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Voices from Within and Without: Sources, Methods, and Problematics in the Recovery of the Agrarian History of the Igbo (Southeastern Nigeria)

  • Chima J. Korieh (a1)

Over the past few decades, social history has variously and successfully explored the lives of neglected groups in society. Nevertheless, the question of capturing these “silent voices” in history, including those of women, remains at the heart of social history. Although few sources are available that allow historians to hear these voices, new methodological insights offer opportunities. A multidisciplinary framework and a broad range of methodologies can shed new light on the lives of peasants, who have been often neglected in history and provide opportunities to “hear” their voices and concerns as historical subjects. The object of this paper is to present sortie critical perspective on the use of oral and archival sources for the study of the agricultural history of rural Africa. What I present here is my approach to the collection and use of various sources for the study of Igbo agricultural history in the twentieth century. It suggests that oral sources, in particular, offer an important opportunity in the writing of an inclusive history of agricultural change—a history that for the most part has been created by rural peasants. Another objective is to outline my personal experiences in the field and to suggest important ways of situating the researcher not only in the analysis of the evidence, but most importantly, in the context or the fieldwork environment. Both, as has been clearly shown, can affect the historian's analysis and perspective and the resulting history.

Igboland is situated in Southeastern Nigeria and lies between longitude 7°E and latitude 6°10' N. The region borders the middle belt region of Nigeria to the north, the river Niger to the west, the Ibibio people to the east, and the Gulf of Guinea and Bight of Biafra to the south. Most of the region lies on a plain less than 600 feet (about 183 meters) above sea level. Most of Igboland lies within the Guinean and Sub-Guinean physical environment and is characterized by an annual rainfall of between forty and sixty inches per annum, with a dry season lasting between three and four months in northern Igboland and a mean monthly humidity of about 90% throughout the year. The pattern of rainfall produces two distinct patterns of vegetation. The southern part of the region is characterized by heavy rainfall that produces a dense rainforest that thinned out northwards into a savanna. However, many centuries of human habitation and activities have turned the whole region into secondary forest, with only pockets of forest oasis remaining.

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1 Morgan W. B., “The Influence of European Contacts on the Landscape of Southern Nigeria,” Geographical Journal 125(1959), 49.

2 Most of the original forests in Igboland have been cleared following a long period of agricultural activity and human habitation.

3 See National Archive of Nigeria (hereafter NAE) ONPROF 7/15/135, “World Agricultural Census,” Resident, Onitsha to District Officer Awgu, 16 January 1929.

4 See Green Margaret M., Land Tenure in an Ibo Village in South-eastern Nigeria (London, 1941); and Harris J., “Human Relationships to the Land in Southern Nigeria,” Rural Sociology 7(1942), 8992. For a more recent study see Goldman Abe, “Population Growth and Agricultural Change in Imo State, South-eastern Nigeria” in Population Growth and Agricultural Change in Africa, ed. Turner B. L. II, Kates R., and Hyden G. (Gainesville, 1993), 250301. For current population estimates see Nigeria, National Population Commission. 1991 Population Census of Nigeria (Lagos, 1991).

5 Smock David R. and Smock Audrey C., Cultural and Political Aspects of Rural Transformation: a Case Study of Eastern Nigeria (New York, 1972), 21.

6 See Federal Office of Statistics1991 Population of States by Local Government Areas,” Digest of Statistics (December 1994).

7 For the gender distribution of the population see 1991 Population Census.

8 The Biafra hinterland was a major source of slave during the Atlantic trade. For an analysis of Igbo participation in the slave trade see, for example, Nwokeji Ugo, “The Biafran Frontier: Trade, Slaves and Aro Society, c. 1750-1905” (Ph.D., University of Toronto, 1998). On the transition from slave trade to commodity trade see Law Robin, From Slavery to ‘Legitimate’ Commerce: The Commercial Transition in Nineteenth Century West Africa (Cambridge, 1995); Lynn Martin, Commerce and Economic Change in West Africa: The Palm Oil Trade in the Nineteenth Century (Cambridge, 1997).

9 I have examined the pre-colonial expansion of the palm oil trade for the Igbo elsewhere. See Korieh Chima J., “The Nineteenth Century Commercial Transition in West Africa: the Case of the Biafran Hinterland,” Canadian Journal of African Studies 34(2000), 588615.

