Tag Archives: Africa

Lagos: A Place with Open Eyes

By Lisa A. Lindsay

A decade before the American Civil War, James Churchwill (“Church”) Vaughan set out to fulfill his formerly enslaved father’s dying wish: that he should leave his home in South Carolina for a new life in Africa. With help from the American Colonization Society, he went first to Liberia, though he did not stay there long. In 1855, Vaughan accepted an offer of employment in Yorubaland—about which Americans knew virtually nothing–with Southern Baptist missionaries. Over the next four decades in today’s southwestern Nigeria, Vaughan became a war captive, served as a military sharpshooter, built and re-built a livelihood, led a revolt against white racism in missionary churches, and founded a family of activists. When his relatives were struggling in South Carolina in the late 1860s, he sent them canvas bags filled with gold. His descendants in Lagos and those of his siblings in the United States maintained contact for the next century. When Church Vaughan died in 1893, he left his widow and three children land, businesses, and multiple houses in central Lagos, and he was buried under an imposing monument in Ikoyi Cemetery.[1]

James Churchwill Vaughan portrait.jpg
James Churchill Vaughn (1828-1893) portrait

Vaughan’s remarkable story reveals two fundamental features of Lagos life, a century ago and now. First, this is a place where strangers came, and still come, to seek their fortunes. Originally a fishing village, Lagos had developed as an outpost for international slaving and then “legitimate trade” in palm oil and other tropical produce. By the late nineteenth century, the city was known as the “Liverpool of West Africa.” New settlers arrived, pulled by economic opportunities generated by the export trade and pushed by violence and insecurity in the interior that had begun with the disintegration of the Oyo Empire in the 1820s. In the 1860s, when Vaughan, his African wife, and their little son walked there after being expelled with other Christians from the inland town of Abeokuta, Lagos’s population was estimated at 25,000. He prospered as a carpenter and then as a merchant of building supplies, importing hardware and other materials for the houses and stores that newcomers continued to build. By 1881, the city had grown to 38,000, which included only 111 Europeans, despite the fact that Lagos had become a British colony twenty years earlier. The numbers kept increasing, so that by 1911 Lagos’s population numbered three times what it had been in 1866.   People came for many reasons, including to escape interior warfare or slavery, or as part of another migrant’s retinue of dependents. But it was the lure of wealth through trade that called many of them to the city, even though few new migrants ultimately became rich. “The real Lagosian loves above everything else to be a trader,” a resident missionary wrote in 1881.[2]

JCV whole tombstone
James Churchill Vaughn’s tombstone from a distance in Ikoyi Cemetery, Lagos, Nigeria.

Many of the most visible and prosperous traders were, like Church Vaughan, refugees from Atlantic world slavery. Ex-slaves from Brazil and Cuba, most of them Yoruba or of Yoruba descent, had resettled in Lagos (and nearby Whydah and elsewhere) since the late 1830s, largely through their own initiatives. They formed a residential and commercial quarter in the city, and many of them worked as carpenters, builders, or other artisans, giving Brazilian-style flourishes to the homes and businesses of their clients. Vaughan, in fact, lived among them and became their supplier when he went into the hardware business. The other significant group of newcomers were the so-called Saro, people who themselves or whose parents had been enslaved in the disintegration of the Oyo Empire, forced onto slave ships headed to Brazil or Cuba, been rescued at sea by British antislavery patrols and landed at Sierra Leone. They later made their way back to their areas of origin. By the mid-1860s, probably around 1,000 Sierra Leonians and equal numbers of Brazilians had settled in Lagos, and their numbers tripled over the next two decades. Their prior commercial experience, initial capital, contacts with Europeans, and western education enabled some Sierra Leonians to move quickly into the import-export trade and ascend to the top of the local elite. In fact, it was mostly Saro whom Martin Delany was describing when he noticed, passing through Lagos in 1859, that “The merchants and business men of Lagos [are] principally native black gentlemen, there being but ten white houses in the place…and all of the clerks are native blacks.”[3] Both they and the Brazilians literally made their mark on the city’s landscape. To this day, central Lagos’s streets bear the names of early returnees, including Savage, Cole, Doherty, and Davies in the Olowogbowo area settled by Sierra Leonians and Bamgbose, Pedro, Martins, and Tokunboh in the Brazilian quarter (Tokunboh meaning a person who has returned from abroad).

