Tag Archives: Nigeria

Anthropology in Nigeria – Extended Version

One could almost use the state of anthropology in Nigeria as a field of study to illustrate the state of the discipline in West Africa, but of course, in Nigeria, it would have a distinctive Nigerian flavour. First of all, parents are mostly the ones who are responsible for their children’s university education, and not many parents are willing to pay for their children to study anthropology. The first considerations are always about whether their child would be able to get a job after completion of the course. The way to sell a degree programme to potential students – and their parents – is by highlighting the job opportunities the programme would open graduates to. Only a few students end up enrolling in programmes that offer degrees in ‘non-professional’ courses, and most of the students are offered those programmes as ‘second options’ after they are refused admission into more attractive degree programmes. Sociology has been able to make itself remain relevant by operating professional masters programmes like Master of Industrial and Personnel Relations and Masters in Project Development and Implementation, and Masters in Industrial and Labour Relations.

One does not need to think of Bohanan’s work among the Tiv of northern Nigeria, or Abner Cohen’s research among Hausa migrants in the southern Nigerian city of Ibadan before one experiences a feeling of nostalgia. There were for instance Nigerians like Angulu Onwujeogwu, Ikenna Nzimora and Victor Uchendu. In Africa at large, efforts were not just expended on doing ‘good’ anthropology and sociology; there were in fact efforts to overcome the Western epistemic assumptions that underpinned much anthropological exercise of the time. I probably don’t need to mention that anthropology was often a tool for colonialists. See, for instance, Bernard Magubane’s criticism of colonial anthropology in this Current Anthropology article. It would also be useful to see Archie Mafeje’s article that is partly a response to Magubane’s article. The point is that there was a lively discussion in anthropology on the continent.

A cursory look at the credentials of many African anthropologists of the 60s and 70s would show that they were largely Western educated, partly because African states, at that point, had a developmental agenda, and that agenda involved awarding scholarships to students to study in Western universities. And when this was not the case, many African got scholarships from Western countries. One could say that even then, with newly independent African states, anthropology was not particularly popular. I think this is linked to the involvement of anthropology in the colonial project. It is arguable that sociology enjoyed a better image than anthropology, especially with its somewhat better image as a discipline that studies ‘more civilised’ societies. That is also probably why there are very few stand-alone anthropology departments in Nigerian universities.

Things became much worse in the 80s when Nigeria’s oil wealth started turning into a curse. Serious balance of payment problems, coupled with a succession of repressive military dictatorships finally encouraged many Nigerian scholars to leave the country, and those who stayed found it increasingly difficult to work. The already unattractive anthropology even became less attractive, and joint anthropology and sociology department started doing much less of anthropology and more of sociology. The fact that many development agencies want statistical data has meant that data provision and generation concentrated in the hands of economists and sociologists. This in turn meant that fewer people got interested in doing graduate degrees in anthropology. I recently visited a Nigerian sociology and anthropology department where there was neither a single lecturer who does anthropological research, nor any graduate student who wanted to do anthropological research.

It is also in this state of the Nigerian economy state that many parents would not be willing to pay for their children to study anthropology in universities. One could also add that a desire to be modern, and therefore to study something modern, is linked to the lack of interest in anthropology, especially as people still seem to associate anthropology with the study of the primitive – in post-colonial studies terms, the Other. There is bound to be a problem for a discipline that studies the Other, when the classical definition of the Other in this context would actually be the self. I know that the experiences of people in African countries are far from uniform, and that there is of course a multiplicity of Others, but those are the fine details that almost always get lost in the quest for modernity. Yes, I throw in that word, because no matter how much we discuss the faults and failings of modernisation as a theory and as a concept, the everyday lives of young Nigerians is modeled after the dream of becoming modern. Of course, I am an anthropologist, and I understood the importance of the kind of knowledge that anthropological methods and methodologies produce, even before I decided to do a Ph.D in anthropology. And of course, there are also other really intelligent anthropologists still in Nigeria. But when one starts framing a discussion in those terms one should realise that one is talking of the exceptions and not the rule.

Some questions of course beg answers. Does Nigeria, and by extension other African countries, have need of the anthropologist’s contribution in its present predicament? Can the problems thrown up in the country be framed in anthropological ways? Are these problems not always being framed in such ways whether or not people realize or admit it, whether or not people study their society, its mental, material and behavioural artefacts, and engage one another, self and other, with the benefit of ethnographic and theoretical training received in university departments of anthropology? At the risk of sounding chauvinistic, I think that it is always anthropology, good or bad—from Huntington to Soyinka.

Any insights from other areas?

