits natural justice and not an implanted or imperial doctrine. My favourite part of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart is where he writes,
What is it that has happened to our people…Our own men and our sons have joined the ranks of the stranger. They have joined his religion and they help to uphold his government…Does the White man understand our custom …? How can he when he does not even speak our tongue? But he says that our customs are bad, and our own brothers who have taken up his religion also say that our customs are bad. How do you think we can fight when our own brothers have turned against us? The White man is very clever. He came quietly and peaceably with his religion. We were amused at his foolishness and allowed him to stay. Now he has won our brothers, and our clan can no longer act like one. He has put a knife on the things that held us together and we have fallen apart.
While I am in no way submitting that Nigerian customs should never be subjected to checks and balances rather, that standard should not be achieved through doctrines inherited from colonialism. If custom is found to be devoid of sensible reasoning, it should be abolished, no matter how long it has been in existence. However, we must stop doubting the acceptability of our own indigenous laws based on the balance of a colonial legacy and work towards a restatement of our customary laws.
I love history and reading such a book gave me a huge sense of pride. We were hardly taught African history as we should in the early stages of education. I studied history in secondary school, yet I didn’t know even a per cent about Africa.
What’s the last book you read that changed your mind about something?
It was Amartya Sen’s Development as Freedom. That book is everything and I never get tired of reading, teaching, and studying with it. It utterly changed my understanding of development. Sen argues that development requires the removing of major sources of unfreedom: poverty as well as tyranny, poor economic opportunities as well as social deprivation, neglect of public facilities as well as intolerance. For him, development must be pursued as an integrated process of substantive freedoms that connect with one another because freedoms are not only the primary ends of development but are also among its fundamental means. I began to realize that we Africans need to understand and reconceptualize development if we must measure up to the right development standards particularly in the digital age. It is ironical that Africa is the only region where development is clearly stipulated as a human right under a binding instrument by virtue of Article 22 of the African Charter of Human and Peoples’ Rights, yet Africa remains the least developed region of the world.
What’s one way the pandemic has changed your reading tastes/habits?
Now I read e-books and electronic copies of academic writings and literature. I am very old fashioned with reading. I love to hold huge books. I love ‘living’ in libraries. Each time I see a huge library I always say, ‘this is home’. This has changed with the pandemic. Libraries were closed and since the lockdown was eased, I have only visited the library twice which is strangely, unlike me. I still think it is weird that I would become so comfortable reading books on my phone and laptop, however, I am becoming comfortable doing so.
I am very old fashioned with reading. I love to hold huge books. I love ‘living’ in libraries. Each time I see a huge library I always say, ‘this is home’.
What’s a common misconception about African anti-colonial movements?
For me, it is the misconception that only men dominated the anti-colonial movements in Africa. In Nigeria for example, the fierce anti-colonial resistance by Ibo women is simply termed the ‘Aba Women’s Riot’, which I find somewhat dismissive. These women also laid down their lives to resist and defy the imperial subjugation and domination. Men monopolize the anti-colonial narrative in Africa. There are hardly accounts or writings that depict women so conspicuously as avid influencers of the African anti-colonialism discourse. The role played by African men is normative in the African narrative and that of women is often ascribed without a valued or marked description. Africa’s anti-colonialism discourse hardly interprets, in the first instance, the role of women towards anti-colonialism. However, African women distinguished themselves in the colonial struggle as powerful, self-determining, exceptional and yet matriarchal albeit in varying contexts. This should change.
Women like Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, Wambui Otieno, Bibi Titi-Mohammed, Mabel Dove-Danquah and so many others resisted, rejected and responded to colonial domination in varied ways. If you walk into the headquarters of the African Union at Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, you would be confronted at the entrance by a display of portraits of Africans, all men who are ascribed with the anti-colonial/nationalism legacy. These men are noted to have worked towards attaining independence or rebuilding Africa. Sadly, not a single woman’s image adorns that section of the building. Even where men were vividly dominant in most spheres of public life, it was normal for women to still control other areas of importance, and provide alternative structures of power, representation, solidarity and control.
