She is Dutch, yet, she likes Africa, especially Nigeria. She came into the country for the first time to collect data for her PhD work. Since then, she has fallen in love with everything Nigerian, food, languages and even her films. She shares her experience with AC, read the excerpts.
AC: Congratulations on your recent feat of achieving a PhD. Could you please tell us about yourself?
LSN:Many thanks! I am currently working as a lecturer in history at Leiden University in the Netherlands. I am interested in questions of activism in historical scholarship, activism as a decolonizing practice and historiographical decolonization and emancipation in the broadest sense. In the future, I hope to conduct more research on what it means to be an activist and a historian at the same time and what that has meant over the course of the past century – a century filled with movements for social and political change all over the globe. Besides working as a researcher at a university, I also consider myself an engaged citizen and I try to implement that in my role as a teacher. That means that I try to think about how certain societal issues, such as COVID19, but also institutional racism in the Netherlands, might influence my students and what I can and should do to help mitigate students’ struggles. I try to employ a pedagogy of compassion. Of course, I often fail in trying to do this, but I believe failure is part of progress.
AC: What was the focus of your PhD research and what were the insights from the study?
LSN: My PhD thesis Africanising African History was about the historiography of UNESCO’s General History of Africa/l’Histoire générale de l’Afrique (1964-1999). The thesis researches how and why the UNESCO sponsored General History of Africa (1964-1998), sought to Africanise and decolonise the writing of African history in the wake of the political independence of many West African and East African countries in the early 1960s, including of course Nigeria. As such, it provides a case study on the practice of African historiography in the second half of the twentieth century. The thesis investigates how formulated ideals of a decolonisation were translated into practice and analyses what this might tell us about the establishment of African history within the humanities and the history of decolonising knowledge production. The study is divided into three parts: the first part concerns the formulated ideals of African history as they came into being in opposition to eurocentrism during the 1960s and early 1970s. Part two shifts the focus to the realities of the ideals discussed in part one. How did the historians of the General History of Africa try to bring their ideals into practice and what came of them during the long process of drafting the GHA? The third and final part of the thesis focuses on the reception and retrospective perception of the project in its final years and after it was finished.
Some of the most important findings are that decolonisation of knowledge takes place on different levels: epistemological, political and also financial. Decolonisation of history is difficult in times of economic crises – an insight that was given to me in part by Prof. Olutayo Adesina when I was in Ibadan. I also conclude that theoretical reflections on the coloniality of knowledge need to be supplemented by studies into the everyday practice of scholarship. Practical concerns and institutional dynamics, as well as geo-political power structures, influenced the production of history just as much as the development of theoretical frameworks. What constituted African history, moreover, was also up for debate. As it turned out, the wish to write an African history from an African perspective was difficult to bring into practice because it was not always clear which African perspective should be made more important. The General History of Africa, moreover, had both epistemic and political ideals and these were sometimes, albeit not always, incongruent.
Of course, it is important to note here that when we speak of ‘decolonising history’ we are not speaking about the movement, as it exists today in the 21st century. The General History of Africa (GHA) is definitely a part of the history of decolonising knowledge, but it was much less radical or theoretical than some of the debates we are witnessing today. In fact, many have argued that the project was essentially an African attempt to apply European methods of history to the African past – as is also said about the Ibadan School of History. This is true I think, but it is also more complicated than that. The GHA never aimed at a total restructuring of knowledge production. Yet, although the GHA historians did not necessarily frame their opposition to Eurocentric and colonialist historiography in terms that we have come to identify as postcolonial, they did conceive of their own project as part of a decolonization, or Africanization, of history. For that, we owe them thanks I would argue.
AC: You collected your data from Nigeria. What is your opinion of the country and her people you interacted with while collecting data?
LSN:When I travelled to Ibadan in the summer of 2018 I had never been to Nigeria and I have to admit I was a little nervous when I arrived at Murtala Muhammed International Airport in the middle of the night. My nervousness soon disappeared however as I was met with open arms by Professor Ayobami Ojebode and his family. In fact, almost everyone I met in Nigeria was exceedingly kind and also exceedingly energetic. Sometimes it seemed like Nigerians had energy for several people at once at that could be overwhelming, although it was also appreciated. After settling in, I quickly discovered that I absolutely love plantain and akara. I don’t know if that makes me into a child taste-wise, but I will forever keep pining for these foods and the way they were prepared for me in Ibadan. Prof Ojebode also helped, in the nicest possible way, to get rid of some of my ridiculous ideas regarding African history and scholarship in Africa in general. He taught me that Nigeria is a country of many faces, besides also helping me pronounce certain names the right way. He is a master of languages. I have come to develop an appreciation for Nigerian English through him and others as well. I have lived in several English-speaking countries and would perhaps call myself an anglophile. I love the English language. But, I love especially how it is adapted to fit different purposes and cultures and how it is mixed with other languages in different ways. That appreciation was fed in Nigeria especially when people switch between languages with a thrilling efficiency. I now devour new Nigerian films whenever they appear on my Dutch Netflix, partly to listen to the accents.