Consuming Second-Hand Clothing

The recently demolished Tejuosho Market in Lagos, Nigeria, had a part that was devoted almost entirely to the trade in second-hand clothing. In the mid-nineties, I lived somewhere close to the market, and each time I left the house to take a bus at the Yaba central motor park I walked past stalls filled with second-hand clothes. Traders who hawked their wares on the road would usually call on passers-by to patronise them. The range of items in the market ranged from Armani suits to brassiere, from neck ties to blue jeans, from Hugo Boss long sleeve shirts to Gap T-shirts, from men’s underpants to ladies’ slips, and from jackboots to office shoes. There were even the odd winter jackets.

I was about 16 years old then, and it was about the first time that I really thought about second-hand clothing. I had been wearing second-hand clothes before then, but it was a particular episode that made me realise how much it was sewn into the imagination of many everyday Nigerians. A boy who was about eight years old walked into the living room of their house and said:

‘I can smell something new! Did mummy buy some new clothes?’

Everybody is probably familiar with the smell of new textile fabric; used-clothes too have their own peculiar odour. People said that it was the smell of the chemical that was used in washing them before they were packed up and shipped to Nigeria. That was the smell the boy perceived, and that was the smell he thought was the smell of new fabric. Of course, now, thinking about it, it was certainly new, only that it was a different type of new. For the boy, and for so many other people, it was simply new clothes; clothes that started a whole new life with them. One could of course start a whole discussion about values and commodities and what is new and what is not, but what my 16 year-old self found disturbing was that the boy was so used to new cloth smelling like second-hand cloths that it was what was new to him. I think I found it disturbing because most often, using second-hand clothes was linked to poverty. I learnt better some years later.

The general name for second-hand clothing in Nigeria is okrika. The name was derived from the name of a small port town close to the more famous Port-Harcourt, in the now infamous Niger-Delta region of Nigeria. According to old-time second-hand clothes traders, that was the port through which used clothing was first imported into Nigeria, and the people of Okrika were the first to start consuming second-hand clothing, largely because that was where it was first imported. So, the name okrika stuck, and it is still the general name used to refer to second-hand clothes in Nigeria.

But there are other names too. One of them – bo si corner – is a mixture of Yoruba and English, which means, ‘go to a corner’. Buying used clothing was supposed to be a shameful thing so one only bought it in a ‘corner’, where nobody could see one. Another popular Yoruba word is wo o wo, which means ‘try it on’. Normally, shops that sold new items of clothing are reluctant to permit potential buyers to try them on; second-hand clothes traders actually encouraged their customers to try them on, while they continued haggling on the price. Another term that is used in describing second-hand clothing is ‘bend-down boutique’. Many of the traders in the market had the pieces of clothing on a huge pile through which one could rummage, looking for a piece of clothing that might catch ones attention. Once an item is picked up the haggling process starts. (The Zambians call them Salaula, the Bemba term that means ‘to rummage through a pile’ – Karen Tranberg Hansen

In some cases, one does not need to bend down to check them out because some traders ‘add value’ to the items they sell by taking time to launder them, starch them, iron them and display them on hangers at their stalls. The prices of those are higher, but they are also easier to inspect so the potential buyer does not have to take the time to rummage through a pile on the ground.

Big boys
In university I realised that many of the campus ‘big boys’ got their Tommy Hilfiger, Ralph Lauren, Versace etc. attires from some students who would go to the used clothing market to make special selections. The student-traders would pay a certain amount of money for the privilege of being the ones who make the first pick from freshly opened bales. (The clothes are packed in bales of about 55kg for exportation in the source countries). They would then take the clothes home to wash in order to get rid of some of the distinctive second-hand clothing smell, before they are sold to the ‘big boys’. Most of those who consume the higher-end products know that the items are ‘okrika’, but a popular way they justified using them was by saying that most of the new brand-names that are available in the market are in fact fake. They would fall apart after just a few washes. But one could be sure that the okrika brand-names are in fact the real deal because one was sure that they were ‘imported’ from Europe. That is actually a reason many people give for buying second-hand clothing. They are the authentic ones, not the China-made that are of much lower quality, and that are sometimes even cheaper than the second-hand ones.

All this happen in a country that bans the importation of second-hand clothing. Most people have no idea that second-hand clothing is actually not allowed into Nigeria. One of the main things I am trying to do in my dissertation is to show how second-hand clothes get to Nigeria from the source countries in Europe and North America.

Anthropology in Nigeria

I just found this pdf document of a slide presentation by Ifeanyi Onyeonoru, a Nigerian senior lecturer at my old university in Ibadan. Although he is a sociologist, the presentation pretty much captures the state of anthropology in Nigeria.