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Dr. Axel Harneit-Sievers
Geisteswissenschaftliches Leibniz-Zentrum Moderner Orient
Kirchweg 33
14129 Berlin
Tel.: 030/80307-0 (Sekr.) Fax: 030/80307-210
 

COMMUNITY HISTORIES IN SOUTH-EASTERN NIGERIA:
EXPLORING A GENRE

I want to draw attention to a particular kind, or genre, of historical writing that, although it is written history, seems to stand somewhere particularly close along on the borderline between the oral and the written. I want to talk about local histories of South-Eastern Nigerian Igbo towns, villages, clans etc. that were written and published by non-professional historians.

My paper stands at the beginning of a more long-term research project on 'Locality, ethnicity and the state in South Eastern Nigeria', based at the Center for Modern Oriental Studies in Berlin. It does not intend much more than to sum up some observations and first deliberations about this topic.

When I recently told a colleague of my idea to start a study of local histories, he replied immediately: 'Well … but everybody I know is writing local history'. Without doubt, local histories have become one of the most rewarding ways to write history at all. But what I am referring to here are not local histories as written by academics, with all their sophisticated methodological and theoretical considerations. Many academic local histories live on the exemplary character of the locality they are dealing with; others do not even care about anything exemplary in their story, but may be searching for the extraordinary within their story in order to be able to talk about the undocumented ordinary in the society and period they are dealing with. There are, of course, nearly as many ways of approaching local history academically as there are academics; but if there is anything that is common within all this diversity, it seems to be this: That academic local histories are using the locality they are working on in order to explain something which is different from the very locality - by generalizing it, or by relating the story to some academic debate standing, or whatever. They all have in common that the basic reasons why (and the basic aim for which) the history of a locality is written is not to be found within the locality.

In contrast to this, the local histories I am dealing with here find their raison d'Ítre very much within the locality they are describing. Because the local context stands so much at the center of their work, I call them 'community histories' and their authors 'community historians'. One may also talk of 'non-professional local histories', because they are usually not written by trained historians working in the university context. The authors of community histories may be academics of various fields (and most of them, in fact, nowadays seem to have some university degree), but the important characteristic is that they do not write within the context of academic historiography. (Some, though few, professional historians are among the authors, at least in the part of the world I am concentrating my research on, but the fact seem rather coincidental. At any rate, such professionals do not dominate the genre, nor are they setting any particular standards.)

Community histories are not taken very seriously by most academic historians and social anthropologists. If they encounter them in the course of their own local research, they may be prepared to use them as source material. But they do not normally engage with them in debates.

I am standing at the very beginning of this project, and currently I see two main areas to work on:

1. to describe and analyze the local histories as an particular corpus of writing, a genre; and

2. to interpret them in terms of to what extent, and how, they contribute to the 'construction of locality', i.e. the processes of creation and / or representation of a local, or communal, identity, and the ways and methods used in these processes.

Additionally, for the purpose of this workshop I have also posed myself some questions regarding the role of oral tradition within community histories, particularly their status as the first written versions of oral traditions.

Community histories as a genre

Genre', according to dictionary definition, is 'a category of artistic composition, as in music or literature, marked by a distinctive style, form, or content.'[1] While it may be doubted that that history writing is artistic composition, it certainly is composition. The local histories I am dealing with doubtlessly constitute a particular genre, as they contain particular contents and themes and deal with them in typical ways.

The existence of community histories as such may not be very spectacular. In principle, there is little particular about the local histories from Igbo-speaking Southeastern Nigeria, as compared to similar kinds of writing in other parts of the world. Non-professionals write local histories all over the world; the village teacher in Germany as well as the European missionary in Africa. Maybe it is the very fact that this kind of history is written at all without direct influence of European personnel or academic institutions which seems unusual at first.