EBC
Ebenezer Baptist Church, Lagos. Constructed in 1893 and replaced in 1974.

Church Vaughan’s remarkable life also serves as a reminder of the persistent ability of Lagosians to borrow creatively and make something new. In his case, it was his connections with the African diaspora that helped inspire him to lead a rebellion against racist white missionaries in the late 1880s. Taking inspiration from African Americans who formed their own churches and schools as a response to discrimination, in 1888 Vaughan and several others formed the first non-missionary Christian church in West Africa, the Native (later Ebenezer) Baptist Church in Lagos. But Yoruba people had long appreciated the potential of new ideas from elsewhere to improve things locally. The term ọ̀lajú, meaning “enlightenment” or “civilization” (from the Yoruba verb meaning “to open the eyes”) was first used in the mid-nineteenth century to describe the cultural package brought by European missionaries, including technical, medical, and clerical skills as well as Christianity. It also referred to those who were not necessarily well educated, but who gained worldly knowledge by pursuing opportunities away from home. Either way, the central idea was to use knowledge or experience from somewhere else to bring progress back home.[4] This was certainly what new arrivals in Lagos tried to do, building on trading connections or using ideas from places they had lived in order to pursue success in their new hometown.

29 kakawa st 300 dpi
W. Vaughan House, 29 Kakawa Street, Lagos, 2006, photo by Lisa A. Lindsay.
This was built by Church Vaughan’s prosperous son, in the “Brazilian” style. (See https://www.lostinlagos.com/gist/159.)

 

The most famous Lagosian of the twentieth century may have been Fela Anikulapo Kuti, the pioneer musician and inveterate political critic, who died in 1997. Fela grew up in the town of Abeokuta, where his father had been a school principal and his mother led a massive women’s protest against a colonially-backed local ruler. After stints in London, Ghana, and Los Angeles, in the 1960s Fela made Lagos his lifelong home and creative muse. There, he created Afrobeat, an infectious musical style that blended local highlife, Yoruba melodies, jazz, and the funk of James Brown into something altogether new. Fela, like Church Vaughan and countless others, brought to Lagos the creative vitality of people on the move. The city has been built by people like them—refugees, entrepreneurs, and hustlers, who “opened their eyes” in multiple directions.

L in London 2018.jpgLisa A. Lindsay is Bowman and Gordon Gray Distinguished Term Professor and Chair of the Department of History at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.  A specialist in the history of Nigeria, the slave trade, and the Atlantic world, she is the author of Atlantic Bonds: A Nineteenth Century Odyssey from America to Africa, which won the African Studies Association’s prize for the best book in any field of African studies published in 2017.  Previous publications include Working with Gender: Wage Labor and Social Change in Colonial Southwestern Nigeria (2003); Captives as Commodities: The Transatlantic Slave Trade (2008); and the co-edited volumes Men and Masculinities in Modern Africa (2003) and Biography and the Black Atlantic (2014). 

Featured image (at top): James Churchill Vaughn’s tombstone, Ikoyi Cemetery, Lagos, Nigeria.

[1] Lisa A. Lindsay, Atlantic Bonds: A Nineteenth Century Odyssey from America to Africa (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2017).

[2] J. Buckley Wood, “On the Inhabitants of Lagos: Their Character, Pursuits, and Language,” Church Missionary Intelligencer (1881): 683-91, 687 quoted.

