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Meet the Nigerian Historian Who Wants to Recreate Grassroots Communities

Historians/History
tags: interview, Toyin Falola



Erik Moshe is an HNN Features Editor.


Dr. Toyin Falola is an African historian and the Jacob and Frances Sanger Mossiker Chair Professor in the Humanities and a Distinguished Teaching Professor at the University of Texas at Austin. He is a Fellow of the Historical Society of Nigeria and a Fellow of the Nigerian Academy of Letters. Click here for his website.

What aspect of practicing and teaching history do you consider to be the most difficult? And what came rather easy?

I won’t frame it as easy or difficult, but I will frame it as the ability to present complicated information in a way for students to understand. I will illustrate with events relating to the very distant past such as the Stone Age, the Bantu migrations, and older civilizations such as Ancient Egypt and the Oyo Empire; one has to figure out how to make those connections. It’s not as if the knowledge is difficult, but that, from the point of view of students, they do not necessarily have historical knowledge about Africa to build upon. 

The good part is that most of students, from high school education, know about ancient civilizations such as the Aztec, Maya, and one or two others. You can use that to make connections to even the further African past. When you get to the period after early modern history, they are able to process it much faster because they have done American history, and several aspects of world history, and they may be even familiar with the modern and contemporary world. A subject like the transatlantic slave trade makes the rest of the other concomitant issues around the subject easy to connect to. 

As we go into studying the more modern period, they are able to connect the histories of the U.S. and Europe with the rest of the world, making my job easier. Concepts have to be explained, as well as theories to ground the narrative.

Take me through the best day of your life as a historian.

That would be graduation days with fun commencement activities! This is the day you see young men and women lining up to collect their degrees, and one has a sense of fulfillment that one contributed to the package that makes up that education. One also has a sense of fulfillment that a new generation is about to inherit the baton and that they are able to move on in their lives and careers in different directions. Some will end up as teachers, some as administrators, some will go to graduate school, some will go to law school. Some will become journalists. Some will end up with a PhD in History. As one looks at them, one experiences a sense of contentment that there is a future for these young men and women. When I run into students who enjoy the classes, who have a sense of direction, I am always happy that I have contributed something small to create success in others.

Can you tell me a story about when you went to an area you’d never been before and how your training as a historian gave you a different perspective on that place?

Those places will be Colombia, Costa Rica, Puerto Rico, Brazil, and many of the areas where there is a large presence of the African diaspora. One has been reading about them without any physical contact but those prior readings come to life as one encounters them in person. For instance, I was in Costa Rica and we had a program in this large hall they called the Marcus Garvey Hall. I was invited to give a lecture there and that space had a symbolic meaning to me based on the history I had read and known. The photographs in the hall had symbolic meaning to me. The groups from Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago that were at the occasion gave us tremendous energy. 

The hall took on a hallowed character for me because the history jumped out at me so forcefully that it felt like being at home with someone you know but have never met. We came into contact with street traders selling Yoruba food in the open market system, exchanging cultures, the ideas of post-slavery culture, cultural retention, and many more examples. It was a fascinating experience. And such wonderful experiences have repeated themselves in Gujarat, India; Zimbabwe, Mali and more: history becomes real!

Do you have any funny stories to tell about your time as a historian?

These are very many. I come from a culture where every day provides its own funny story in terms of politics and the activities of politicians. Just today, the governor of Lagos state, Nigeria, whom his competitors want to remove, called a press conference and described his opponent as a psychiatric patient; and somebody in trouble with the law. You hear those and think about both the funny and the bizarre at the same time. These are documents that go into the archives and which you have to be careful to analyze. Remember, he is in a battle and he is trying to [spread] rubbish and discredit his opponent. The streets are full of stories like that. 

I have two memoirs of my childhood years and my growing up years where I share examples of stories like that and how they constitute historical narratives. My city, Ibadan, is what you can call a center of narrative politics where they conduct these narratives as a routine and where conflicts can erupt at any time based on contested stories.

Stories about politicians, innuendoes, fake news, and manipulated data regarding the activities of rich people; how rich people use men and women as rituals to make money. Some of these things that are called stories begin to enter into archival records and that means we have to work out a methodology to use them. They are belief systems and they are so powerful. 

Stories about money rituals, dead people coming back to life, witchcraft, etc. These stories are still with us and we have to factor them into the analyses we make. Some of these are stories you will dismiss in Western societies as mere [creations of the] imagination, whereas people take them so seriously elsewhere. They see fiction as facts and as an historian, one has to know how to process these stories. Even the accumulation of humor and fiction constitutes evidence to understand society.

What continues to drive you today?

It is about passion, contribution, and advancing the frontiers of knowledge. I used to give advice to graduate students that they should not join the profession because they need to make a living. I used to give advice to assistant professors that they should not see their work for only promotion in their career. There are only two promotions in academia—assistant professor to associate, associate to full professor—and after you become full professor, if you don’t have that passion or driving energy, that fire burning in you to keep writing will die. 

