Scholar Spotlight: Nwando Achebe

Dafe Oputu

The Elite Africa Project would be nowhere without the work of talented scholars, both those who support the project and those who inspire our work. In this series, the Elite Africa Project interviews scholars about their work across different domains of power and what they think a deeper study of Africa’s elites can add to our understanding of the continent. This week, I speak to author, historian, and feminist scholar, Nwando Achebe.

This is the fourth entry in our Scholar Spotlight series. You may also be interested in our previous interviews with Josias Maririmba, Dickson Eyoh, and Gerald Bareebe.

Dafe Oputu: If I could just ask you first to introduce yourself and say what your background is for the record.

Nwando Achebe: Sure! My name is Nwando Achebe, and I am the Jack and Margaret Sweet Endowed Professor of History at Michigan State University (MSU) and I’m also the Associate Dean for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, Faculty Development, and Strategic Implementation in the College of Social Science. The College of Social Science is our biggest college at MSU.

My area of specialty is African history, and I am a West Africanist. My core area of focus is Nigeria, though I now do a lot of work elsewhere on the African continent. I am a women’s, gender, and sexuality historian and an oral historian by training. I have published six books and a slew of articles, 43 at last count. The books and articles have been on women, gender, and sexuality in Africa, even though I am now dabbling in academic leadership publishing.

DO: So I want to describe the work of the Elite Africa Project. It’s a research project that tries to examine elite dynamics in a region that is often regarded as marginal. There’s a good reason for studying African marginalization, but we’re trying to paint a more complete picture by looking at how power is exercised across different domains.

NA: Thank you, that is quite useful.

DO: In your view, how do you define elites?

I would like to tackle that question from a personal space; and talk about the way that I think of elites in my work. But before I offer that definition, I’d like to speak a bit about how I came to this field of study, and why it’s important to me. Is that OK?

DO: Yes, that would be great.

One of the reasons I came to the study of elites—or women in power—is as a result of my classroom experience as an African woman PhD student at UCLA. My classmates and I were being inundated by images of African women that were exceedingly foreign to me. Articles that we read purported the idea of the African woman as a person who is sold to the highest bidder for her productive and reproductive labours. We read an article by Margaret Kinsman called “Beasts of Burden: The subordination of Southern Tswana women” and an edited book of the same title. I remember sitting in class and really getting upset. And the reason I was getting upset is that those depictions of African women did not represent the women that I knew. I quarrelled not only with the depiction, but with the interpretation of evidence. In her article Kinsman argued that Tswana women were beasts of burden because they carried their children on their backs and go to farm. And I’m reading this, and thinking, “what the heck?” that’s called being an African woman and a mother. So, Kinsman sees Tswana women as beasts of burden. I bet you that those Tswana women would have viewed the European women of the same time period who did not work, but instead sat and sipped tea, as lazy. If Africans controlled the archive, that is the interpretation that would have survived in the archive, and then in the subsequent writing. I was thus quarrelling with the Eurocentric nature of knowledge and knowing in African Studies.

So, to cut a long story short, my study of African elite women originated from my wanting to present a counter narrative to the problematic histories about African women. I wanted to tell the whole story. There’s an Igbo proverb that you can’t stand in one place to appreciate the beauty of the masquerade dance. As an African woman, it was of vital importance for me to see myself in history. I was sick and tired of people saying and believing that I don’t really represent the African woman. Yes, I do! I represent one kind of African woman, and not to tell my story, my mother’s story, my grandmother’s story, my great grandmother’s story is not to tell the complete story.

So for me eliteness speaks to: women in the human realm, and what I term, the female principle, that have reached the pinnacle of whatever vocation that they have chosen.  You cannot tell the entire history of “women in Africa” by focusing exclusively on the human realm. Because in Africa we have these two worlds—the spiritual and human—that are intertwined, interconnected. And in fact, the spiritual world is superior to the human world. So, in my work I chronicle and document the histories of elite presences within the spiritual realm as well as powerful women in the human realm. Eliteness is about reaching the pinnacle of whatever is your chosen field. If you are a weaver for example, are you a weaver that has made a lot of money from selling your weaves, are you a weaver that engages in long distance trade and travelling, are you a weaver that has been able to translate your economic power into political power? That weaver is an elite woman. I argue that politics, economics, and religion are not separate entities: they’re intertwined. In my written work I have had to necessarily separate these realms to speak to an academic audience, but in the African system, they’re not separate. There is an interconnectedness of all those realms.

DO: What does this kind of work reveal about African women?

