Scholars, Associates Hold Conference To Celebrate Professor Bolanle Awe at 90

Renowned scholars drawn from Africa, North America, Latin America and Europe converged on the Trenchard Hall of the University of Ibadan for a two-day conference in honour of celebrated historian, Professor Bolanle Awe who clocked 90 in January.

The conference, tagged ‘Oral Traditions and Written Histories’, was put together by the University of Ibadan, University of Lagos and the University of Texas, Austi, America, to honour the decades-long devotion of Professor Awe in promoting the distinctive place of African oral traditions in the global place.

In her opening remarks, one of the conveners, Professor Olufunke Adeboye, noted that although the family of Awe had held a birthday celebration in her honour, “we, her mentees, associates and academic children chose this conference to celebrate her. This is an inter-university celebration. All the people we approached were enthusiastic about it. We are celebrating her as a scholar par excellence in African history, gender studies and many more. She is a trailblazer; she is the first female lecturer in the Nigerian university system.

“We are celebrating a female activist. Sometimes Mama was chairman of the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) here in UI. She was also a champion of women rights. To so many of us, she has touched our lives. She practically mentored many of us. Even in old age, she has continued to publish.”

Commenting on the relevance of the conference and the choice of the theme, the representative of the University of Texas, Austin, Professor Toyin Falola told journalists that “It is to remind ourselves of our tradition and inherited legacy. It is to say the past is still alive. It is an affirmative statement that we still have a lot of work to do. Anyone familiar with African struggles to reclaim their identity in global intellectual engagements will also be accustomed to the fact that the achievement did not come on a platter of gold. Africans had their history rewritten and reshaped over the deliberate orchestration of destructive narratives to keep them at a marginal position in the global intellectual terrain. At first, Europeans argued that there was nothing honourable in the African past, and for people who are dark in colour, their past also was dark and did not have meaningful values that could be extracted for their transformative improvements and development.

These biases, we must say, are a deliberate tool of mental reorientation and mind re-engineering, which its perpetrators believed would facilitate the aggressive dislocation of African history to enhance their agenda and actualise their capitalist aspirations. Continued scholarship has revealed that the claim that Europeans were unaware of past African accomplishments in every aspect of human history is mendacious, for the history of Egypt and other great African civilisations pierced through the world and were well-known across boundaries. To, therefore, suddenly say that they are not aware of the greatness of Africa is to distort history for the purpose of their parochial intentions. Although the orthographic cult in Egypt was not a general experience among African nation-states, it nonetheless did not indicate that people did not have recorded means of communication.

“Meanwhile, many African traditions are kept and archived in oral medium, and since they are used to that system of historic preservation, the documentation of their existence, history, and accomplishments in that format continued for generations. To the extent that there were designated individuals for the roles, Africans kept their identity, values, and history through the oral medium. However, Europeans were latecomers to the theatre of civilisation building, and until they had the culture of writing, keeping their history was relatively difficult. For this reason, they were unfamiliar with the idea of keeping one’s historical past in an oral medium and never understood its technology. In essence, they denigrated that system when they came across it. Whereas their usual “my way or highway” attitude affected them substantially in this respect, their intransigence to understand that there is a wide possibility for performing an act without necessarily discrediting the process. Instead of the Europeans accepting this reality, they denigrated, chastised, abused and undermined the African methods of historical documentation. This became a general problem for the earlier African intellectuals who worried about establishing any meaningful connection between their generation and past African generations so they could excavate their deeds for contemporary relevance.

“Understanding the science of their existence and historical values, they immediately accepted oral medium as the source of their historical record and recreation. Except for the flummoxed West, it was a relatively easier experience for the Black who already were used to it from time immemorial. They understand that the Eurocentric invalidation of that system was enhanced either by the absence of that behaviour in their cultural environment or a deliberate decision to undermine the African systems. Through the oral medium, African history in every segment is documented, and regardless of the research taken in different contexts and various situations, only minor variations would occur after exercise, and this enabled the pioneer historians to accept the methodology as a means of reproducing the African history. It worked and provided results in the long run. Today, there is a protruding number of academic engagements that are written in whatever linguistic codes are available to the writer. This, therefore, signals that African history has come a long way and deserves all respect, accolades and support that she has garnered recently. Professor Bolanle Awe’s significant contribution makes it very great to undertake their intellectual engagement this time to honour her and recognise how far we have come as a people in the global intellectual community.”

In his welcome address, the chief host of the conference, and Vice Chancellor, University of Ibadan, Professor Kayode Adebowale, told the audience that “the scholarly torch lit by Awe was grabbed by younger academics who have now become giants in their own rights. Her work became the inspiration for the work of others including Professor Abiola Odejide whose research formed the basis for the establishment of the Gender Mainstreaming Office of the University of Ibadan. That office has become a reference point to many universities when it comes to creating a women-friendly, gender-just university in Africa.

“Still on research for emancipation, Awe was among the pioneer historians who confronted the epistemic and methodological injustices of the colonial era with reference to African history. We all know that orality predates writing. Yet, an imperious colonial interpretation wanted the world to believe that oral accounts were not valid historical sources.

“This was another way of saying that Africa had no history. The Ibadan School of History rose against this epistemic imperialism and demonstrated the validity of orality as a source of solid materials for sound historical research. Right on the front battle line of these academic ‘freedom fighters’ was Professor Awe.”

The chairperson of the occasion, Erelu Bisi Adeleye-Fayemi, commended Awe for providing the impetus to the African variant of feminism. “In November 1987, I attended the first international conference of the Women’s Research and Documentation Center (WORDOC) at University of Ibadan. Professor Bolanle Awe was one of the founders of WORDOC, and it was an amazing gathering of iconic Nigerian female scholars. It was my first women’s conference and it inspired a life-long commitment to an engagement with feminist scholarship and activism.

“Even though I did not get to see Awe often over the years, she was always in my heart because of the impact she had on me at an early age. We met occasionally at local and international conferences and it was always a delight to be in her quiet but majestic presence,” she said.

The opening ceremony witnessed the launch of a book of tributes in honour of Professor Awe.

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