[3] M.R. Delany, “Official Report of the Niger Valley Exploring Party,” in Howard H. Bell (ed.), Search for a Place: Black Separatism and Africa, 1860, edited by (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1969), 113-14.

            [4] J.D.Y. Peel, “Olaju: A Yoruba Concept of Development,” Journal of development Studies 14 (1978): 139-65.

Member of the Week: Emily Callaci

faculty-callaci-300x300Emily Callaci

Associate Professor of History

University of Wisconsin, Madison

@ecallaci

Describe your current research. What about it drew your interest? 

I’ve been working for a few years now on a project on the history of reproductive technology in Africa in the 1960s through the present day.  It’s not an urban history project in the conventional sense, but it did grows out of my first book, which has a section examining the role of Tanzanian family planning nurses as public intellectuals who shaped public debates about gender, national sovereignty and youth sexuality in a city filled with newly arrived youth migrants. In the process of interviewing some of these retired Tanzanian nurses, I became interested in a more transnational story about the circulation of biomedical contraceptives in Africa. So far, this project has taken me to archives in the US, UK, Switzerland, Kenya and Tanzania, and in the near future, I’m hoping to travel to several archives in Nigeria.

Describe what you are currently teaching. How does your teaching relate to your scholarship?

This semester I am teaching my Twentieth Century African History Survey and an MA thesis writing colloquium. One of my favorite classes to offer is an undergraduate course called The Global African City, which explores themes in global urban history through three case studies: the Swahili coast, Johannesburg and Lagos. In the future, I’m hoping to include Cairo as well, but I need to read and learn a lot more before I can teach with any confidence about that city. For that class, I’m always looking for interesting primary sources to share with my students—archeological site maps, works of art, noir fiction, Onitsha market literature, graffiti, pop songs, pamphlets, photography—and of course, this feeds into my interest in “street archives.”

What recent or forthcoming publications are you excited about, either of your own or from other scholars?

I am very excited about two recent books in African urban history—one that I have already read, and one that I have not yet read. The first is Kenda Mutongi’s book Matatu: A History of Popular Transportation in Nairobi. Matatus are the vans and buses that are Kenya’s main mode of urban transport. They emerged in the 1960s out of an ad hoc informal sector venture, and over time, became the public transportation system, serving 70% of the population. They are an essential part of the infrastructure of urban Kenya: when the matatu drivers go on strike, the city grinds to a halt. Through ethnography, archival research and interviews, Kenda Mutongi uncovers a vast urban network of matatu owners, drivers, passengers, mechanics, graffiti artists, sound system engineers, politicians, gang members and investors.  She uses the fascinating history of the matatu industry as a critical lens into the complex political, economic and cultural history of Nairobi.

The second, which I have not yet read, is Joanna Grabski’s book Art World City: The Creative Economy of Artists and Urban Life in Dakar. I love the idea about thinking about a city, its economies and its global linkages, through the lens of the art world. Plus, Dakar has such an amazing art scene, so the book is sure to be a visual treat as well. I’m really looking forward to reading it.

What advice do you have for young scholars preparing themselves for a career related to urban history or urban studies? 

I would say cast a wide net when it comes to thinking about what constitutes an archive. I did not go into my dissertation research planning to use pulp fiction and Christian self-help books and family planning pamphlets and pop songs as my main sources, but I ended up learning more from them than I ever could have anticipated.

For you first book, you worked with unconventional sources that you called a “street archive.” What would you collect if you were to build an archive of the street on which you currently live?

