Dr. Nwando Achebe (Wan-do Ah-che-be) is the winner of the 2013 Aidoo-Snyder Book Prize, awarded for her book, The Female King of Colonial Nigeria: Ahebi Ugbabe. The Aidoo-Snyder book prize is awarded by the Women’s Caucus of the African Studies Association for an outstanding book which gives priority to the experiences of African women.
Named in honor of Ama Ata Aidoo, the celebrated Ghanaian novelist and short-story writer, and Margaret Snyder the founding Director of UNIFEM, this $500 prize seeks to acknowledge the excellence of contemporary scholarship being produced by women about African women. In alternate years, the prize is awarded for the best scholarly book, or for the best creative work. Dr. Achebe will receive her award at the Women’s Caucus Business Meeting, at the upcoming ASA Annual Meeting in Baltimore.
In the article below, Dr. Achebe shares more about herself and her work.
Can you tell us about yourself, specifically about your background and academic career?
My name is Nwando Achebe. I was born in Nigeria to Igbo parents, the late Professor Chinua Achebe and Professor Christie Chinwe Achebe. My father was a writer and university professor and my mother is a trained therapist and university professor as well. I am the youngest of four siblings. My sister, Dr. Chinelo Achebe Ejueyitchie teaches in Women’s Studies and Africana Studies at UMASS, Boston; my brother Dr. Ike Achebe is a trained Africanist Historian; and my other brother, Dr. Chidi Achebe is a medical doctor by training. I am the mother of a 16 year old daughter, Chino; and wife of a professor of journalism, Folu Ogundimu. In my academic writing, I have spoken about these identities—as daughter, wife, mother—and how my positionality affects for better or worse my conducting, and interpretation of oral histories.
I am a West Africanist by training—an oral, social, religious, and cultural historian, who specializes in the histories of women, gender, and sexuality in Nigeria. My scholastic journey however originated at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, where I studied Theater Arts. After I graduated, I decided to study documentary filmmaking at UCLA. It was while I was awaiting the return of the only Africanist film instructor (who had been away on sabbatical) that I experienced a transformation that changed the course of my career. I enrolled in a West African History class taught by the late Professor Boniface Obichere and was opened up to a new world of ideas that had never previously attained fruition. He created a longing in me—a desire to study the history of the African people—to find out from “whence I came.”
This desire was nurtured as I took more and more classes in African History. During my tenure at UCLA I also studied with other distinguished and gifted Africanist historians/scholars, including Professor Edward Alpers (my dissertation chair), Professor William Worger, Professor Don Cosentino, and Professor Sondra Hale. Their careful tutelage and supervision empowered me to explore new trends in African historical research, and embark on the career of an Africanist scholar.
My interest in African women/gender history came out of a desire to “see myself in history.” For the most part, African history texts did not adequately espouse African perspectives/interpretations of women’s realities. Could African women really be those downtrodden ‘beasts of burden’ who were sold to the highest bidder for their productive and reproductive labor? Interpretations of this kind created a thirst in me to present a different voice—an African voice. This thirst encouraged me to acquire a Master’s Degree in African Area Studies (with a concentration on History, Literature and Film) in 1994; and subsequently a PhD. in African History in the Spring of 2000. In the time since the completion of my doctorate, I have maintained an active and productive research and teaching agenda that has been both innovative and challenging.
My first book, Farmers, Traders, Warriors and Kings: Female Power and Authority in Northern Igboland, 1900-1960 (Heinemann Social History Series, 2005) explores the politics of gender and the evolution of female power and authority over the first six decades of the twentieth century. I examine the political, economic, and religious structures that allowed women/female principle to achieve power and determine some of the ways Nsukka women/female principle reacted and adjusted to the challenges of European rule. My study expands conventional discourse on women by advancing new ways of analyzing women’s worlds (encouraging especially investigations into non-human forms of female power—goddesses, priestesses, female medicines, etc.—presences which would otherwise be ignored in conventional studies). It also contributes to knowledge by presenting new ways of analyzing African gender systems, which I argue are for the most part fluid and flexible and allow women to become men and men, women (hence categories like, female husband, female son, female father, female king, female warrior, and male priestess). My second book is The Female King of Colonial Nigeria: Ahebi Ugbabe (see below); and I have published several articles and book chapters.
What are some of the core questions your book asks, and what did you hope to achieve by writing it?
My second book, The Female King of Colonial Nigeria: Ahebi Ugbabe (Indiana University Press, 2011) focuses on the life of Ahebi Ugbabe, the only female warrant chief and king in all of colonial Nigeria and, arguably, British Africa. It fills a considerable gap in African and Gender Studies scholarship by introducing readers to critical perspectives on women, gender, sex, and sexuality, and the colonial encounter. More innovatively, my biography adopts the theoretical framework of performance— performing gender, status, and female masculinities—and encourages new ways of seeing, reading, and interpreting African worlds beyond the borders and received categories of analysis. In important ways, it complicates, problematizes, and challenges presumptions of a homogeneity within the categories of “woman,” “prostitute,” and “slave.” It does this by offering new theories that recognize African concepts such as female king, female husband, autonomous sex worker, and “wife of deity.”
What is/are your research focus area(s)?
