In Conversation with Dr Senayon Olaoluwa – Acting Director of Institute of African Studies, University of Ibadan.

On Friday, August 14th, 2020, ResearchRound’s Ajibola Adigun and Ololade Faniyi were in conversation with Dr. Senayon Olaoluwa, Acting Director of the Institute of African Studies, University of Ibadan. Dr Senayon Olaoluwa is a Senior Research Fellow and Coordinator of a postgraduate programme in Diaspora and Transnational Studies at the Institute of African Studies in the University of Ibadan, Nigeria. His research interests illustrate the intersection of literary, cultural and migration studies.

ResearchRound: From sleeping in the cold in Johannesburg at the University of the Witwatersrand as a doctoral student to heading a foremost research center in Africa, what has been your animating motivation?

Dr Senayon: Well, thank you very much. The narrative about my PhD adventure, let me use that word, in South Africa, could be described as some kind of the final stage of my struggle towards becoming, let me put it that way, in the research world. Because yeah, you know, I had trained previously at the then Ogun State University,  where I read English. Then I found myself there after NYSC, in Delta state, literally on the streets where we had to do all manner of stuff not quite in tune with our expectations as university graduates, you know like having to teach home lessons and tutor little children on  A for Apple; roll on the floor literally with them, and sing Mary had a little lamb and all that. Not satisfied after about two or three years, I had to return to the west to train for a master’s in the University of Ibadan, but there again I read English specializing in literature. I went back, you know, to the streets in Warri, let me put it that way, after a spell in Ijebu Igbo at a private school, Achievers, and a few months at the famous Molusi College as a PTA teacher. So I went back to Warri and had to continue that way. But in all this, what kept me going, like your question, was what I suspected was some sort of aptitude for academic excellence. 

There is still nothing excellent about my scholarship, but I guess I can keep on trying until I get, you know, to a certain summit that I will find them satisfying. And so that was exactly what motivated me into plunging headlong into the idea of doing a PhD in South Africa, although the beginning was challenging. And so I went to the university, still on your question, for my first degree having no idea what I actually was in the university to do, because in any case, initially, I never knew after my school certificate in 1988, that my result was good enough to go to the university. So I kept on trying polytechnics and colleges of education because even when I was an art student,  I wasn’t sure that without a good grade in mathematics, I could go to university. So I kept on avoiding applying to a university until my cousin, Dr Jendele Hungbo who is now an associate professor at Bowen University; he visited home one day and said, boy, give me a breakdown of your results. He just found me on the farm. And he said in that case you can do English Arts (English BA), I mean, like an English major. And so I went to university. The first attraction for me in the university, at the then Ogun State University, was creativity. I mean, we had this Department of English that had this inclination towards literature. I mean, in every department of English, you have this dichotomy, language, literature. Language was like, kind of too mathematical for me, because of, you know, courses like syntax and phonology and it was like my mathematics was haunting me. 

Literature came easy with me. And that was it. Initially, it was creativity, composing some poems and all that and all that. And I thought maybe I’ll be a writer, but you know, I, I lost that first love, creativity and discovered something after the first degree, which was research. That aptitude became clearer when I did my extended essay in the final year. And I think all my professors were impressed, so I began to look towards research and to have a Master’s. You know, it was difficult, but I was at the University of the Witwatersrand, where I also excelled. I discovered that by the time I got to the University of Witwatersrand, I had no publications at all. Then I did my PhD somehow, in less than three years. How that happened, I look back these days, and I cannot even explain it. It was like one news item that went around the entire university. Because on average, people will spend 4-5-6 years, but I did mine in less than three years. And within the short period, I had 12 international publications to my credit, and I was like, oh, really, so this is doable. And so, ever since I have tried in my own little way to, you know, push the boundaries. So I returned to Nigeria in 2008, late 2008. I left in late 2005. And by late 2008, I was back in Nigeria. I mean exactly three years. I left in November 2005, got registered on 2nd January 2006, and by 2nd October 2008, I had already submitted my thesis. And by November I was back in Nigeria. And by February the following year, 2009, I had a job with Osun State University. And then I was there until rising to the level of senior lecturer. By 2013, I joined the University of Ibadan as the pioneer Head of Diaspora and Transnational Studies program. It was a new program at the University approved for takeoff, a postgraduate program where we will teach Masters and PhD students and then work. Based on my research profile, the University found me appointment-able, and the rest is history. And between that time and now we have done the little we can, and at some point, responsibility beckoned, and who am I to say no. And so here I am Acting Director, Institute of African Studies.

ResearchRound: You have researched diaspora and transnational studies – on borders and migration. How did these themes evolve from a popular song of Ajala the traveler?