In my own case, I do poetry, short stories, long stories, memoirs, and similar activities. They have kept me so busy. You know, what you call “change” and “rest” are not dependent on you not doing something. A rest can be structured in terms of doing something else. When I am writing a poem, I consider it a rest. It is an intellectual activity, no doubt, but that is my idea of rest. I am resting from writing historical works. After the poetry, I have the energy to go back to writing a history of Nigeria. Those shifts in genres constitute renewals of energy and strengthening for me.

Is getting older at all a barrier to what you do?

Well, nobody can compete with younger people because nobody has the energy of young people in all aspects of life. But what you lose in energy, you compensate with your maturity, experience, wisdom, and greater insight in the issues of life. You have greater ability in terms of introspective work. For instance, most of what I do now are works of introspection and less of narrative. Some of them, there was no way I could do them 30 years ago. I will not call aging a barrier; I will say it is a new form of energy in terms of creative capabilities and in terms of the ability to look at multiple sides and nuance in a narrative, avoiding the rush to judgment, and also the ability to complicate narratives.

Where I come from, there is a god called Esu. He is the god of the crossroads. What Esu does is to say you shouldn’t presume to have a conclusion in mind for any issue. Once you make that mistake, Esu will make a mess of your conclusion so that you must begin again. In some ways, with age, one begins to adopt the crossroads embedded in Esu in such a way that one is able to leave issues inconclusive; to leave them in a state of tension.

Can you please describe your understanding of the world at the present moment, and how that understanding has changed since you were just a student of history.

There has been a lot! A lot! I started in the ‘70s, that was when I got into the university. The university was preparing me for what they used to call modernization ideas and theories. The ideas of the 50s and 60s were anchored on modernization, which assumed that societies would progress, that Africa would witness changes, and people would leave their traditions behind. They thought they would abandon their gods and goddesses, and they would move from being characterized as underdeveloped to developed. They thought what they needed to do was to take elements of European history and institutions, and begin to adopt and adapt them. 

In the case of Nigeria, that did not work and this is an understatement. It was not just that it did not work, the postcolony generated violence within the first five years. That was the violence of the first republic leading to political instability, changes of government, and ultimately to a civil war. In 1967, I dropped out of high school to join the first peasant rebellion in postcolonial Africa. The Nigerian civil war ended in 1970 and by the time I got to the university in 1973, the idea of modernization had been discredited and I was confronting ideas of political economy and Marxism. They were coming from multiple traditions that were not well-fused. There was a current coming from the development and underdevelopment thesis, the dependency ideas of Andre Gunder Frank and Walter Rodney’s work, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa. We used to call it Marxism, but it was not fully a Marxist idea. 

There was the Annales School from France that was looking at issues from the angles of structuralism and poststructuralism, and how we have to understand society. There was Marxism that was gaining currency in my days. Being a member of the Left was very fashionable, and I was a member of the Left myself. I did my PhD in Political Economy which was merging the French Annales school with many other radical ideas from the Left.

By the time I finished in the ’80s, both ideas were also not moving society forward. Africa did not expect what happened – none of which they created either – the fall of the Soviet Union as a consequence of the rise of Gorbachev and the politics of Reagan in the United States; the collapse of the Berlin Wall; East and West Germany fusing and creating a unipolar world. By the ‘80s, there was the strengthening of the Bretton Woods Institutions – the World Bank and the IMF – and the structural adjustment programs, the conditions they imposed on Africa to grant loans. Those events traumatized Africans, which resulted in the cutting of resources going to the universities. 

The ‘80s began to witness the contemporary migrations of Africa within Africa and outside Africa. I was part of that current because I left Nigeria in 1989. The ideas of the 70s were being overrun by the ideas of neoliberalism. The ideas of structural adjustment were changing economies and societies in very profound ways. By the time we got to the 90s, there was the consolidation of liberal ideas that saw Africa being redefined and people started talking about recolonization, impending anarchy, that Africa would explode and spread HIV/AIDS to the world, that they would spread poverty and similar disasters like that. People were thinking that by the turn of the millennium, Africa may not just explode but the number of failed and failing states would increase. By the time we entered the new millennium, all sorts of negativities accompanied the continent. Yet, that was when there was the collapse of military regimes and the rise of so-called plural political parties, democracies that we now witness today.

So, you find that on the one hand political events were shaping the theories that we use, and the theories were being represented as policies. But for us as African scholars, it was very stressful. On Monday we deal with the theory of patrimonialism. On Tuesday we deal with the concept of authoritarianism. On Wednesday we deal with ideas of vulnerable states. On Thursday we deal with the theory of irrelevant states. On Friday we deal with the vampire state. On Saturday we deal with infertile states. And on Sunday, we deal with collapsing states. Each day brings its own theory and understanding, producing gross instability in narratives and theories and some of these narratives remain with us today in ways which we have not been able to really quantify.

The thing is, all these developments result in very important essays becoming ephemeral. In any case, the majority of scholarship is ephemeral because people and societies have to move on. What produces stability is fidelity to narratives, narratives built on good data. That raises a more profound question: what is contemporary history? What is modern history? Historians have to grapple with these questions. 