NA: I think it’s important to start from the premise that African women were not subordinate to men. If you look at Africa, whether you are looking at the East, West, or South, there was a complementary system where men took care of what was important to men, whether it be in politics or whatever realm; and women took care of what was important to women. So, we have to come to an understanding of that as the starting point. In politics for example, you have a dual-sex system—whether it be an egalitarian system like the Igbo where you have male and female elders in charge of the community or a centralized system like the Yoruba or the Asante where you have, for instance, the Asantehene the king of the Asante leading, but you also have the Asantehemma, the Queen Mother of the Asante leading. This system was a dual sex complementary system political system.

DO: So if work on African elites contributes to our understanding of Africa, does it also contribute to our understanding of elites and power in general?

NA: That’s a big question and let me attempt to answer it. My short answer would be, of course. The ways in which African women exhibit their political power, for example, is quite different from the ways in which Western women do. Let’s take something that I touched upon earlier. This whole idea that the spiritual and the human worlds are intertwined, and that the spiritual world is in fact a higher and more superior world. In my work, I argue that there are essentially two political constituencies in operation: one is human, and one is spiritual. The spiritual is higher and is hierarchical much like the human is. At the top of the spiritual world is God. God is the creator of everything. However, within an Africanist understanding of God, God is neither male nor female. It is the Eurocentric gaze that allows us to speak about God as male. European languages are gender specific, African languages aren’t. So, when European born government agents and scholars were studying Africa, they construct the African God as He, but God is not a He, God is a He and She; God is a force, a very powerful force. And it is this balancing of male and female principles that makes this creator God so unique and so powerful. Thus, exploring the nuances of power, political power, from an African perspective, allows us have a broader understanding of the ways in which not only human beings articulate and wield power, but the ways in which ritual power is articulated and wielded.

Thus, in my scholarship I write about the female principle which represents all the forces that are constructed as female in society. We have established that the almighty God is male and female, but God has helpers, and those helpers are the gods and goddesses. In my work, I historicize the political, economic, social, religious power of female deities. I historicize the political, ritual, social, religious power of prophetesses, priestesses, diviners, and of male priestesses. I write about male priestesses, because as you know, in Africa gender is fluid and flexible, and sex and gender do not coincide. Therefore, if you are born biologically female, you can be characterized as male, and if you’re born biologically male, you can be characterized as female. I study the power of male priestesses, who are born male, but are gendered females. These powerful female forces that I study, do very much complicate our understanding of what it means to be elite, and how elites (both human and spiritual) wield power.

DO: How has the study of Africa evolved from colonial times to today?

NA: One of the reasons I do what I do and enjoy doing it, is the ability to challenge misconceptions about Africa which originated during the period of colonial contact. When the colonists came, they brought these colonial anthropologists who partnered with the colonial governments to study the people they were trying to conquer. And because of this partnership, they weren’t going to write glowing stories about the colonized, because they had to convince themselves that the colonized were less than them. There’s a wonderful book I like to assign in my undergraduate classes: The Africa that Never Was: Four Centuries of British Writing on Africa. The authors argue that the Africa that emerged in European writing as a result of European contact is not the “real” Africa, but British perception of it. In the period before the Atlantic slave trade for instance, there was this general feeling that Africans were equal but different. Europeans came to Africa, interacted with African leaders and traders. Many of these interactions were nurtured at that elite level. Things started changing during the era of the Atlantic slave trade. Europe no longer sang praises about Africa because they had to justify the enslavement of Africans. So, for the first time, they started writing about Africans as cannibals and as barbaric. Then the industrial revolution happens, and slavery is no longer economically viable. Europe is now looking for a different relationship with Africa and that different relationship involves the removal of the African middleman from the trade equation, so that Europe can have direct access to African raw materials. It is this greed that led to colonialism. And that direct access meant that for the first time Europeans had to wage wars to conquer, to effectively occupy, and take over African land. This was the beginning of the colonial period. Again, Europe was not going to be writing glowing stories about the people they were stealing away land from.

That is essentially the history of African history writing by Europeans. The challenge for Africanists—whether you’re a historian, political scientist, sociologist, anthropologist—is to decolonize the writing and interpretation of African worlds. That’s the kind of work that I am doing. And there are a number of scholars, most of them African born, who have taken this task on as well. Whether you’re talking about Oyeronke Oyewumi or Ifi Amadiume, they’re looking at African worlds through an African centred interpretive lens. Scholarship is not only about discovering new stuff, it is also about going back to things other researchers have looked at and looking at them from an African-centred perspective.

DO: So you think there is some progress on this?

NA: Oh, my goodness yes! If I think back to when I was a student reading “Beasts of Burden”, it would be unheard of now for a historian of gender in Africa to be spewing that kind of nonsense today. My generation has produced a canon that is allowing the newer generations to take African gender history in such new and exciting directions.

