By Ishola Balogun
Nwando Achebe-Ogundimu, daughter of famous writer, Chinua Achebe is a Professor of History at Michigan State University (MSU), USA.
Nwando who has spent more than half of her life in the United States remains passionate about Igboland and the power of women as she reels out stories about how women wielded power during the colonial period, challenging the orthodox African historiography that characterized women as both subservient and subordinate to their male counterparts.
The 39-year-old Michigan Professor also revealed why she went into History instead of going into creative writing like her father. She has written two books: ‘Farmers, Traders, Warriors, and Kings’; and ‘Female King of Colonial Nigeria’ She was a guest at Vanguard’s head office, Lagos recently where she spoke about her passion.
How do you feel being the daughter of a famous writer?
He is the only father I know. I am humbled by his achievements. He is a wonderful dad.
Beyond being your biological father, what are the expectations his fame confers on you?
My parents want us to live the best way we possibly can and that is what I have been doing in terms of my education. I am doing the things I want to do. Again, it is not just my father’s achievements; my mother was also one of the senior professors in Nigeria from the University of Nigeria, Nsukka.
So, I have two extremely phenomenal role models who have brought us up to be the best of what we can be.
How was your growing up?
My father had already become famous before I was born. I really don’t know how life was. I have no experience of a father who is not a public figure. And so, if you don’t have that experience, that becomes your norm.
For me, growing up when I was young, I thought everybody’s father was famous because that was my norm. But my father still writes with long hand and whenever I was with him, I type his notes and in that way you might say I was helpful.
But now, it is a different kind of relationship. We talk about issues now that we are older.
How many are you?
And none of you is into creative writing?
Why don’t you want to preserve that legacy of writing?
All of us have accomplished what we can in our unique fields. So, there is no push in my family to be like my father. Everybody is like an individual and you follow your own calling.
Are you discouraged by the Nigeria’s setting which seems not to make writers popular?
For me to be a creative writer? That is not my calling. I write only history books because that is my calling.
So, why did you choose history?
Because I wanted to see myself in writing the history of the African woman. I started off as a Theatre major in my first degree. (Theatre, Music and dance) and after that, I decided to do documentary and film making.
I wanted to do the kind of documentary that tells our story and in order to do that, I felt that I needed to do history, although I didn’t like history. I didn’t have a good history teacher, but when I went to University of California, where I did my Masters and PhD, I met a professor who later became my mentor who turned me around.
He told history as a story with a beginning, a middle and an end. A story that I could relate to and I remember. I looked at him and said this is exactly what I want to do.
I want to do it; I want to write the story of my people especially women. That story has not been written. Women have been silenced in historical study. If you pick up a book, if women were mentioned at all, they were mentioned in footnotes. So, I want to change that and write a story that other women can pick up and be proud of.
Have you achieved that?
I have written and published two books, the first: Farmers, Traders, Warriors, and Kings published by Heinmann ; the second book is called the Female King of Colonial Nigeria and other numerous journals and articles and chapters but my area is women history.
In Igboland, there is no woman in the calibre of Fumilayo Ransome Kuti, (West) Queen Amina, (North), what do you think is responsible?
It has everything to do with the nature of the culture. The areas you talked about are centralised societies which also have centralised structures that allow individuals to rise. In Igboland, we have egalitarian society; it is not a centralised society.
In Igboland, there is a proverb that says: Igbo enwe eze which means Igbo have no king. We do not believe in kings. If you want to be a king, you can be in your mother’s backyard; don’t think you can lord it over us.
So, the Igbo believe in a very egalitarian system where no one is superior to the other but it is leadership in the group. So, where women express power in Igbolandis in the group, Otu Umu Ada.
They are the group of daughters and one of the strongest and powerful groups of women and it is a political organisation.
In fact, the men don’t have Supreme Court of arbitration. What we have is supreme court of Umu Ada. So, if men have an issue in Igbo land, they can go to their lower courts, if not , they must appeal to the women in the Otu Umu Ada court.