That’s a neat question. OK, here’s one idea. For at least the past two years, all over Madison, people have been putting signs on their front lawns that say “In this house we believe: Black Lives Matter, Women’s Rights are Human Rights, No Human is Illegal, Science is Real, Love is Love, Kindness is Everything.” Of course, I agree with all of these statements. But I wonder what kind of work these signs do in a place like Madison:  a predominantly white liberal enclave in a state that voted for Donald Trump, and a state that consistently ranks among the worst in the country in terms of the wellbeing of Black people. Who is the intended audience for these lawn signs? How do households collectively decide to put them up? What is the actual effect of these signs on how people feel moving through Madison? Do these lawn signs do anything to make Madison a more inclusive, equitable, diverse place?  Conversely, to what extent do the lawn signs serve some kind of emotional need of the white middle class families who live in these neighborhoods? I don’t want to be a cynical jerk about it, but I can imagine some really interesting insights coming from an analysis of these signs as a kind of street textuality. I think you could write an interesting history of Madison liberalism through a collection of signs that people have posted on their front lawns over time. I wonder if anyone has been collecting or archiving these.

Romance Novellas and the Postcolonial African City

By Emily Callaci

In the late 1970s, Dar es Salaam, Tanzania was one of the most rapidly growing cities in the world. Each year, thousands of young men and women left their rural homes and made their way to the city, expanding the squatter settlements and the ranks of the city’s youth population. The global economic recession of the 1970s, followed a decade later by structural adjustment policies and the gradual collapse of Tanzania’s socialist experiment, led to great hardship for most urban residents. Public buses ground to halt for lack of petrol, and Dar es Salaam residents queued for hours outside government cooperative stores to access basic necessities, such as soap, tea, flour and rice, only to find that the shelves were often empty. More gallingly, despite an official public rhetoric of egalitarianism, the city was a place of visibly dramatic inequalities, where the corrupt could prosper and those who followed the rules often found themselves living in dire poverty. Yet in this context of scarcity, at least one thing could be found in abundance: love stories.

SImbamwene(1978)Swahili romance novels proliferated in Dar es Salaam in the late 1970s. Every year, tens of thousands of novellas were produced and sold in the city’s informal economy. They were printed on thin, cheap paper, and had titillating cover artwork depicting voluptuous women, kung-fu fighters, guns, suitcases of cash, and motorcycles. The books circulated from person to person, traded along social networks of readers until they eventually began to fall apart from wear and tear. The back covers of the novellas helped amplify the reputation of the writer by displaying his picture and bio, alongside several blurbs of bombastic praise from other young writers. The authors were young migrant men from rural areas, newly arrived in Dar es Salaam, and they circulated throughout the city on foot, selling their books out of briefcases or displaying them at newspaper stands or religious bookshops. These romance stories offer up a kind of unintended archive of the emotional lives of Dar es Salaam’s young men in the mid-1970s through 1980s, the final decade of Tanzania’s socialist experiment.

The romance novellas are formulaic and share similar casts of characters. They feature young, handsome and athletic male protagonists, fashioned after international celebrities including Bruce Lee, Muhammad Ali and Bob Marley. The heroes are well-versed in global black popular culture and radical political thought, and can quote James Brown songs and Julius Nyerere’s writings with equal ease, yet at the same time, they are rooted in the contemporary material realities of Dar es Salaam. Physically, they are lean from hunger and fit from playing soccer and practicing kung fu. They are often broke. Crammed into shabby apartments with their mates, the protagonists of these novellas nonetheless piece together their outfits from second hand clothes, tailored to the latest fashions on the sewing machines of street tailors. Their elegance in the face of scarcity attests to their taste and street-smarts. They are virtuous, cosmopolitan and frugal. And they are always in love.

fig4.5A beautiful “girl” is always part of the story. Sometimes she is virtuous and pure, and sometimes conniving and greedy. In these male-authored romance novellas of 1970s Dar es Salaam—and despite the many Tanzanian women writers at the time, the authors of this particular popular genre were men—she is never complex, never has an inner life of her own. The story is not about her; rather her depiction furthers a story that is about young men. Attached to the girl are her conservative parents, who antagonize their daughters’ suitors and stand in the way of love. Take, for example, Juma Mkabarah’s Kizimbani (On the Witness Stand), in which the young Rosa is found dead in the bed of her boyfriend, Joseph Gapa. Rosa’s father comes after Joseph with a machete, publically berates him for stealing Rosa away from his household, calls him a hooligan, and accuses him of killing her. But in a dramatic final courtroom scene, a letter from the departed Rosa is presented in which she reveals that she killed herself out of despair when her parents refused to allow her to marry the boy she loved. Joseph Gapa is exonerated and carried out of the courtroom on the shoulders of a cheering crowd, a hero.