Some specifics about of the environment in which community histories are produced should be mentioned:

1.There is a comparatively high degree of literacy, particularly among the younger generation. This is a high degree by African standards, and also particularly compared to other regions in Nigeria. I believe that a majority of Igbo people born after 1960 are literate.[2]

2. There is a tradition of publishing which is to some extent independent of state or missions. There are not only government printers and mission publishers, but printing presses owned by private entrepreneurs.

3. Mechanisms exists that help to finance production of books. Sometimes, books are directly sponsored by businessmen or chiefs. There is also the institution of the 'book launch', a kind of post-printing sponsorship that enables publishers or authors to recover a good deal of their costs by 'auctioning' copies of it at symbolically high prices.

4. Finally, there is a strong element of competition, both ethnically and communally. Under colonialism, the Igbo-speaking area as a whole was a late-comer in terms of education and socio-economic development, especially as against the Yoruba-speaking areas in Southwestern Nigeria. But from the 1920s and 1930s modern education expanded very rapidly, resulting, for example, in the extraordinary strong position that Igbos played in the Nigerian state-employed sector during the 1950s and 1960s (their position was to some extent weakened by the lost civil war). The awareness of inter-ethnic competition is paralleled by a sense of competition between the various communities and regions within the Igbo-speaking area itself. This spirit of competition is noticeable in many sectors of society and culture, and I suppose it also constitutes one important motive of community historians: They want to give their own locality what others already have.

By now, I have found references to about 60 titles that belong to the genre in a wider sense, or 45 if one applies stricter criteria (i.e. particularly excludes works that, stylistically and by content, belong to the genre but are written by academics and seem to be mainly directed at the academic debate). This is the result of a systematic search in public archives, regional and academic libraries, the National Library, and through some of the more important bookstores in the area. I suppose there are many more histories around that are published but have never made their way into these institutions, partly out of academic neglect (even among the Africana collections), partly because of the deficiencies of book distribution, partly because they are private prints; some titles that I found are obviously meant for local distribution only. There are probably many more manuscripts that still wait to be printed.

The oldest community histories in Igboland that I am aware of were published in the 1920s, some in the 1950s and early 1960s, not many in the 1970s, and lots of them in the 1980s. The connection between community history writing and periods of economic prosperity is there, although new titles continue to be produced in the midst of the severe downturn of the 1990s.

The overwhelming majority among the community histories available to me are written in English, only 3 (two among them produced in the 1920s, one in 1980) are in the Igbo language. There may be comparatively more titles in the local language that I had not yet a chance to access, but the fact remains that we deal with a primarily English-language genre. This can be explained with the relative widespread use of English in the area. I also believe that this is due to the fact that the English language serves to 'identify modernity' to authors and readership.

This brings me to the authors. As far as I can ascertain (and I can do this only in some cases, mostly from autobiographical sketches provided in the books themselves), they are, at least in the more recent decades, people with a certain academic background, typically working as teachers, civil servants, academics in fields other than history -this fits well into the image of local non-professional historians worldwide. (However, there are few, if any, clergymen - a fact that fits less into this picture.)

Different authors follow different styles in writing the histories, but the way they are doing it is similar enough to call their histories a genre. Some authors - especially those working from within the university system, though not as historians but as, for example, medical doctors - assemble impressive amounts of exact references to both oral and written sources. Many authors include archival material, especially colonial intelligence reports, some even use the early colonial social-anthropological literature. Sometimes, differing accounts and contradictory traditions are evaluated. Secondary literature - histories of Igboland by academic mainstream historians - is often quoted. Not every author makes use of all these methodological refinements, but it would be difficult to group the community histories simply into 'naÔve' vs. 'methodologically reflected' ones; rather, most community histories are to be found somewhere within a spectrum between those poles.

Many of the methods used in dealing with historical material do not, in principle, differ much from academic historical writing. Rather, it is the intensity with which they are used, the lack of a generalizing interest, and the audience at which the books are directed that make up the difference. (There are also more systematic differences with regard to the understanding of history and locality; I shall come back later to this.)