I have written extensively on issues of gender and power among Igbo women in Nigeria; and much of it is framed around, and informed by orality and oral traditions in all of its manifestations. I highlight below a sample of the publications:
- “And She Became a Man” King Ahebi Ugbabe in the History of Enugu-Ezike, Northern Igboland,” is a case study of the above referenced Igbo king which reveals much about the shifting bases of gendered power under British indirect rule and the ways in which Igbo women and men shaped the colonial environment.
- Three other articles, “Nwando Achebe—Daughter, Wife, Mother and Guest—A Researcher at the Crossroads,” “Igo Mma Ogo: The Adoro Goddess, Her Wives and Challengers—Influences on the Reconstruction of Alor-Uno, Northern Igboland,” and “The Road to Italy: Nigerian Sex Workers at Home and Abroad,” are published in three separate editions of the Journal of Women’s History. The first article evaluates personhood and the connection between the political, intellectual, and cultural contours of being an insider/outsider researcher; the second explores the role of Aro and Nike slave raiding mercenaries in the annihilation of an Igbo town and the subsequent creation of a protective female medicine/goddess to protect the society in question. The third appears in the Journal’s special issue on “Women’s Labors,” and tackles Nigerian prostitution on an indigenous as well as international level.
- One other article, “Balancing Male and Female Principles: Teaching About Gender in Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart,” presents a uniquely African/female-centered interpretation of the novel which centers the goddess Ani as main character. In 2007, along with Dr. Bridget Teboh of University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth
I also co-authored a chapter for Indiana University Press’s Africa After Gender compilation called “Dialoguing Women” in which we explore what being African and female means to us. The chapter also interrogates the ways in which African born scholars see and interpret the African world, and how African gender historians have and continue to, navigate their various research environments. We also consider the question of who owns African knowledge.
Please share your thoughts about how issues of gender and power at the micro level, manifest in popular discourses around masculinities and violence against women in parts of Africa.
My work does not quite address your above question; however, I am presently working on an article, ‘“University of Benin F**k Porn:’ Lesbian Sex, Internet Voyeurism, and Corrective Rape at a Nigerian University” which explores the events of July 3, 2012, when three university of Benin female students taped themselves performing a strip tease in their hostel room and released it to the public, as a lens through which to view the dynamics that perpetuate the performance of violence against women. It particularly details the consequential action of a group of male hooligans who also taped their act of raping “the bitches” straight; and the attitude of an anonymous spectator audience, which refused to remain silent on so charged an incident. The strip tease, consequential rape, and feedback from citizens far and wide, highlights the precarious plight of Nigerian sexual minorities in a country where the government has made it their business to legislate about what its citizens decide to do or not do in the privacy of their bedrooms. It also calls into question the role of the Internet in providing, what on one hand, could be seen as a safe haven for sexual minorities; but on the other, easy access for unscrupulous men to exercise violent control over Nigerian women’s bodies.
What are your thoughts about contemporary discourses of feminism in Africa, and how do you think these relate (or not) to global debates on feminism and power?
This is a somewhat charged question, which I choose to answer from a very personal place. I know that some African scholars and thinkers have had a tenuous relationship with notions of feminism, especially as it is and should be defined; by whom, and for what purposes. In other words, these thinkers are unhappy with the canonization and elevation of first world feminism over a distinctive other; and perhaps newer, and emerging African world “feminism(s),” or however else—sisterhoods, mothering—African women have chosen to define their experience. Therefore, these scholars have rejected the label of feminist. I respect their position, because I believe very strongly in the power inherent in each person’s ability to name themselves, and articulate their agenda(s). I however ascribe to Ama Ata Aidoo’s view of African feminism being part and parcel of African heritage. She insists that “it is not new and [she] really refuse[s] to be told [that she is] learning feminism from abroad.” It is in this regard that I have always named myself an African feminist. I’ve always told my students that my choice to keep my maiden name is a tribute to African feminism! How then, may you ask, do I define feminism(s)? For me, feminism is activism; it is also a body of ideas articulated (by a given group of people) to help transform the position of women (and their families) in their particular society, so that they are not marginalized but are treated as first class citizens in all areas of living and being. There is absolutely no othering in this delineation—African women define their own African feminist agenda. There is however, not one African feminism, but multiple feminisms; and these feminisms do not, in my view, necessarily espouse an uncomfortable relationship with forward-thinking men—in other words, there is a place for African male allies. Like Filomina Chioma Steady, I emphasize female cooperation, and mothering in my definition. Given my positioning, do I think that Africans should necessarily ascribe to, or embrace, Western ideas of liberal, radical, Marxist and socialist feminisms? My answer is a resounding, no. As a starting point, Africanist scholar Obioma Nnaemeka has called for a more nuanced, flexible, and fluid application of the notion of feminism in Africa—something that she calls nego-feminism. It is a no-ego, negotiation of feminism that prioritises complementarity and collaboration in a movement aimed at not only advancing women, but women’s families. And, I must confess, I really like her ideas.
What are you working on next?
Two books—a textbook, under contract with Routledge, on Women and Gender in Sub-Saharan Africa and an Ohio University Press book on the life histories and worlds of elite African women and females of privilege, entitled African Queens, Spiritual Monarchs, and Female Kings.