The women in Igbo land collectively have a lot of power. That is why we begin to talk about the Women War in 1929. It was not a riot; it was a war by women. It was the colonial government that called it a riot.
It was well organised. The women used the strategy of resistance that they had used in pre-colonial era which included boycotting, use of force and sitting on a man.
What do you mean by sitting on a man?
Sitting on a man is the most extreme sanction that Igbo women have when they want to punish a man. For example: if a man continues to ill-treat a woman, the women groups Otu Umu Ada, Otu Ndi ama Ala, the title societies, the market women, the woman can go to one of these groups to report him and there, they will decide which punishment to mete out on him.
They can decide to boycott their matrimonial duties or sit on the man. In one village, the women asked the men to clear the path to a stream and the men refused. The women got together and declared a boycott. They boycotted cooking, so, men could not eat for few days.
They went to their mothers’ houses and their mothers told them they were not cooking, the same with their wives. Again, sitting on a man is the most extreme sanction; it only happened if other sanctions have failed.
If the aggrieved woman let out a cry of grievance, once women hear it, they know that things are not good. All women will then gather, dress in war gear. They smear their bodies with ashes and cover their bodies with palm fronds.
If you see all these, you know that it is a sign of a war to come. Then they would move to the offender’s house, matching like soldiers. When they get there, they would pull the offender out (which is the man), strip him naked and sit on him naked.
And they take turn in this symbolic sitting on him which is what we call nudity as protest. The man is now naked with the women holding him down, and the women lifting up their skirt and sitting on him, planting their nakedness on every part of his body. A man who is punished that way stands humiliated in the eyes of the community.
Some men will enjoy that…
None ever did and in fact, I haven’t seen it in my life time, but my father talked about this, telling a story about a man who committed suicide after this thing happened to him.
It is the worst abomination. That is the strategy women used to punish the colonial government during the Women’s War of 1929. They also used nudity as protest.
We know from the colonial document that at a particular point when soldiers were trying to open fire on women, women lifted their skirts and the soldiers dropped their guns because you could not view the nakedness of your own mother and survive.
So, nudity at protest is an abomination. That is the way women have evolved strategies on the pre-colonial period, through the colonial period and after colonialism.
Are you married?
This is my husband (pointing to the man by her side)
Have you kids?
But one is not enough
That is called family planning. (Laugh) We don’t have the mechanism over there (US) that women in Nigeria have in terms of helping them in house work. You find out that a lot of professional women there don’t have as many children as the Nigerian women.
Do you know Chimamanda?
She is my junior, she is much younger than me and I don’t know her personally.
How will you describe the Nigerian woman from the pre-colonial, colonial period and now?
Women generally have lost a lot of powers during the colonial period. You find out that what the British system did during the colonial period was to introduce a male-central system that pushed women to the background.
Women were no longer involved in day-to-day decision making of the society. That is one thing I believe women have not really recovered from, where you are not finding women in the political governance of the society.
But if you look back to the pre-colonial period, women were very active. It is something that slowly we have to come out of . We have not gotten there yet.
What do you do to relax?
Read. For me having time to take up a good novel and read is something that I cherish.
What are your fond memories?
It goes back to childhood. My father like I said earlier, he’s just a wonderful dad to me. When I was growing up, I didn’t know he was famous, but I could count on my father.
Anytime I needed him, he was always there for me. He is a very present father. When I was little, he was the one who would wake me up at nights, take me to the bathroom so that I don’t wet the bed.
Is there any plan for your father to return home soon?
Yeah! We hope he will be able to come back home finally, but the situation in Nigeria. Like you know he is on a wheel chair since he was 60 years old, he is primarily in America for medica reason.
My father has never been away from Nigeria this long. Never in his life. Unfortunately this period of his life, he needs to be in a place where he can have regular medical treatment. This is the longest he has ever been away from Nigeria, but he does come often as he can.