10 Morgan , “Influence,” 52. Population pressure and land scarcity have fundamentally influenced Igbo agriculture, where the characteristically poor soil continued to deteriorates rapidly with frequent cultivation. For the impact of soil type on agricultural productivity in Eastern Nigeria see, for example, Lekwa G., “The Characteristics and Classification of Genetic Sequences of Soil in the Coastal Plain Sands of Eastern Nigeria” (Ph.D., Michigan State University, 1979), as well as Udo R. K., “Pattern of Population Distribution and Settlement in Eastern Nigeria,” Nigerian Geographical Journal 6(1963), 75.

11 Morgan , “Influence,” 53.

12 Jaber F. Gubrium and James A. Holstein have identified four major idioms of qualitative inquiry: naturalism, ethnomethodology, emotionalism, and postmodernism. On how each applies to the researcher and the subject see Gubrium /Holstein , The New Language of Qualitative Method (New York, 1997). See also Creswell John W., Qualitative Inquiry and Research Design: Choosing Among Five Traditions (Thousand Oaks, 1998). For an introduction to the theoretical and empirical issues involved in quantitative history see Fairburn Miles, Social History: Problems, Strategies and Methods (New York, 1999); and Griffin Larry J. and van der Linden Marcel, eds., “New Methods for Social HistoryInternational Review of Social History 43(1998), 38.

13 Thornton John, “European Documents and African History” in Philips John Edward, ed., Writing African History (Rochester, 2005), 254.

14 Riney-Kehrberg Pamela adopted this methodology in Rooted in Dust: Surviving Drought and Depression in Southwestern Kansas (Lawrence, 1994), 187. This study combined oral interview with statistical information from Kansas State Agricultural census. This method enabled the author to analyze persistence and include personal details such as “age of farm operator, land descriptions, ownership status, etc.,” the sort of information that may not be easily derived from census data. My methodological perspective benefits from this approach, but expanded to include life history narratives and oral accounts.

15 See Musisi Nakanyike B., “A Personal Journey into Custom, Identity, Power, and Politics: Researching and Writing the Life and Times of Buganda's Queen Mother Irene Drusilla Namaganda, 1896-1957,” HA 23(1996), 369.

16 Henige David, “Oral Tradition as a Means of Reconstructing the Past” in Philips , Writing African History, 171.

17 Joseph C. Miller, “History and Africa/Africa and History,” Presidential Address, American Historical Association, Washington, DC, 8 January 1999.

18 Vasina Jan, Oral Tradition: a Study in Historical Methodology (London, 1965). For his work on the Bakuba see Recording the Oral History of the Bakuba I,” JAH 1(1960), 45-53, 257–70.

19 Henige David, “Oral Tradition,” 171.

20 Vansina Jan, Oral Tradition: a Study in Historical Methodology (Madison, 1985).

21 African historians in particular owe an immense debt to Kenneth O. Dike, whose book not only presented the value of oral sources in the study of African history, but also presented a new internalist framework—that of the study of African societies by Africans and the emergence of the modern academic history of Africa.

22 The University of Ibadan was Nigeria's premier institution of higher learning. The Ibadan School also advocated a nationalist history that demonstrated that African has a history before the contact with Europeans. On Ibadan School of History see Falola Toyin, ed., Tradition and Change in Africa: the Essays of J. F. Ade Ajayi (Trenton, 2000), 377–88.

23 A.E. Afigbo has addressed some of these issues in several historiographical papers. I have written a commentary “Historians, Historiography and Historical Interpretations-Commentary,” which will appear in selected works of Adiele Afigbo currently being edited by Toyin Falola.

24 See Geiger Susan, Tanu Women: Gender and Culture in the Making of Tanganyika Nationalism, 1955-1965 (Portsmouth NH, 1997), 1517.

25 Sheldon Kathleen, “Writing About Women: Approaches to a Gendered Perspective in African History” in Philips , Writing African History, 474.

26 For the use of life history and oral narrative see Geiger , Tanu Women, 1519.

27 See Thompson Paul, “Historians and Oral History” in The Voice of the Past: Oral History (Oxford, 1988), 2271.

28 For the use of life histories in historical reconstruction and the problems of interpretation and representation see Geiger , Tanu Women, 16. See also Barry Kathleen, “Biography and the Search for Women's Subjectivity,” Women's Studies International Forum 12(1989), 561–77.

29 For further discussion, see, Marcus George E. and Fischer Michael M. J., Anthropology and Cultural Critique: an Experiment in the Human Science (Chicago, 1986).