The role of women, conspicuously absent from virtually all discussions of colonial resistance, needs to be reconsidered. Sometimes I wonder if cultural practices and the pigeon-holing of women in Africa played a role in this seeming disregard of the feminine preserves of the colonial struggles. George Santayana once proclaimed that ‘our nationality is like our relations to women: too implicated in our moral nature to be changed honourably, and too accidental to be worth changing.’ Just because women’s participation in anti-colonial struggles may not be as obvious in existing literature, does not make it peripheral. Women also successfully subverted colonial rule and it will be implausible to argue that the anti-colonialist ideals of men were intrinsically more powerful than those of women. Women were not merely an audience in the anti-colonialism narrative, they have to be placed at the core of the discourse.
What three books should be on everybody’s bookshelf?
It has to be Walter Rodney’s How Europe Underdeveloped Africa; Thomas Pakenham’s The Scramble for Africa; and Martin Meredith’s The Fortunes of Africa. These three books changed my perception of Africa’s past, present and future.
Men monopolize the anti-colonial narrative in Africa. There are hardly accounts or writings that depict women so conspicuously as avid influencers of the African anti-colonialism discourse.
What’s your writing process: edit as you write or draft first, then edit?
I would always draft first then edit. I always put all my thoughts on paper then decide what needs to remain and what is most important considering the subject area, the purpose for writing and, of course, the author guidelines for the journal or publication. I always undertake research before and while writing, therefore, editing as I write may mean I will eventually leave out very important information.
What was your process for writing ‘Gender, Anti-Colonialism and Nationalism’
I became interested in that area of discourse during my time studying African Studies, hence it was easy to identify a subject area and what to write about when I saw the call for papers. I wondered why very little was said of feminine anti-colonial struggles and I have always been interested in writing about the dynamics of such struggles. There are hardly academic articles focusing particularly on women and anti-colonialism in Africa, so internet resources and oral discussions were very valuable for writing the essay. Hodgson Dorothy and McCurdy Sheryl’s ‘Wicked’ Women and the Reconfiguration of Gender in Africa also made an immense difference.
The initial draft of the essay was over 30 pages long because I had included writings about the gendered dynamics of the colonial administration, the role of colonization in the reconceptualization of gender roles in Africa and lengthy details of the anti-colonial activities of diverse African women. First, I wrote down everything I believed should be said about African women and the anti-colonial struggles. I thought of myself as the reader or target audience. Then, I had to adhere to The Republic journal’s style so I began editing and that was the most rigorous aspect; reducing the word count to the required word limit and deciding what was most important, what would be interesting to read and what needed to be left out to capture the message. To decide on these and get a sense of direction, I read articles published on The Republic. That made a lot of difference. I utterly appreciate the writing process, it was quite daunting because it is on a totally different subject area from my usual writing areas, however, I am passionate about women and African issues. In writing that essay, I have learnt I can add value to societal discourses through writing in few words and paragraphs. That was the shortest essay I have ever written for a publication, and I am happy I had an opportunity to write about the difference women made in the colonial struggles in Africa.
In writing ‘Gender, Anti-Colonialism and Nationalism: Discussing the Legacies of African Women’, I have learnt I can add value to societal discourses through writing in few words and paragraphs.
What’s more important to you: the story or how it is written?
Definitely how it is written. Look at Africa and the history of Africa. Academic writings about Africa are not largely written by Africans and this has allowed for a distortion of our history. The story is important but how it is written makes the story fluid and may entirely change the story. For example, there are hardly African academic authors telling you about slave trade in Africa. African writers have not written about slavery, particularly the Atlantic slave trade in the same vein as Western writers.