There is one important difference between local histories in the South-East as compared to similar writings in the Yoruba-speaking areas of South-Western Nigeria: Samuel Johnson's 'History of the Yoruba' (written in the 1890s, but published only in 1921) constitutes a kind of master narrative which practically every writing about Yoruba history until today (both academic and non-academic) draws heavily upon. And because Johnson established a particularly contested version (i.e. the traditional dominance of Oyo over other Yoruba towns, especially Ibadan), it has become severely attacked by a number of local histories of the area which refute such claims.[3] No such master narrative of Igbo history exists until today,[4] and this makes the scene of Igbo local histories quite diverse.

Whatever the occupation and educational status of individual authors, it is clear that they belong to the group which, on the local scale, is often called 'the modernizers': They belong to the literate local elite; in the Igbo case, many of them are working and living considerable parts of their lives outside of their home areas in other parts of Nigeria. The 'modernizing' group is often seen in contrast to the 'traditionalists', the poorer, less dynamic, illiterate groups who stayed behind in the home areas. I am not sure whether this kind of social contrast (it is an often-used category) is really valid throughout the area - and I actually expect the local histories to give some information on this point. At least, we can safely assume that the authors are representing the modernizers' point of view of local history. We can state with some confidence that it are the people who belong to the group which is (and also perceives itself as) the most distant from the 'traditional' way of local life (whatever that may be exactly) which primarily provides the authors of community histories.

One can assume that the same group constitutes an important part of the people who read community histories. However, up to this point, I have little information about the readership. I am not aware that they are used in schools (though they might play a role), I do not yet know how widespread their local distribution is, and it is even more difficult to say what role they play within the community they deal with. Obviously, we can inquire more about this only in the course of local studies that put individual communal histories into their respective local context, looking also in the debates they arouse and the issues which they do not talk about, or hide.

The characterization of the authors, as mentioned before, implies that we have to look at the versions of history which is produced by community historians as forwarding the interests and aims of local 'modernizers' in general. There are some common topics, most obviously from the fact that many community historians let their story culminate in the history of their respective town development union. However, there is a wide range of themes specific to particular localities, and some authors go at great lengths to put very specific problems - often local conflicts - into what they perceive as the proper perspective. Sometimes, they become a theme that organizes their whole account.

One particularly group of local conflicts centers around question of social status, relating to pre-colonial times. There are, for example, long-standing conflicts between 'free-born' (amadi) and 'slaves' (obia or ohu) in the Nkanu area, which constitute an important topic in the writing about the area: The conflict is generally displayed as blocking progress and development of the community.[5] Two of the earliest community histories (of the 1920s) re-interpreted Arochukwu history, trying to improve the position within the community of traditionally subordinate groups and villages among which concentrated the pioneer converts to Christianity.[6] I assume that on closer analysis, many community histories will reveal similar patterns.

However, this point should not be overstressed. The majority among community histories seems to stress local harmony and order, rather than conflict. Internally, the theme of harmony is developed upon, for example, by writing about the rules and regulations of chieftaincy. Some community histories are obviously connected with the interest of individual modern-day title-holders in gaining some more historical legitimacy of their position. Conflict is rather mentioned when it comes to the relationship to neighboring communities with which one is engaged in land disputes. And even this sometimes very serious conflicts are described more often in a mild rather than rabid form. (I suppose there is an element of 'politeness' that some authors display which makes them prefer indirect and careful, sometimes even evasive forms of language when it comes to the description of conflicts.)

Community histories in their relation to oral history and oral tradition

I think it worthwhile to analyze community histories as standing somewhere close to the borderline between oral and written texts. Community historians generally collect oral traditions about the origins of their communities. They do this often in a very straightforward, sometimes even in a naÔve manner.