30 Uzoigwe G. N., “Recording the Oral History of Africa: Reflections from Field Experiences in Bunyoro,” African Studies Review 16(1973), 183201; Okeley Judith, “Anthropology and Autobiography: Participatory Experience and Embodied Knowledge” in Anthropology and Autobiography, ed. Okeley Judith and Callaway Helen (London, 1992), 128; Flinn Juliana, “Introduction” in Fieldwork and Families: Constructing New Models for Ethnographic Research, ed. Flinn Julianaet al (Honolulu, 1998), 56.

31 Flores-Meiser Enya P., “Field Experience in Three Societies” in Fieldwork: the Human Experience, ed., Lawless Robertet al (New York, 1983), 4961.

32 Messerschmidt Donald, ed., Anthropologist at Home in North America: Methods and Issues in the Study of One's Own Society (Cambridge, 1981). For the advantages and disadvantages of insider research see Kikumura Akemi, “Family Life Histories: a Collaborative Venture” in The Oral History Reader, ed. Perks and Thomson (London, 1998), 140–44; Merton R., “Insiders and Outsiders: a Chapter in the Sociology of Knowledge,” American Journal of Sociology 78(1972), 947.

33 Messerschmidt, Anthropologist; Maday Bela, ed. Anthropology and Society (Washington, 1975), 41.

34 Enslin , “Beyond Writing,” 548.

35 Uchendu Victor, The Igbo of South-eastern Nigeria (New York, 1965), 9.

36 Ibid.

37 Soon Kim Choong, “The Role of the Non-Western Anthropologist Reconsidered: Illusion versus Reality,” Current Anthropology 31(1990), 196201.

38 Nukunya Godwin K., Kinship and Marriage among the Anlo Ewe (New York, 1969), 19.

39 Ibid.

40 Kjerland Kirsten A., “Cattle Breeds; Shillings Don't: The Belated Incorporation of the abaKuria into Modern Kenya,” (Ph.D., University of Bergen, 1995), 9.

41 Nziem Ndaywel E., “African Historians and Africanist Historian” in African Historiographies: What History for Which Africa?, ed. Jewsiewicki Bogumil and Newbury David (Beverly Hills, 1986), 2027.

42 Ibid, 21.

43 Jewsiewicki Bogumil, “African Historical Studies, Academic Knowledge as ‘Usable Past’ and Radical Scholarship,” African Studies Review 32/1(1989), 9.

44 Enslin Elizabeth, “Beyond Writing: Feminist Practice and the Limitations of Ethnography,” Cultural Anthropology 9(1994), 537–38.

45 Merton , “Insiders and Outsiders,” 947; Kikumura , “Family Life,” 141.

46 For a cautionary note see Wright Richard, “Blueprint for Negro Writing” in The Black Aesthetics, ed. Gayle Addison Jr. (New York, 1971), 315–26.

47 Nnaemeka Obioma, ed., Sisterhood, Feminisms, and Power: from Africa to the Diaspora (Trenton, 1997), 2.

48 Samuel Raphael, ed., Village Life and Labor (London, 1975), 126.

49 It was interesting how people often used the expression “we” when discussing their civil war experience.

50 Hoopes , Oral History, 15. For comments on the problematic of text and archived materials see Finnegan Ruth, Oral Traditions and The Verbal Arts: a Guide to Research Practice (London, 1992), 82.

51 Hoopes , Oral History, 15.

52 On colonial memory see Stoler Ann Laura and Strassler Karen, “Casting for the Colonial: Memory in ‘New Order Java,’Comparative Studies in Society and History 42(2000), 448; and Richard Mitchell Jr. and Kathy Charmaz, “Telling Tales, Writing Stories: Postmodernist Visions and Realists Images in Ethnographic Writing,” Journal of Contemporary Ethnography 25(1996), 144–66.

53 Interview with Linus Anabalam, Mbaise, 13 December 1998.

54 See for example, Iyegha, Agricultural Crisis, especially chapter 8. Though Iyegha's survey-type questionnaire limits the ability to record individual histories, his work buttresses the need for more people-oriented study of Africa's agrarian and economic problems.