Dr Senayon: Sometimes in 2014, I was away at the University of Cape Town for a fellowship- a three-month fellowship called the All Africa House fellowship. And while utilizing that fellowship, the late Pius Adesanmi, during one of his online posts called the world’s attention to the fact that Ajala did not just live that legendary life that we all came to know through the agency of Chief Ebenezer Obey’s celebration of his acts. Or if you like, escapades, around the New World, but that he also took time to do an autobiography- A Memoir of the journeys, that somehow people hardly talked about that. They were more interested in what Obey said about Ajala. 

And then he said, in his university in Canada, before he got to know it, he also had the same impression. Later he attended a function where he met some ladies who introduced themselves as actual biological children of Ajala – of the Ajala travel fame. And the daughter said her dad wrote a memoir, titled, An African Abroad.  He was like, like seriously, back in the 60s? He said he just went to his library, his university library, I think that’s scouting, and was pleasantly surprised to find the material there on the shelf. Well, I trained at the University of Witwatersrand, which is one of the top 200-500, depending on the paradigms, universities in the world. So I was like if Carleton in Canada could have that book, I think my alma mater, Witwatersrand should have it. 

So I called a fellow Nigerian who was still doing his PhD there. Hey, go into the university library. Okay. Even before I did that, I just went to the online catalog of my university. And I found it there. So I called somebody who was still training there, a Nigerian; could you go into this particular library and pick this book for me? I need a photocopy of it. These are the details. I picked it up, and I was like, this is incredible. Now, at our program, Diaspora and Transnational studies, our determination when we started, which is still our determination now, was to do something, you know, innovative, something you’ll say is out of this world. 

So to my reading list, I added that when I returned from South Africa. And to my students, here is another dimension to how we may study the African border crossing, taking it in a way that goes back to the 50s and 60s. And so that was it. Another student of mine even went ahead and did his project on it. The difference between what he did and what I did was that, in his own case, he had to combine empirical methodology whereby he had to interview Obey and so many other people. In my own case, because of my background in literature. What I did was to read it, do what we call close reading in literature. So I read it, I saw it as a literary text, and then made sense of it and to crown it all, I ensured that my approach to it was multidisciplinary. Whereby, I mean, you find a lot of everything in it. A little of sociology, geography, and anthropology. To the extent that it was to a multidisciplinary journal, Journal of Borderland Studies that I submitted it, and it’s like, oh, this is a research material geography, but no, I had done it from a multidisciplinary perspective that was primarily informed by my background in literature.

Dr Senayon Olaoluwa

ResearchRound: Who among your peers/seniors in Africa and around the world has had the most impact on your research and why?

Dr Senayon: That’s a question that can take us till tomorrow. Because every researcher is a product of if you like, so many or several intellectual parents. For me, in talking about how people have impacted my research, I don’t like beginning with my university professors. I like beginning with some of my teachers in elementary school in primary school. My elementary school was in a village called Obakobe. We had some of the finest teachers. They were actually two teachers who laid an excellent foundation for me. One was the headmaster who taught us in primary one. His teaching for me was also a performance. So, sometimes we did not want to go to school, but each time we remembered this performance, we wanted to go to school. For instance, he taught us, and that’s another thing about border crossing for me now. He taught us the English numerals as though we were traveling.

For instance, when we got to 25, ẹ́ẹdọ́gbọ̀n, he then told us that 25 had something to do with ọgbọ̀n (30). Everybody was excited, and then we moved on to 26, ẹẹ́rìndínlọgbọ̀n, 27,ẹẹ́tàdínlọgbọ̀n, 28, eéjìdínlọgbọ̀n, then we got to 29 – oókàndínlọgbọ̀n. And then he paused. That if 29 meant oókàndínlọgbọ̀n, okù kan ká dé ọgbọ̀n. And then everyone said, let’s go to 30. Then he said, the journey to 30 will commence tomorrow. So everybody wanted to return to school. We were excited to say, guys, everyone has to return to school tomorrow. So he created this image and imagination of thirty as a new space as a border, you know, as a location we need to arrive at only if we cross a border. 