Some years ago, some people argued that we should not write on history that is 50 percent closer to you. If you live in this century, why not write about the 19th so you can get more narrative stability because the data on those narratives have accumulated. If you deal with the contemporary, you are dealing with changes in theories, paradigm shifts, and conceptual instabilities. In my own case, I have dealt with the 19th century, colonial and postcolonial history. The contemporary will always be a challenge because events have a way of overtaking analysis.

When was the last time you experienced a true sense of awe towards something that happened in your life or that you witnessed?

Well, so many moments. Around memory and around death. Around unprecedented activities of politicians who do things you don’t expect. In recent times, my sense of awe – in the sense of being bothered – is African migrations to Europe. People cross a long Sahara desert, so long that in the past it used to take six months to cross. A very relentless journey. In its breadth, it is 3000 miles and you marvel that some human beings are running away from poverty and struggling and will cross deserts for hundreds and hundreds of miles to get to the edges of the sea in North Africa. They use rickety and abandoned boats to cross over into Europe. You look at them and marvel that there are human beings who risk their lives along the road to get to somewhere else. The sheer sense of survival in them fills me with awe. And there are stories of survival from Eritrea, Ethiopia, Sudan, and they keep reminding me of the ability of humans to endure pain, agony and suffering because they think there is joy at the end of the journey. Unfortunately, they have no way of knowing that the joy is not there. There are those who have lost their lives on the way, and some were enslaved in Libya. 

One uses those stories to connect to older stories about the slave trade, plantation stories, the Atlantic and the Indian Oceans, and the economies of societies.

When was the last time you read a work of history that truly impressed you?

All the time! There are history books that are being published all the time. Some of them are broad, general works on nations and nation-states. Some of them are works on African lives. For instance, I enjoyed reading the book by Moses Ochonu, Colonialism by Proxy: Hausa Imperial Agents and Middle Belt Consciousness in Nigeria. He shifted the argument from British colonizers to local elite colonizers – the Emirs and the Sultans, district officers – who are not white people but Africans reproducing colonial powers. They were running errands for the British colonizers. I enjoyed that tremendously. 

Then there is a book by Akintunde Akinyemi, Orature and Yoruba Riddles, which connected me to my childhood years. We used to play with those riddles, they were a way of teaching people in an informal school system. When they asked, “what is the long chain that connects heaven and earth and comes unbroken?” We answered, “rain.” There were so many riddles like that. So, yes, there are so many books as to be expected and most of them are on African history. 

What is the strangest job, and coolest job, you’ve ever had?

It was to teach at an elementary school. It was not strange, but it was cool. I started out as an elementary school teacher and it imposed a discipline because you have to write a teaching note for the headmaster to approve and you have to teach what is approved. The kids wanted to learn, they were eager to learn. I was also the soccer coach, which was very exciting. More importantly, I was teaching in a farming community where the school closed at 1 p.m. but the farmers would not come for their children till 7 p.m. When they came and picked their children, they offered me pounded yam with wild game drenched in delicious palm oil! It was a good blending of the school with the community and I continue to cherish the memories. I really loved it.

What’s one goal you wanted to achieve but never got the chance to? And had you accomplished this goal, might your career have been different?

Well, I have always wanted to combine teaching with missionary work. I might still do that in retirement. I want to see how one can mobilize grassroots communities, villages, in terms of taking charge of their lives. I am speaking of activities such as building their schools, creating community governance around security, sharing food, generating ethos around ubuntu, sharing resources, the ability to share laughter—things we did in the past. 

I am talking about the routine to share laughter, generosity, which is not dependent on your wealth, education, or success. I miss those communities and when I retire, I want to recreate those communities; the ability to encourage traders in small crafts, small handmade agro-products done in groups; to produce and market their products. The ability to see how societies can anchor progress around notions of communal ethics that are disconnected from globalizing forces of the market. The ability to re-moralize society away from the greed of acquisition, accumulation, and the ability to do a more collective informal education of children in which parents come together and see all children as belonging to one another in moving the community forward. In other words, the intensity of localism, and the intensity of shaping desire to love one another and promote justice. 

We all have desires and many of the things we study in history are about the desire of ambitious men to use and abuse power. Now I am thinking of the ability to reorient that desire into a positive ethos, into the grandiosity of sharing, into the magical reality of moonlight stories; just into enjoying lives, seeing the value in life outside the rush of the global market forces and the eroding values of popular culture.

Did you have anything else you wanted to discuss that we haven’t mentioned yet?

I encourage people to take to a discipline such as history. They must know that it is not about money. We are not saying they must not be comfortable, all human beings must be allowed to strive for comfort but it is not a path to wealth. It is also not a path to power or glory or fame as in a General going to Iraq, but it is a path to the life of commitment to positive values in human beings which is about keeping humanity alive, the history of you and me alive. We need to bring values into the deeds of the people who lived before us, and realizing that it makes a sense in understanding how people lived their lives in the past and how we can benefit from them.


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