In August 1986, I was a postgraduate student at the History department, University of Ife (now Obafemi Awolowo University). The department organised an international colloquium to mark the centenary of the end of the Ekiti Parapo Wars which raged for almost 70 years and ended in 1886. I found all the sessions very interesting, but the highlight for me was a lively exchange that took place one afternoon during a panel on historical narratives through the lenses of popular culture. Professor Akinwunmi Isola (of blessed memory) the famous playwright and scholar was taken on by two female colleagues, Professor Bolanle Awe and Professor Omotayo Olutoye.
The two female scholars challenged Professor Isola to explain why he had distorted the narrative of Efunsetan Aniwura, his famous play which became the basis for many theatrical and film productions of the same name, and which was also a prescribed school text. Until that session, I had no idea that the description of Efunsetan as immortalised by Professor Ishola, was a fictitious one. Professor Isola’s Efunsetan was a wicked, barren, and power-hungry witch who killed her pregnant female slaves and challenged the authority of the ruling monarch. Professor Isola’s version ends with Efunsetan being overpowered by King Latosa of Ibadan. The two female scholars pointed out that the true story of Efunsetan, as told in Samuel Johnson’s History of the Yorubas, paints the picture of a hardworking, resourceful, self-made woman, who was originally from Abeokuta, but in recognition of her industry and philanthropy, was made the Iyalode of Ibadan. She did own many slaves, but her real offence was that she resisted the persistent demands of King Latosa to have his war machinery serviced in perpetuity, to the detriment of commercial interests of the merchant class. It was this resistance that caused her assassination at the hands of killers hired by no other than King Latosa himself.
Professor Isola’s response to the two scholars was that he did not set out to write a historical drama but a play simply for entertainment. Those familiar with Yoruba popular culture know that the fictional character of Efunsetan Aniwura created by Professor Isola, is synonymous with evil and hubris. This is an unfair legacy for a woman who, from reliable historical accounts, ought to have gone down in history as a role model.
Witnessing this exchange had a tremendous impact on me as a young female post-graduate student and I took away lessons I never forgot. First of all, I discovered that it was possible to challenge the construction of knowledge and established narratives. I also learnt that the stories that get told and remembered are those narrated by the ones with power – the power to write, speak and publish. My young mind was also delighted to see evidence that women could be as knowledgeable (or even more knowledgeable) as men. In November 1987, I attended the first international conference of the Women’s Research and Documentation Center (WORDOC) at University of Ibadan. Professor Bolanle Awe was one of the founders of WORDOC, and it was an amazing gathering of iconic Nigerian female scholars. It was my first women’s conference and it inspired a life-long commitment to an engagement with feminist scholarship and activism.
Even though I did not get to see Professor Awe often over the years, she was always in my heart because of the impact she had on me at an early age. We met occasionally at local and international conferences and it was always a delight to be in her quiet but majestic prescence. I was very touched when she agreed to attend and Chair the birthday lecture and book launch at my 50th birthday in Ado-Ekiti in 2013. The day before the lecture, I had an interactive session with approximately 80 young women from tertiary institutions in Ekiti State. When the MC was introducing me, she asked the group how many of them had googled me before attending the event. Only about five of them had done so. Many of us found it strange that a room full of students were not curious enough to find out about the person they were there to engage with.
At the birthday lecture the following day, Professor Bolanle Awe told the audience that she had googled the speaker, Leymah Gbowe, the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize laureate because she wanted to learn more about her. That was awesome. Here was an eighty-year-old elder who did not say no to an invitation from one of her daughters and who showed what it means to be a seeker and teacher of knowledge. What would our world look like without curiosity? Where would we be without creative and critical thinking? What would it be like if we all closed our minds and refused to learn or unlearn? What would our world be without an understanding of the narratives that make us who we are and give us the tools to transform our communities? It would be a very sad world indeed, and this accounts for where we find ourselves today.
For quite some time now, the humanities have been under attack with the excuse that humanities and the liberal arts do not lead to jobs and productive careers for young people. This is what informed the stalling of the teaching of History in Nigerian schools, something that many of us found very shameful. A society that does not know its history will find it difficult to understand its present and navigate the future. The presence and contributions of exemplars such as Professor Bolanle Awe has shown us how important this field is and how much we need to invest in ensuring that the legacies of knowledge in this discipline and related ones continue to endure.
Professor Bolanle Awe is a legend. She is the best of the best. She was the first woman on the academic staff of a Nigerian University and the first female Professor of History. She is an acclaimed scholar, author, teacher, development specialist, administrator, leader and mentor. The list of her achievements is endless, and she has a solid legacy of excellence as evidenced in everything she has been involved in throughout her illustrious career. When Yoruba people use the word ‘Omoluabi’, its loose translation is meant to be ‘A person of honour and character’, yet we are socialized into believing that the translation means ‘A perfect gentleman’, because the word is most often used in describing men who meet the criteria. Professor Bolanle Awe is the quintessential ‘Omoluabi’ whose name, character and conduct has been nothing less than extraordinary.
On February 13th and 14th 2023, there is going to be a conference at the University of Ibadan to celebrate the life and work of Professor Bolanle Awe, as part of activities to mark her 90th birthday. The conference is a partnership between the University of Texas at Austin (led by my wonderful teacher and mentor, Professor Toyin Falola) University of Lagos (led by Professor Olufunke Adeboye) and University of Ibadan (led by Professor Rashidi Olaniyi and Dr Sharon Omotosho). The two-day conference is an opportunity to reflect on the extremely rich contributions of Professor Bolanle Awe to a multiplicity of fields ranging from History to Feminist Activism, Gender Studies, Development, Public Policy, Governance and other areas. It is also exciting to note that it will provide space for a new generation of scholars and activists to celebrate the powerful legacy of such an icon while she is still with us.
Thank you so much Professor Bolanle Awe for being such a powerful influence. Thank you for what you have done for many generations and for the inspiration you have provided. I count myself lucky and proud to have been one of the many lives you have touched. Happy Birthday Professor. May you continue to enjoy good health and peace of mind.
Bisi Adeleye-Fayemi is a Gender Specialist, Social Entrepreneur and Writer. She is the Founder of Abovewhispers.com, an online community for women. She can be reached at BAF@abovewhispers.com