You know, school was incredibly interesting. In primary one, our headmaster was Mr P. O. Oniyitan And then in primary six, we had Mr O. A. Fagbenro, who was another incredible teacher who laid all the foundations of basic grammar for us and by the time we were in high school we were good. In high school, there were several good ones, but one stood out, Mr Biodun, my English language teacher. I would have completed my school exam with an ordinary pass in English. But he became my special teacher who marked private essays for me for nothing. And so by the time we were done, I was the only one in my set who made a distinction in English. And that nailed it for me. When later, my cousin suggested in English, I was not afraid to do it. Then we got to the then Ogun State University, and we had incredible teachers, incredible professors. And again one stood out for me, Professor Oyeniyi Okunoye who is now a professor at the Obafemi Awolowo University, Professor of English Studies. Every step of the way, he was like this angel sent me. He encouraged me, you know, with the aptitude, you should stay in academia. And then he monitored everything. I wanted to do my masters’ somewhere in another university. He was passionate about me and invited me to come to do my masters at the University of Ibadan – the premier university. 

 And so I did. When I was still doing my masters in Ibadan, he gave me a head start that by the time my mates were still struggling with how to get approval for their Master’s research, I was done with it before my final exams started. It was normal to complete your research after the exams, but I was already done.  I subsequently got access to do my PhD in South Africa. Then there was a professor of English in Ibadan, Professor Remi Raji, who took time to pay me a visit from Nigeria, in South Africa, while I was on my PhD. And then, there are world scholars whose work I have interacted with it. Their scholarship has had a wonderful impact on me. 

ResearchRound: So if you were to compare research with a sport, what sport would it be?

Dr Senayon: Ah, you know, I wasn’t great at any sporting activity. I was like a clown. However, I enjoyed soccer, but mostly from the spectator’s angle. As much as I was enthusiastic about it – we played a lot of soccer when I was in elementary school; I was never an outstanding player.

I still have an understanding of soccer, and if it were not for scholarship, it probably would have been soccer. We used to go, as little high school boys from the village, to the town, just to watch a match. He was better and eventually maybe to go team later. 

ResearchRound: What is the most interesting paper you have read in your field, and why is this paper meaningful to you?

Dr Senayon: Oh my goodness. Well, maybe not quite a paper. One of the most recent works, let me say monographs, I have read Kwame Anthony Appiah’s work on cosmopolitanism ethics. Ethics in the world of strangers. I am extremely fascinated by the drift and breadth of his argument about the whole idea of being at home everywhere in the world, which of course, you know, keys into my own specialization in diaspora and transnational studies. How do you stay at home? How do you feel at home everywhere in the world? What are the dynamics, what are the complexities and I find that particularly amazing and there is a way that then links up with so many other things like Taiye Selasie’s Bye bye Baba, which is today generally acknowledged as a decisive moment and turn in our understanding of African cosmopolitanism, these days it’s called Afropolitanism. You know, Africans that are multi-local, multi-local in that sense of you, you can no longer define them by a single space. These are Africans if you like, of the world because they’re as grounded in their African background as they are in the understanding of, if you want, the Atlantic culture in the Northern Hemisphere or the way they’re at home with cultural practices of Asians and at some point you begin to ask yourself, like seriously where am I from, you know, that kind of stuff. So, I am generally fascinated about narratives of migration, especially the dynamics and complexities associated with the shifting paradigms of what we used to think was stable, that is the idea of the home the homeland. You want to ask yourself, so where is home? At that point, you discover that the question turns into where do you come from? Where are you from? And because there is a little of everywhere in you.

For example, I am an Ogu man. I also have a Yoruba surname even though I am not a Yoruba. And then, I have lived once for more than a decade in the Niger Delta, precisely Delta State, Warri. And so every time something happens, you find certain reactions that betray the Warri in me. And it’s like, hey that guy na Warri. At other times, somethings happen, and people say hey, your people in South Africa, and it’s like I’m a Zulu man from South Africa, because of the years I have put in there, and things keep on changing at other times, I feel like an Ibadan man. You discover that we now have a rather complicated notion of home, a rather complicated notion of where we come from, a rather complete notion of who we really are, you know, and so forth. Thank you. So what

ResearchRound: What are the big issues in your research area?

Dr Senayon: The moment we talk about diaspora, people tend to think that it is only when you are outside the continent of Africa, that you’re in the diaspora. But it goes beyond that. First, we need to note that the otherwise closed notion of diaspora has been liberalized, has been opened up, you know, diaspora used to be deployed in the description of certain specific identities, like the Jewish identity, like the Armenian identity. It was used in such a restricted form. But since the interventions of names like William Safran, you know – others, like Robin Cohen, you discover that the field of diaspora studies has been opened up to accommodate not only intimate experiences of diaspora but what I’ll call the accommodation of postmodern, these understandings of diaspora, whereby you begin to talk about the metaphoric, symbolic dimensions to the understanding of diaspora studies. So as I was saying, about being outside the continent, there are so many other forms, so many other notions, so many other suggestions from the diaspora to which we must learn to come to terms with. So, we are talking about the African diaspora, as distinct from, you know the classical notion of diaspora. 