There is hardly any African academic memory of the transatlantic slave trade. A denial of slavery in Africa before, during and after the Atlantic slave trade may seem like a denial of the existence of traditions in Africa. Africans also participated in the enslavement of fellow Africans. There were diverse means by which slaves were acquired in Africa for both internal use and external demand. These were warfare, market supply, raiding and kidnapping, tribute and pawning and the reasons for engaging in the slave trade differed for Africans. However, in Africa unlike the plantations across the Atlantic, there were different forms of relationships of bondage and enslavement and conditions of servitude varied with societies. Again, stories of colonialism always paint pictures of total subjugation from the perspective of Western writers, yet, African oral accounts of such stories remind you that the discourse will always remain incomplete if there is no given consideration to an African perspective of writing such stories. The narrative is always different based on who is telling or writing the story, hence, how the story is written is primary.
What’s the most meaningful piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?
It wasn’t advice directed particularly at writing, but it has been meaningful for my writing. It was advice from my friend, Otito Nwaigwe-Chukwu, who said to me ‘you know you can actually focus on Africa in all these things you do and become an African expert in your area’ and that has been it for me in writing and research. Tell an African story! Speak with an African voice! Write from an African perspective! As an academic and researcher, my writing now focuses on Africa or portrays an African perspective. That has been my best decision. I went on to study for a masters in African Studies at the University of Ghana. I am always enthusiastic about contributing to the decolonization of African legal research but with a contemporary focus.
Tell an African story! Speak with an African voice! Write from an African perspective!
What is your favourite topic to write or read about these days?
I read and write about everything African but mostly read and write about digital rights and governance of emerging technologies. I also teach digital rights at Swansea University School of Law in the United Kingdom, so it is important I read about these topics. We have repressive governments in Africa that are not willing to be held accountable for the respect and promotion of traditional human rights, and then hardly talking of digital rights. Reading about digital rights allows me further research in that area and writing about it gives me an opportunity to continue to educate, raise awareness and speak about respecting human rights online in the same way it should be offline.
What can we expect you to write about next?
Digital colonialism and digital dependence in Africa. There have increasingly been calls for digital cooperation and I always worry that inequality in digital capacities may lead to digital colonialism and digital dependence on the guise of digital cooperation for Africa. I am passionate about digital equalities and African voices must add perspectives to these discourses. I am also presently working on an edited book project with Dr Sebo Tladi of the University of South Africa titled ‘Gender and Cyber-Rights in Africa’, which should be published early next year.
Question from Promise Frank Ejiofor: If you had the power of immortality and could make a writer live forever, which writer would that be? And why?
That would certainly be Chinua Achebe. Africa’s reaction to European intrusion into Africa was not uniform. However, throughout the period of the scramble for Africa, European colonizers faced resistance in many parts of Africa. The workings of the resistance were impressively captured by Achebe’s Things Fall Apart.
Contrary to dominant beliefs, Africans neither willingly or meekly submitted to European domination, nor left the Europeans under the illusion that they could be entirely subjected to and made submissive to foreign domination. The repudiation of colonialism in Africa was in various forms and Chinua Achebe exceptionally told the story of the dynamics of colonial resistance through fiction. It will be awesome to still have him here and have him fictionalize contemporary multilateralism and what it is we now conceptualize as international relations and international cooperation and how it relates back to our individuality as Africans. It would have been awesome to have him depict an African individuality in the rapid changing face of digitization and globalization.
For example, while the internet has become a mechanism for political liberty and freedom of expression, which also stimulates societal advancement through seeking education and information and demanding rights, accountability, and transparency, governments in Africa are also utilising the internet as a basis of oppression and curtailing freedoms and liberties, including security agents arbitrarily maltreating citizens on suspicions and allegations of internet usage for fraudulent activities. We can do better! When you think about his works like Anthills of the Savannah and ‘Civil Peace’, it would be interesting to read his depiction of where we are now.
Bonus: Please suggest a question for a future author’s First Draft.
What future do you see for a decolonization of African academic research? How do you see the dynamics of the digital age changing the penetration and popularity of African literature and what would this mean for a decolonization of African academic writing?⎈
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