For many localities, the appearance of a community history constitutes the first time that traditions of local origin and historical development are published at all. This does not mean that they would have not been collected before - in fact, this has happened for nearly all areas at least in the 1930s, when the colonial administration ordered its officers to write the so-called 'intelligence reports' that were to be used for administrative reorganization on the lines of indirect rule. Oral traditions have also been collected in considerable numbers by university graduates in the field of from the 1970s onwards, many of them wrote their B.A. long essays and other theses on aspects of local history, often of their respective home communities. However, while some of these collections have certainly found local interest (and may even have been hotly contested locally, in some cases), none of them was meant for publication.

There is, of course, the important issue of feedback between more recent community histories and earlier collection of oral traditions, particularly those by the colonial state. It is common for community historians to consult the intelligence reports referring to their area, though they usually do not use much more archival material than this. There is also sometimes some - little - feedback from early social anthropological writing. Methodologically, these 'external' influences certainly belong to those that are comparatively easy to identify, because normally they are explicitly quoted. It is practically much more difficult to identify some other factors of influence.

In this regard, it may be useful to think of two 'filters': The written history, as available in community histories, is to some extent less filtered than other sorts of written historical accounts: First, most of them have not gone through any academic filtering procedure, and even if they sometimes display 'weight' and seriousness by adapting academic procedures and styles (using reference systems, listing the use of archival material, or containing forewords by prominent university historians), they are not embedded in the control systems of the academic world. Second, the missionary or church filter, by ideological control or simpler by control of printing presses is not that much important in the South-Eastern Nigerian case as it is in other areas of Africa. All this indicates that community histories are to a comparatively high degree independent of institutional pressures.

This means, on the other hand, that community histories are more influenced by personal choices and idiosyncrasies of the authors. The authors, even if comparatively free from some of the usual filters and pressures, do not operate in a social and political vacuum, and this is another aspect which makes their local historical writing so interesting. They present a more immediate (to avoid the term 'authentic') version of the local understanding of the local community and its context than other sources. Their accounts are, of course, no more 'authentic' than others in the strict sense; however, there a good reasons to assume that they at least represent a particularly direct, local, version of what the local community they are dealing with is all about. The way a particular 'town' or village is portrayed by community histories is certainly only one way to look at it, but it is one that should be taken very serious.

'Construction of locality'

The special characteristics of this internal perspective become obvious in the way they are dealing with the concept of history, that does in many cases not conform very much with academic or European understandings of history.

Most community histories organize their contents into at least three major categories:

1. 'history' in the Western sense of the word, i.e. history in time perspective, plus what academic writing of African history since the 1950s has come to accept, to a certain extent at least, as belonging to 'history', for example oral traditions about migration, first settlers etc.;

2. 'culture' - this encompasses cultural specifics, rituals like marriage rites, peculiar festivals etc.; the stress often is laid on the cultural differences from neighboring communities;

3. 'development', including themes like education and the 'coming of Christianity'.

Whereas one might easily understand the issues of 'development' as belonging to 'history' in the Western / academic sense of the term, the treatment of 'culture' by many communal histories clearly falls outside of this concept - for systematic reasons, but even more so because 'culture' and 'customs' are treated in an explicitly unhistoric, essentialist way. The very definition of a particular local community seems often to be viewed as being dependent on the cultural specifics described which are seen as stable over time.

For this reason, one might call the genre I am dealing with here 'community ethnographies', or even 'non-professional auto-ethnographies'. In fact, this would perfectly adequate, if not for the fact that the genre gives 'history' (also quantitatively) such a lot of weight, and that most titles carry the term 'history' in their title. (There are some that are called 'History and Customs', and one interesting case just reflects elite aspirations in a straightforward way: 'Oba [the town name]: achievements'.)

I believe that by taking up all these issues in their histories, community histories develop a quite comprehensive picture of their locality. What they try to do is to identify what they perceive as the very essence of their community. One might as well say that they are trying to define, or construct, it. It may be a partisan, or elitist, view; nonetheless it still is the attempt at a comprehensive local view. And this is why they are worth the interest of academic historians.


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