And then it also begins in following with noting that unlike in the past in the classical understanding of diaspora, where you are talking mostly about a melancholic experience of dispersal, you know, something that is more, that is essentially violent, leaving home against your wish, and, you know, with a force that makes you look back and feel very, very sad because of the things you have left behind. We have now moved beyond that to begin to look at diaspora from a celebratory dimension, and that is when you are not only talking about dispersal, as in the Jewish case, where people say, By the river of Babylon. You know that verse of the Bible is classical in the understanding of diaspora. They wept and blah, blah, blah. When we remember, it is wholly melancholic. That is the classical understanding. But the moment you begin to consider the diaspora from the perspective of a theorist like Suzanne Suleyman, who tells you that diaspora is suggestive of not being at home. Then you discover that not being at home is not necessarily about tragedy. So the celebratory dimension to it, for instance, is what you find in the understanding of afropolitanism, where you’re not at home, and you feel so cool about it. So right now I am trying to open up further the knowledge of diaspora to accommodate what I call the diaspora of every day, but not to worry. When it is out, everybody will see it. 

ResearchRound: Okay, what is something everybody thinks is true but not accurate in your field?

Dr Senayon: Okay, that’s that’s a very technical question. And I’m happy you’re asking this. It is one of the issues my students are confronted with in the inaugural master’s class because there is that general understanding of diaspora as just talking about those people who are not at home, who are in other countries, in other continents and all. 

But in the field of diaspora studies, where we get technical, much as that general understanding is true, we draw a line between diaspora and transnationalism. In this case, when for instance, we talk about the Nigerian diaspora. From the perspective of distinguishing between diaspora and transnationalism, you discover that only a few people can be regarded as belonging to the Nigerian diaspora because in literature conceptually, diaspora is something that has to do with-  it privileges the passage of time. 

So you don’t leave Nigeria, five years ago and begin to tell people in the diaspora on a good day. Because to say you are of the Nigerian diaspora, we should be talking about your granddad or your great-granddad, who left 60, 70 – 80 years ago and can still find a way of linking you up. And so, you are like the third or fourth generation. It is by the time we establish a case of the intergenerational passage of time that will begin to establish, you know, a case of diaspora but that is within the understanding of specialists. Okay. 

Generally, we just say people are in the diaspora, but most of those people are actually transnationals you know, because the moment somebody, for instance, is away in the US; somebody who left ten years ago, and you discover that every time his community needs to appoint a chief or the king, they’ll still say please less consult him. Let’s consult Mr Babajide, who is in California. He has a say in this matter in our village. He’s not quite in the diaspora. He’s actually living a transnational life whereby he straddles you know, two or more nations. 

So every time there is an election, he’s going to call from the USA, and say, ensure that it is a PDP candidate or a revolutionary candidate that is the next chairman of a local government. He has a say. And that same person is like oh, my God, we are going to ensure that Trump does not have a second term. So you discover that he is sharing spaces, two or more spaces at the same time, his strategies to have more spaces at the same time, his citizenship may even be split concurrently. Are you there, and he’s a transnational. So transnationalism is about the time now, while diaspora technically is about the time past and that’s why to make it clear these days, we’ve talked about the historic African diaspora, for instance, those who were dispersed to the Americas and other parts of the world during the Atlantic slave trade. Thank you.

ResearchRound: What is your proudest moment as a researcher?

Dr Senayon: Well, my proudest moment as a researcher. That happened, I guess, sometime in 2015 or 2014. I had attended a conference at Oldenburg, Oldenburg in Germany, and it turned out to be my first keynotes that I gave at an international conference. But what was exciting for me, excuse me, wasn’t that I was giving the keynote. But the circumstances of the delivery.