fig4.6The great obsession of many of these romance writers was the figure of the sugar daddy. In Kassim Kassam’s Shuga Dedi, the titular character is Fabian Mwaluso, owner of a factory and seducer of the young and beautiful Fatuma: a schoolgirl from a poor family. Fabian is overweight and arrogant, and he seduces Fatuma with a meal of chicken and chips, rides to school in his Mercedes Benz and nights out dancing. In Kajubi’s Kitanda Cha Mauti (Bed of Death) it is Fadhil Magoma, a schoolteacher who sleeps with schoolgirls and impregnates at least one student: the protagonist Diana Kiboko. In the end, Diana kills him, herself and their child. In Mkufya’s The Wicked Walk, Magege is a manager in a factory, drives a Mercedes Benz, and ruthlessly exploits his employees. Outside the workplace, he seduces the young Anna away from her hip and politically righteous boyfriend, the protagonist Deo: a tall, thin, handsome man in bellbottoms and platform shoes, and a fan of Bruce Lee films. In contrast with the young male lovers like Deo, the sugar daddies are fat and old. They are wealthy and can wear expensive imported clothes, but they have no style. They drive around Dar es Salaam’s dilapidated roads in expensive imported cars while young men walk on foot or wait in lines for public buses that may never arrive. They leave their wives and children at home and steal young girls from their rightful partners—young men—by plying them with rides in cars, dinners of chicken and chips, and access to the city’s bars and nightclubs, with bottled alcohol and dinner and dancing. The relationships are always ruinous for the “girls,” who end up dying through botched abortions or suicides, or else destitute and shunned by their communities.

 

As an urban archive, these novellas take us into the intense generational tensions that structured experiences of the city. The young male migrants who came to the city in the 1970s had been to secondary school in the more optimistic years of decolonization, and as citizens of a newly independent nation, had expected to become a new generation of literate, salaried men supporting families in the city. Yet the economic decline of the second half of the seventies laid waste to those ambitions, and they encountered a city starkly different than the one they had envisioned, with skyrocketing unemployment rates and rapidly declining real wages. Marriage was increasingly out of reach as the cost of bridewealth—gifts offered from the family of the husband to family of the wife to solidify the bond between them—was increasingly high, making it impossible for many young couples to form socially recognized families. Forms of adulthood that had been available to their parents and grandparents’ generations, attained through land cultivation and marriage, were increasingly out of reach. In these circumstances, young men in the city found themselves stalled, unable to find public recognition as an adult. In these novellas about love, writers gave voice and pathos to their generation, placing blame at the feet of older generations, and creating a counter-narrative to the more dominant public narrative of degenerate urban youth.
The Swahili romance novellas of 1970s Dar es Salaam were whimsical, raucously imaginative, cheeky and sometimes absurdly far-fetched. They were also dead serious. They lured the reader in with fabulous cover images, bombastic prose and suspenseful plots, and grounded the reader in the emotional contours of urban life as experienced by young African men. At a time when the young and unemployed in cities were blamed for Tanzania’s ills, the writers of romance novellas wrote a new moral script of the city, recasting young transient men in the city as virtuous, emotionally authentic and heroic. The Swahili romance novel made room in the collective imagination for a new kind of urban resident.

Featured image at top: Tanganyika. Dar-es-Salem. Sunrise seen through palm grove from across the bay, 1936, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Emily Callaci is an assistant professor of African History at the University of Wisconsin Madison and author of Street Archives and City Life: Popular Intellectuals in Postcolonial Tanzania (Duke, 2017).