Between Pride and Prejudice

Between Pride and Prejudice

Thoughts on Conducting Ethnographic Research in a City of Greatness

In 2022, I spent three months in Ibadan, a city in southwestern Nigeria, as part of my research into the memorialization of slavery among people known today as the Yorùbá. When I left Germany in April of that year, I intended to research the dependent relationships between vagrant youths - called “area boys” - and local elites. I chose Ibadan because the city was famed for its powerful war-chiefs and the “war-boys” that followed them during the 19th century. I wondered whether there were parallels between those dynamics and the ones that motivate area boys today. However, my arrival in the city sent my project in an entirely different direction. While exploring analogies between past and present, I found myself increasingly fascinated by how Ibadan’s elites memorialized 19th century warlords, basing their legitimacy on events of this period.

Painting at Ibadan House showing crucial symbols of Ibadan’s founding mythology, Ibadan 2022. All photographs were taken by the author.

In this regard, I was truly an adherent to grounded theory, a research methodology which recommends that the facts on the ground should guide one’s research more than any predispositions. This work raised new questions for me. When writing on slavery in Africa, can our work be both critical and reparative? Can we recognize that academia has long forced African societies into a reductive frame of the primitive dark continent while avoiding similarly reductive utopian frameworks? In Ibadan, I found that the approach of interviewing local elites - a typical and often unavoidable choice in the study of slavery - posed a challenge to this balance.

It is impossible to miss just how much Ibadan’s history of warfare, conquest, and heroism is valorized. Surrounded by commemorative place names, towering statues, and several hometown associations centered around historical remembrance, to be in Ibadan is to be enmeshed in cultural pride unsurpassed anywhere else in the world. Even before Ibadan natives get talking about the feats of their illustrious ancestors, one only has to see the walls of their family compounds to read oríkì (praise poetry) displayed on posters and billboards.

This was a city of warriors.

One where, as I learned in an interview with cultural historian Akinwumi Ogundiran, warlords were still tending their weapons, waiting for the next call to battle into the early 20th century. It was unbelievable to them, after decades of Ibadan’s victories and accompanying wealth, that such an era could ever end.

Statue of Balogun (war-chief) Oderinlo, Ibadan leader (1847-1850), Ibadan 2022

Mural depicting Balogun Elenpe with his oríkì, Ibadan 2022

Poster Beside Apete Compound memorializing its history, Ibadan 2022

In the midst of the research trip, I was struck with a strange double-consciousness, one familiar to many African scholars working on Africa. On the one hand, Ibadan’s history has been portrayed as an inspiring narrative counteracting centuries of European meaning-making in and about Africa. Against the words of Hegel and his intellectual descendants, including Hugh Trevor-Roper, who dismissed Africa as a place without history, historians and other cultural workers have turned to overlooked oral and material resources to reconstruct a “true” African past with which to “speak back.” On the other hand, Ibadan’s conquests both created strong dependencies and were enabled by them. Ibadan took thousands of captives and displaced communities during their conquests. These people became part of Ibadan’s work force; a resource that allowed Ibadan to wage further wars.

My current research project began to take shape amid the tension of these two trajectories: I decided to explore the contemporary legacies of these dependencies so well documented by earlier historians.

Ibadan is, in every sense, the historian’s city– as evinced by the multiple texts produced about it in the early decades of the new Nigerian state. Its founding in the early 19th century (c.1830) meant that its stories were documented in colonial records, eyewitness accounts and recent oral history, making it more accessible to historians. The early history of older Yoruba kingdoms is further from living memory and often enters the realm of myth. Ibadan was also a military oligarchy at a time when most of its neighbors were dynastic monarchies. This peculiar system of government was taken as evidence of its republican ideals.

Ibadan was established as a war camp populated by disparate groups fleeing the destruction of the old Kingdom of Owu, the sacking of Egba towns, and the ongoing collapse of the Oyo empire.

Out of much agitation, the powerful warriors who oversaw the town fashioned a state in which ruling power was awarded, not based on heredity like most other Yorùbá towns but based on martial prowess and individual wealth. Prosperous men formed two lines of succession, one made up of active military leaders and the other of retired personnel, to the position of town leader, now called olúbàdàn. Members were elevated after the death of those above them on the line. The ruling structure also established the position of ìyálóde, which was held only by influential women who counseled in town affairs. Together, these people formed a ruling council (ìgbìmò ìlú).

Murals at Ibadan House, Ibadan 2022

Evidence of such social organization gave an opportunity for black peoples, historically misrepresented, to be recognized as full human beings capable of "progress" and "civilization".

Amid the exhilarating hope for the newly independent countries of the 1960s, such histories instilled cultural pride and fortified revolutionary dreams for African futurity.

These early narratives focused on top-down histories of great kingdoms, folk heroes, and centralized states. On the topic of slavery, many researchers of this period compared slavery in West Africa favorably against its counterpart in the Americas. Such arguments inadvertently accorded with the interests of the traditional ruling class, who were naturally interested in legitimizing their claims to social and political power.

Although nationalist narratives dominated post-independence historiography (1960s-70s), many African and Africanist academics studied peoples and traditions at the grassroots. Even while stressing fundamental differences between the practice in Africa and the patterns of chattel slavery in the American plantation system, they attempted to document the voices of enslaved people and their descendants. This was and continues to be an onerous task.

