Gender equality, women’s health, childbirth practices, the education of girls, and violence against women are some of the issues explored in a series of interviews conducted by Elisha Renne (Professor Emerita, Anthropology and Afroamerican and African Studies) and Ronke Olawale (PhD candidate in Anthropology and Social Work) as part of a Collaboratory grant project. These scholars are both members of the Collaboratory’s Project Grant team Expanding the Reach of the Global Feminisms Oral History Archive.
Expanding the Reach builds on the Global Feminisms Project (GFP), an archive and “living resource” whose purpose is to provide raw material for scholars of women’s movement activism. In addition to expanding the oral history archive, the team’s mission includes building new international partnerships.
Elisha Renne and Ronke Olawale were in Nigeria earlier this year meeting with a number of feminist scholars and activists including Professor Binta Abdulkarim, Head of the Gender Policy Unit at Ahmadu Bello University and Dr. Ngozi Iwere, the Executive Director of Community Life Project (CLP) and a leading activist and voice for social justice in Nigeria for over 37 years.
The following discussion has been edited and condensed.
HC: How did you find your interview subjects? Both of you have longstanding ties to Nigeria, is that correct?
Ronke Olawale: Once I joined the Michigan Humanities Collaboratory team and we determined that I would conduct some interviews to be included in the oral history archive, I reached out to my friend and mentor Professor Mojubaolu Olufunke Okome of the City University of New York (CUNY). She immediately sent me a list of potential participants.
Elisha Renne: I’d been coming to Ahmadu Bello University (ABU) annually since 1994, first as a Fulbright Scholar and subsequently as a Research Associate. I’d known about [Professor Binta Abdulkarim’s] work on gender inequality and girl child education from other faculty at ABU although we’d actually never met until this February.
HC: Could you describe your connections to specific places and people in Nigeria?
ER: I arrived in Zaria, Nigeria, in early January 2020 as I was also completing research on a book project concerning the consequences of the closing of Kaduna textile mills on the lives of widows and children of men who had formerly worked at one mill. While it has become increasingly difficult to carry out research because of insecurity, everyone we interviewed was exceedingly kind and considerate. In January and February, I conducted interviews for the Global Feminisms project in Zaria and Kano—in northern Nigeria, and in Abuja in the Federal Capital Territory.
RO: Dr. Ngozi Iwere worked briefly as a journalist with The Guardian of Nigeria, the same newspaper where I worked for 17 years. I might have met her around 1997 during the early days of my career when I focused a lot on journalism. The best part [of interviewing Dr. Iwere] was listening to her trace the emergence of the feminist movement in Nigeria from the times of “her feminist ancestors” to when she got involved as a student activist. It was great to spend some 18 days in my home-country. I conducted interviews in four different cities, in three geo-political zones in the country. I got [connected] with hundreds of women doing amazing work in Nigeria who I otherwise might never have known.
HC: Clearly, much has changed worldwide in the past month due to the coronavirus. Does that put your work in Nigeria into a new context or framework?
RO: Between the time that I completed the interviews and now, I can say that the women’s movement in Nigeria has achieved a lot. I was added to two women’s activist groups on social media and I can testify to the importance of their work since the COVID-19 outbreak. By March, the groups recognized early that violence against women would rise during the lock down. They compiled and shared contact numbers through which victims could reach out for help.
ER: February was pre-coronavirus, at least in Nigeria, but Kaduna and Kano States were both considered to be “very dangerous” on the U-M travel website. I returned to Ann Arbor on 20 February 2020 with five extraordinary videotaped interviews—of an obstetrician-gynecologist, a lawyer, a secondary school administrator, a geographer-gender studies professor, and an English literature professor. I look forward to seeing the videos and transcribed interviews on the Global Feminisms Oral History Archive website and hope that the perspectives of these women inform the views of those reading and watching them. For indeed, these interviews opened my eyes to the gender-related issues that concern these women and to the challenges that they—we all—face.
Pictured: Hajiya Hassana Yusuf and Professor Binta Abdulkarim; Zaria, Kaduna State, Nigeria