I have Prof Adesina to thank for introducing me to Chief Mrs. Ade Ajayi whose late husbands’ archive was an essential part of my research. Jacob Ade Ajayi, one of the towering figures of the Ibadan School of History, left a rich collection of papers with UNESCO and the GHA and I was very lucky and grateful to be allowed to spend days on end in at the Jadeas Trust Library Archive to photograph the priceless material. Of course, the library contains a lot more than just the UNESCO stuff. It has fantastic resources regarding African, Nigerian and Yoruba history, political thought of different sorts, oral traditions and Marxist scholarship and black revolutionary scholarship. I spent many a day there marvelling at the collection and experiencing something we historians call ‘historical sensation’. This happens when one can also feel the past materialising through the sources one has at one’s disposal. It is rather exciting, almost like you are there in the past with the people you are studying. I am now engaged in a project with Andrew Apter and Ruby Bell-Gam from UCLA in the United States, Niyi Ade Ajayi and Yetunde Aina, Mrs Ade Ajayi’s son and daughter, to digitalise the archive. I think it is such a special place for young researchers to discover new ideas while also be mindful of the presence of a past of great value.
All in all, I would say Nigeria is a country that is overflowing almost with energy and excitement, both the good and the bad kind. I think we in the west will come to hear more and more about the country in the coming years as it will become undeniable in terms of cultural and political influence.
AC: What did you find most surprising in the course of collecting the data?
LSN:My biggest surprise was actually the way internet is used in Nigeria and I don’t necessarily mean the connection being less than ideal sometimes. What I mean rather is the fact that Nigeria seems to be miles ahead in creating portable internet and buying data by the gigabyte. I was never really aware of the value of internet at home and I was surprised by how it seems to function almost as a currency in Nigeria sometimes.
Another thing that surprised me was how big the country actually is. Coming from a country the size of stamp, it is still absolutely mind-boggling for me how vast Nigeria actually is – and I have only seen a very small part of it! This and, relatedly, the city map of Ibadan also surprised me. I know Ibadan is a very old city and therefore, in my small European mind, I had imagined there to be something akin to a city centre, but it seems the city just sprawls on forever without a clear centre or easy to recognize points of reference (for me at least). Usually when I visit a new city, I quickly get a sense of its layout, but if you gave me a blank map of Ibadan, I still couldn’t tell you where on the map the university is, for instance. This is despite the fact that I spent almost every day there. It is almost like my brain just cannot comprehend the physical structure of the city.
In terms of the data itself, my biggest surprise was to find out that the Jadeas Trust Archive actually has a rich history itself and that many of the great names of African history in the 20th century passed through it. I found the other half of some of the correspondence I had read while at UNESCO and in my mind I could see a network of African archives and correspondence relating to African historical scholarship spanning the globe. I still hope to further entangle this at some point in the future. That this network had existed was not necessarily surprising, but the fact that it could still be reconstructed and was still alive at Ibadan in a way was.
AC: Your defence was almost a community affair with people from outside the academia being part of the audience. How did you feel having to defend your PhD before a “crowd”?
LSN: You are right in saying that a PhD defence in the Netherlands is a community affair. It marks an important moment in the life of any young scholar. The tradition of publicly defending one’s thesis is actually centuries old and includes the addition of two so-called ‘paranimphs’. These paranimphs are seen as bridesmaids and they are meant to take over for the candidate if he or she faints during the examination – luckily this never happens! It feels a bit heavy to consider getting one’s doctorate as a marriage to the university or rather scholarship in general. It serves to impress the momentousness of the occasion upon the candidate and the public, I think. Although this is perhaps a bit archaic nowadays. But, it is nice to have paranimphs by your side as moral support. I picked two of my closest colleagues and good friends to accompany me. The defence itself seemed to take forever, but since the crowd mostly consisted of my family and friends it felt like they were on my side! I was nervous beforehand, of course, but it all turned out rather well and I did not get any questions that were unexpected or undeserved. My friends and family surprised me with gifts and champagne afterwards. It was good day and the public ceremony definitely added to that.