My reasons for starting to study African history were not very profound; I had no family ties to the continent, I had never been there, and I had never given it much serious thought before college. I started studying Swahili in my freshman year simply because I could, but my dilettantism gradually gave way to a genuine interest in East Africa. In my junior year, I studied abroad at the University of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania. There Swahili became something that I used rather than something that I studied, and ideas that up to that point had been abstractions took on real meaning. While I was in Tanzania, Nigeria kept coming up in conversations, often referred to with equal parts awe and fear. I came to realize that many of the themes that most interested me in African history – like citizenship, national belonging, and legal practice – had their most complex expressions in Nigeria. The following summer I went to Nigeria for the first time, where I found people who were preoccupied by the same questions that I was.
Since then, my academic work has been about Nigerian social and legal history. I received a Marshall Scholarship after college, which I used to complete masters degrees at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London and the University of Cambridge. During my time in the UK, I researched the history of the Nigerian police, the workings of customary courts during the colonial period, and the sexual politics of boxing in 1960s Lagos. I came back to Columbia to do my PhD for many reasons, but a main one was the strength of Columbia’s faculty in the African humanities. Columbia is an engaging, supportive, and convivial place to study Africa, and it is exciting to be part of a program that is growing. My academic home in Nigeria is the University of Ibadan, where there is a community of scholars and students that complements the one I have at Columbia. These days I am studying the history of Nigerian citizenship through the lens of the Biafra War (1967-1970), which forced Nigerians to think about the state and their places in it in new ways. Nigerian citizenship is a legal category with a complicated past – it draws on the legacy of British administrative practices, imperial definitions of nationality, debates within Nigerian courts, and the multiple crises that Nigeria faced in the first years of the Federal Republic. The war revealed how these different ideas and traditions had been sutured together to form political identities, and its aftermath precipitated a reassessment of what it meant to be Nigerian. I don’t know what direction my PhD will take, but these are the questions that will animate it.
Now as when I was an undergraduate, my interests are all over the place; Nigeria and Tanzania are separated by more than just geography, and I don’t try to reconcile my interest in boxing with my interest in law. In my experience, people at Columbia do not see this as a bad thing. The African studies program’s interdisciplinarity gives students a stereo view of the continent and encourages them to pursue their interests across fields. It speaks to and challenges ideas that Columbia students encounter elsewhere in their educations, while encouraging them to think about a particular place with a greater depth and using a wider range of analytical tools than they might otherwise.