55 Samuel , Village Life, xx. This and other volumes are based on history workshops held at Ruskin College, loosely organized around the theme of “Family, Work and Home. See especially the five volumes on Work: Village Life and Labor, Miners, Quarrymen and Saltworkers; The Workshop Traders; Women's Trades; and The Uniformed Working Class. Among the Igbo the recent social history of the Biafra-Nigeria civil war represents such an endeavor. See Harneit-Sievers Axel, Ahazuem Jones O., and Emezue Sydney, A Social History of the Civil War: Perspectives from Below (Enugu, 1997).

56 For a similar perspective see Nakanyike B. Musisi, “Transformation of Baganda Women from the Earliest Times to the Demise of the Kingdom in 1966” (Ph.D., University of Toronto, 1991); and Diane Bell, Pat Caplan, and Wazir Johan Karim, eds., (London, 1993).

57 There are some issues that people believe should not be discussed in public, since it behooves on every member of the household or the lineage to present a good image of the unit. Anything that brings shame to the individual also brings shame to the collective unit. This is in line with the Igbo adage, Otu mkpisi aka ruta mmanu ya ezuo ibe ya (if one finger is dipped into [palm] oil it will smear the others).

58 Elizabeth Isichei compiled oral histories from different parts of Igboland dealing with extensively with economic change. This work helps push back the oral information to the early part of the colonial period: Isichei Elizabeth, Igbo Word: An Anthology of Oral Histories and Historical Descriptions (Philadelphia, 1976).

59 For an analysis of how each source of data can help balance the problems inherent in the other see, among others, Hoopes , Oral, 15; Ragin Charles C., “The Logic of Qualitative Comparative Analysis,” International Review of Social History 43(1998), 165–84; Dillon Pattie, “Teaching the Past through Oral History,” Journal of American History 87(2000), 602–07.

60 Some of these reports were consulted at the African Research Centre, LaTrobe University, Melbourne. Others were consulted at the National Archives of Nigeria, Enugu.

61 Allison Robert J. ed., The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano Written by Himself (Boston, 1995). Archibald John Monteith's memoir was written by Reverend Joseph Horsfield Kummer in 1853. Kummer served the Moravian Mission in Jamaica and this account was edited by Vernon H. Nelson from the manuscript in the Archives of the Moravian Church, Bethlehem, Pennsylvania: Archibald John Monteith: Native Helper and Assistant in the Jamaica Mission at New Carmel,” Transactions of the Moravian Historical Society 21(1966), 2952.

62 Mr. John Grazilhier's Voyage from Bandy to New Calabar” in Barbot John, A Description of the Coasts of North and South Guinea (volume 5 in Churchill's Voyages and Travels [London, 1746]), 380–81; C.M.S Archives, CA3/010, W. E. Carew, “Journal,” January 1866; FO 403/233, Harcourt, Report on the Aquette Expedition, 29 February 1896—29 March 1896; Smith S. R., “Journey to Nsugbe and Nteje, 1897,” Niger and Yoruba Notes, 1898; CO 520/31, “Political Report on the Eza Patrol,” enclosure in Egerton to Lyttelton, 16 July 1905 and Western Equatorial Africa Diocesan Magazine (1904), 29 ff., as cited in Isichei , Igbo World, 207–08.

63 Spear Thomas, “Section Introduction: New Approaches to Documentary Sources” in Falola Toyin and Jennings Christian eds., Sources and Methods in African History: Spoken, Written and Unearthed (Rochester, 2003), 169.

64 Falola Toyin, “Mission and Colonial Documents” in Philips , Writing African History, 267.

65 Thornton , “European Documents,” 255.

66 In large part colonial officials relied on data from experimental farms under optimum management conditions to estimate food and export crop yields for the provinces and the colony at large. In most cases these conditions differed immensely from the conditions which farmers faced in their natural environments. Such evidence of agricultural performance and conditions are problematic and unsatisfactory in making general conclusions.

67 For some new approaches to documentary sources, see McKittrick Meredith, “Capricious Tyrants and Persecuted Subjects: Reading between the Lines of Missionary Records in Pre-colonial Northern Namibia” in Falola /Jennings , Sources and Methods, 219–36; Christian Jennings, “They Called Themselves Iloikop: Rethinking Pastoralist History in Nineteenth-Century East Africa” in ibid., 173-94.

68 Spear Thomas, Mountain Farmers: Moral Economies of Land and Agricultural Development in Arusha and Meru (Berkeley, 1997), 11.

69 Cooper Barbara M., “Oral Sources and the Challenge of African History,” in Philips , Writing African History (Rochester, 2005), 191.

70 Ibid.

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