Where slave ancestry carries a social stigma, outside researchers will find it much easier to interview descendants of slave owners than descendants of those enslaved. I found this to be the case in Ibadan, where nobody I spoke with self-identified as a descendant of slaves. Information on who belonged to this category and their fate since emancipation came only from whispered rumors and gossip, which present obvious ethical concerns if such sources are used uncritically in research.

Ibadan thus presents a case where anti-colonialist historiography and the interests of indigenous elites collide and continue to hinder the critical study of the realities of slavery and its legacies.

Until today, the topic of slavery in Africa understandably remains plagued with debates about semantics. The lack of linguistic and conceptual equivalence between the terminology “slavery” and analogous concepts in African societies has long prompted comparisons between the experience of slavery there and elsewhere. Scholars like Adeniyi Oroge have argued, for example, that slavery in Yorùbáland was relatively benign. Those who have disagreed with his assertion insist that, nonetheless, there were fundamental differences between the treatment of enslaved people in West African communities and in the American plantation system.

The aim of this blog post is not to propose answers to the many questions raised by such a substantial academic debate. Instead, it seeks to show how the methods we, as researchers, use can constrain our ability to get at the realities of the legacy of slavery, in some cases, propping up elite historical narratives.

My approach in Ibadan was conventional. I had recruited my research assistant, Ayodele Ibiyemi, without whom my work would have been impossible, before leaving Germany. I chose to work with him because of his prior experience conducting research in Ibadan. Local academics and old friends from my university days in Nigeria supplied me with my first interview participants. With these, I used the snowball method to access other respondents.

Most of these interviews were with traditional compound heads called Mogaji. Compounds are residences that house family, dependents and friends bound together by the language of kinship. They are each led by a patron, and they form the building blocks of most Yorùbá communities. Tracing one’s lineage to a compound is a requirement to be considered indigenous to the city. These traditional elites were happy to share cultural memories of 19th-century Ibadan in a way that emphasized the power and merit of their compound-founder ancestors and the meritocratic and inclusive character of Ibadan. It is on the basis of these narratives that Mogaji claim their present status.

The Mogaji I interviewed stressed that descendants of the enslaved had been fully incorporated into the families of their former masters. Yet I questioned whether these assimilated descendants of slaves truly considered themselves family in the way their elite “relatives” claimed. There was no way to answer this question during my time in Ibadan.

I had chosen to approach compound heads because they were the most accessible to me as an outsider to Ibadan. While I had hoped that initial interviews with them would put me in touch with other compound members, this proved challenging due to the structure of the compound. On one occasion, for example, the interview was conducted in open view of interested listeners. Talking about slave-descended compound members would have been a grave fauxpas in this context. Many traditional elites acknowledged their reticence about discussing slave ancestry with the proverb: “tí a bá ka ẹrú, inú ẹrú maá ń bàjẹ́ ni”, meaning “pointing out a slave destroys their well-being.” The customary role of patriarchs and elders as custodians of ìtàn (stories/history) also gave these interviews a sense of finality. Furthermore, Yoruba notions of propriety drilled into me since childhood, which consider elders’ statements as sacrosanct, prevented me from specifically asking compound elites for a separate audience with junior members. I was keenly aware that the men I spoke with would have thought this rude. In the very few cases where I could directly approach compound non-elites, the same social etiquette led them to defer to their patrons who “knew the history better”. This was true to an extent, as elites rely on their pedigree to justify their status and access titles and material rights. This gives them an interest in preserving the history of their lineage that is not shared by many others.

Where did all this leave me as a researcher? Ultimately, I collected sufficient oral history and testimonies to ground my research project. While I was never able to interview descendants of enslaved people, I recognized this limitation and directed my focus to analyzing elite discourse. My interviews with Mogaji were enough to understand what elites say about their own family histories and how they conceptualize the relations between themselves and the slave-descended members of their compounds.

Clearly, the memory of slavery remains alive and plays an important role in constituting identity in Ibadan. One Mogaji hinted at the way the difference between slave-descended and non-slave-descended compound members is preserved within his family: “our fathers will surely tell us: ‘ọmọ ọlá, bàyìí l'àwọn tó wà níbè yẹ́n ṣe jẹ́ o’ [noble child, this is the story of those people]; they will surely tell you, if truly it’s a royal house, because whatever you are doing [without informing your children], you want it to end like that. So, you have to let them know.” While elites seldom told the stories of enslaved people or their descendants, they were nonetheless present in the stories such elites told of themselves and their great ancestors. After all, the mark of greatness for the Yorùbá often rests on how many people one controls.

In Ibadan, many scholars have documented how enslaved people performed this function for elite “freeborn” people. Eyewitness accounts often asserted that those enslaved in 19th-century Ibadan outnumbered non-slaves.

However, the voices of the descendants of enslaved people and their peculiar experiences within the enclaves we now call “family” remain silent.

With memory being so alive in Ibadan, my suspicion is that such an enduring silence holds adverse implications for this group in terms of belonging and inheritance. We will not hear these stories through the mouths of traditional custodians of culture. Researchers must be aware that these elite perspectives will necessarily rationalize their positions in society. At best, they can tell us something about the cultural behavior of elites, but they should not be taken as objective descriptions of the relationship between themselves and their dependents. Narratives of elite pride rarely depict the prejudice on which they are built.