DO: Which is ideally how academia should work right?

NA: Yes, that is the way it should work! While my scholarship has been centred on countering canon and turning cannon upside down, in the final analysis, I want students of history and my readers to engage critically with my work. My arguments should stand the test of time because they are based on evidence; evidence, not only secured from colonial archives, but from the incredible, often untapped, oral archive that we have in Africa. I must say that the writing of African women’s and gender histories have come a long way, but the true legitimization of oral histories and oral traditions and the use of that evidence hasn’t come as far as I would have expected or wanted it to. We oral historians are still having to justify the validity of oral history and tradition, as a preeminent source for the study of the African world.

DO: That you’re using oral histories but still have to condition them or show that they are supported by colonial writing?

NA: Yes. Of course, validity is important, but you can ensure validity within oral history methods as well. I always say to my students that “one person does not oral history make.” When people say they interviewed 10 people for a major historical piece, I think, “give me a break.” For my PhD dissertation, I interviewed almost 400 people! That’s doing oral history and doing it well. The way we use written documentation to augment our studies, you can use oral sources in the very same way. If you interview hundreds of people and they’re saying the same thing, that's a way you can validify oral history as well.

DO: One of the things Elite Africa likes to do is to think about power in different domains, because for some people power is something they think exists among politicians, or maybe the military. I know in your work you look at spiritual and religious leaders as having power and being elites in their own right. Do you think that spiritual elites get enough documentation and research in academia, and what do you think are the consequences of not looking at them?

NA: The quick answer is no they don’t. This is partly because you’re dealing with unseen forces, but also because of the reduction of African religion to non religions that are sometimes treated as superstition and magic. We need to get to a point where we historicize African religions and study these belief systems as faith systems. I like to say to my students who are Christian, “I don’t think any of you have seen God. But if you believe strongly in God because you have faith in God, it’s  the same for African traditional religions.” And until we study both the human and this spiritual world, we’re not telling the complete African story. And if this spiritual realm is left out, the history of power and authority is so incredibly incomplete, because the spiritual realm in Africa is superior and a lot more powerful than the human.

Another issue is that a lot of researchers are not actually equipped to do this kind of work. To study the spiritual world well, you not only have to have African language, but you also have to know the culture. And I am not talking about the type of African language you can learn in 2-3 years. A lot of my non-African students have found that after they do three years of African language, they are unable to use that language in the African field!

DO: Can we think about African intellectuals and academics as belonging to an elite group? 

NA: Oh yes. There’s a chapter that didn’t make it into the final version of my PhD dissertation on elite Nsukka women—the educated elite. Again, my interest in these women emanated from my desire to see myself in history. Anywhere in the world that someone has a PhD, that person is in an elite class. So, we need to do a whole lot more in terms of studying educated elite women. There is a growing corpus of biographies on elite women, but there is a lot more room for additional studies. Going back to my definition of eliteness being about reaching the pinnacle of whatever one’s chosen field is: I am a full professor, which in academia is elite, and I am an endowed professor, which less than 1% of professors worldwide are. But, when I go to my hometown of Ogidi, Nigeria, because I haven’t taken traditional titles, I am not considered elite in that context. In the traditional realm, these titles are required to elevate your status; and I don’t have any, so in that context I am not elite.

DO: So being an elite in one domain doesn’t always translate to being an elite in another domain.

NA: Exactly

DO: Are there any opportunities or responsibilities that come from this position?

NA: Yes. We definitely have a charge to Africanize and decolonize the ways we look at the African world. A lot of us study abroad, but even those of us who study in Africa are studying a colonized canon. In fact, I would argue, and have argued, that for the most part the educational system and written canon is more colonized in Africa than it is over here. In this part of the world, we have pushed back against many older Eurocentric interpretations of African worlds.  In African universities, because of the dearth of books, students do not always have access to new sourced material. So, our challenge becomes to bring an African perspective to our study and interpretation of the African world. I think that’s the challenge to the educated elite doing work on Africa. We’re getting there, but we’re not quite there.

DO: Finally, what are you working on next?

NA: I like to say that I have another really good book in me, but it’s probably going to take me years and years to complete. I’m looking at British colonial enterprise in Nigeria during the tail end of British colonization in Nigeria, through the eyes of different actors. And the most important actor that I will be featuring in this new scholarship is a British colonial officer that lived in Nigeria in the '50s and learned a series of unjust things that the British engaged in at the time, including rigging the Nigerian census to favour northern Nigeria.

DO: Well those are all our questions. Thank you for taking the time to meet with me for this interview.

NA: Thank you so very much. It was a pleasure!

Nwando Achebe

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