Germans have a different way of understanding keynotes. So we were three on that panel to give our keynote addresses. And it was towards the end of the day; everybody was tired.  We were three. Two were white scholars, and I was the only black scholar. The first two had their turn before mine. By the time, it was my turn, and illumination was for some curious reason poor within the hall. Two, everybody was tired. So (they) were already dozing off before it was my turn. People were just waiting to go back to their hotel rooms. And so, it was my turn. And it was like, hey, just say what you want to say and go. Well, as a keynote, I thought I could only read as in most cases, keynotes are read. But like I said, the illumination was terrible. I hadn’t begun to use my glasses then. And so I managed to read the first page, and it was so problematic. So I gave up, just placed my paper on the lectern, and then spoke to what I had. And within the next two, three minutes, everybody was awake. And my argument was about; you know when the ecological turn was? In ecological studies, which is my second major area, you may have found out especially with a recent publication in Oxford University, in a journal published by Oxford University Press, and for which reason a few months later, that publication was rated among the top 10. The top 10, you know, globally in the past four years. So, you know, the turn of the 21st century was like in the estimation of the west, regarded as the ecological turn, but I argued that no, for Africa, in particular, because the conference was on the migration of knowledge, our understanding of ecology started a long time ago. And when I said a long time ago, it began as far back as the history of writing in ancient Egypt, which was about 1500 BC. And I provided evidence, and you know, the whole hall was alight, and everyone was like, wow, this research is redefining. And then when it was time for Q&A, I was the only one everybody wanted to engage. And by the time the session was over, you know, there was this super commendation from the organizers of the conference. And when things like that happen, my reaction can be very, very ironic. I will become so depressed. I became so depressed. I was like what is going on here? A professor walked up to me and said, you know what? You have to be with us. I’m going back to the US, and I want a response from you. You must come and share this perspective with us. And I was like, wow. Well, for me, it was incredible. I can never forget.

Dr Senayon Olaoluwa

ResearchRound: Thank you very much for sharing it with us. What would you like to change in the research process in Africa? 

Research is not funded; research is not Nigeria. Nigeria academia suffers a lot from underfunding. And if there is a need to change anything, we need to come to that level where we can mobilize and sustain endowments. You know, universities in Europe, America, survive on endowments, you know, endowments by their nature are not meant to be spent. You spent only their interests, and that’s how Harvard, Yale and others are sustained. Recently, I was reading about the endowment worth of Yale University, over 40 billion US dollars that is already far greater than our so-called external reserves, our so-called excess reserve in Nigeria, so just one university in the US is richer than an entire country. We need to do more about the funding, and that’s when our knowledge production can matter. Research is about budgets. If you cannot control the budget of your study, the chances are that you only continue to pander to the tune of those who fund your research. So I will say, again, funding on the African continent. Thank you.

ResearchRound: I noted your words on the notion of home as no longer fixed but as shifting. That brings me to a current happening, the film Black is King by Beyonce, in which she brought in a whole lot of African artists. They have been conversations globally about where do we draw the line between African Americans, people who are descendants of slavery and the African diaspora. So with shifting narratives of home and identity, where do we draw the line between appreciation and appropriation of African culture?

Dr Senayon: That’s a huge question. And, you know, the instability, if you like, or mobility of home itself, speaks or resonates with the instability of identity. You know, there is something perpetually mutational about identity. Like an African American researcher, Van Sertima said some time ago, about 55,000 years ago, we did not even have the white race. So, you know, and that says something about evolution, and how identities keep on mutating into newer forms. And that goes on and on and on. All kinds recently migrated to the US and African Americans. And we all know how it works. That dichotomy tends to produce various responses when some African Americans see you. They say, wow, this is my African brother. This is my African sister. But others are like, well, this is a descendant, or these are descendants of those who betrayed our forebears and sold them into slavery, you know. But again, when the chips are down, we can ultimately draw a kind of or achieve a kind of fusion of these identities which we see in most cases these days especially as it’s a trend like Black Lives Matter. Because at the end of the day, there is no difference in your physiology or your skin pigmentation, and that of an African American, once you are designated black, you’re black. We need to come to a level where we have to close that gap, which is part of why it is exciting to know the African Union in 2003 declared the African diaspora, Africa’s sixth region, whereby there is no difference between those who moved out of the continent recently or those who left several hundreds of years ago.

ResearchRound: So you believe in the notion of international blackness where we share an ethnic heritage, the joy and the pain. 

Dr Senayon: Absolutely, we need that level of understanding. We need to sustain that pan Africanist consciousness to move on because the foundation has been laid already. We need to sustain it if we must attain, you know, development for the black race. Do not forget that what is actually going on, in terms of the relations between white and black, broadly conceived, is that of, you know, what I call Late Arrival Superior Aggression. I mean, that is a theory I’m pushing at the moment, LASA. When you go back to classical African history, and for me, that’s actually the real classical world history. Do not forget that history began with writing. History began with writing in the world. And writing began in ancient Egypt. So history began with us, civilization began with us, you know, technology began with us, and we have evidence all over the place. But, you know, ultimately, Africa is the black race, especially because the ancient Egyptian civilization was black civilization. But that speaks to what I call the vicious circle between early and the late.

ResearchRound: We thank you for honoring our invitation to interview. Thank you very much.

In Conversation with Dr Senayon Olaoluwa – Acting Director of Institute of African Studies, University of Ibadan.

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