If you talk to a researcher about their PhD, I have found that there comes a moment when they reveal the ‘hidden’ thesis, the one they didn’t quite write.
In history, this is sometimes prevented by archival destruction (recent or ancient), an absence of oral memory in the field envisaged, or even in the development of the individual away from what they thought they were interested in. I have been tempted to keep a list of these, rather like the movie ‘blacklist‘ which supposedly lists the best screenplays that have yet to be filmed. A recent discovery thanks to teaching a course on gender in Africa has been the work of Ralph Gaudio. Given my own education research, I was gutted to find that his original research goal was to look at the education of Islamic scholars but (as he summarised to a Nigerian friend) “their talk is not interesting”.
One strand of my PhD which fell at far more prosaic hurdles, was to collect biographies (ideally autobiographies) of women who had attended Queen’s College. An elite college in Lagos, Nigeria. Try as I might, in bookshops in Ibadan and beyond, I failed to find biographies that directly met my criteria. However, I found other biographies of men and women who attended other schools (and none), and began rethinking my goals for these sources. Since that research trip I have continued to search for more of these books, and speak to others about their encounters with these private-public texts. Often privately funded and produced, in relatively small print runs, they appear and disappear from the stands rapidly. Fascinating evidence of these texts through past decades exists on shelves of Africana libraries, and I have begun the process of visiting these libraries to look at their holdings.
In the process of these readings and rereadings, whereas I started interested in the specific accounts of men and women as they entered individual schools, their memories of specifics from the perspective of a schoolchild, completely absent from the official record and of those who organised and taught at these schools. I was intrigued particularly by stories of who else was remembered as being in the classroom too, but also the school day, buildings, classes. This has long since widened to consider some of the really powerful questions around colonial childhood that Jack Lord‘s work raises (particularly challenging for me: how significant is colonial school really, when so many children were working?). Some of these questions are being powerfully engaged with through the work of Terri Ochiagha, writing on a group of children who would become famous writers, at a government funded school in Nigeria.
However, alongside these questions I have become more and more interested in how these texts function in a rapidly changing digital market, and intrigued as to the extent to which they are ‘Nigerian’ or ‘West African’ experiences. As a historian I’m also still intrigued by the connections that these ‘new’ texts make with the past. So how do these texts form part of a tradition of writing that can be traced back to Lagosian newspapers serialisation of the lives of ‘great men’, a century ago? Or as Folasade Hunsu has suggested, should researchers look for indigenous structures to analyse autobiographical writings (and how does this call relate to the life stories of those who have lived in increasingly globalised spaces for much of their lives?)
This old-new project is clearly a work in progress: I’m keen to hear from any readers who may have copies of autobiographies published in Nigeria, or comments and experiences of the publishing process, either in the comments section below or via Twitter or email.