It was Laura Linney who described history as “a resource”, but many times, we gloss over history as some unplugged cousin that we have been forced to babysit, whereas we should be mining it for information. Sitting through a Zoom lecture, I just had an epiphany that hit me hard enough to get my laptop and start tapping in rhythm to the fresh insight coasting through my neurones.
In 2020, while the world groaned about the ravaging COVID-19 pandemic, I began following a podcast for an upcoming book titled Formation: The Making of Nigeria from Jihad to Amalgamation. The book’s co-authors and podcasters asserted that knowing history is key to understanding the present in order to chart a path forward. When the book was released, I bought a copy, which I must confess I am yet to read (apologies to Feyi and Fola). However, the knowledge gained from the podcasts remains with me.
Sometime in January this year, a friend forwarded a message to a group about an upcoming 10-week course by the Wheeler Institute for Business and Development at the London Business School titled African History through the Lens of Economics. I signed up for the free course, and it has provided the flesh of this article.
“If you cannot speak the language, they can sell you” [paraphrased]
On this palindromic and ambigramic day, the lecturer had just finished his presentation via Zoom. His lecture was about the slave trade, beginning with Portuguese merchants until transatlantic slave trade became the crypto of that era. As usual, another researcher took over to moderate the Q&A segment. But first, she introduced herself as a Nigerian and told a short story about her experience growing up in Nigeria. The lecturer had mentioned lack of trust as one of the outcomes of the slave trade, and as the moderator articulated the paraphrased quote above, it suddenly hit me that all the times my older relatives had scolded me for excessively relying on English for communications, they were espousing a fear passed down across generations from the slave trade era. They wanted me to master our local language, so no one would “sell” me.
I can bet that many Nigerians have heard that quote in one form or the other, or at least, in one of the Pidgin English versions: “dem fit sell you”. We commonly use this when people in our midst start speaking in their native language and we feel a level of insecurity about not knowing the content or target of their communication. Interestingly, over a century after conventional slavery was ended, our interactions are still tainted by fears flowing from a time when people were deceived by compatriots or forcefully taken by enemies and sold into slavery. Without being aware, history is controlling us like puppets or like a combat drone being piloted from thousands of miles away.
How many of us instinctively do not like persons from a certain tribe? Has anyone from that tribe caused us harm? Or, we are acting in response to some historical event that may have been cascaded to us through social conditioning? I have a friend who said no one in their family is allowed to marry any person from a certain tribe because an uncle married a lady from there and died after having a troubled marriage. Assuming they could maintain the embargo for two generations to come, we could arrive at a future time when people from that family would see that tribe as a taboo and act accordingly without knowing what led to the embargo.
I fully agree with Feyi and Fola that history needs to be known to help us better navigate the present with a good understanding of why things are the way they are. While a lot of Nigerian history has been lost thanks to lack of documentation, and some have been whitewashed or rewritten, we should exploit available opportunities to learn from the past. It would help with breaking the yoke of numerous implicit biases and lift unseen burdens placed on us by the history we do not know.
Image Credit: Mary Evans Picture Library