Entretien avec Tunde Decker

Tunde Decker currently teaches at Osun State University, Osogbo, in Nigeria. He is interested in social history, particularly the history of the underclass and the social dynamics that impact their patterns of livelihood. As a result, he is interested in the paradigms of development that affect the life trajectories of underdogs at the micro and macro levels. This was a major focus of his Ph.D. thesis, A History of the Poor in Lagos, 1861-1960, as well as of his recent publication, Matrix of Inherited Identity: A Historical Exploration of the Underdog Phenomenon in Nigeria’s Relationship Strategies, 1960-2011. Professor Decker was scheduled to present at the Social Question and Citizenship conference in 2016, but was forced to cancel his trip due to circumstances beyond his control 

The title of Professor Decker’s presentation was “Yanmuyanmu Ehingbeti”: Teenage Perspectives of Colonialism in Lagos, 1940-1950. It proposed to examine the aspirations of minors at the crossroads of development in colonial Lagos by deconstructing the metaphoric connotations of the oríkìceremonial names that city youth would use for one another—as documented in their petitions for government aid between 1940 and 1950, copies of which can be found in the Nigerian National Archives. Professor Decker argues that the colonial establishment did not understand the dynamics of inclusion which the children had to bear alone. Benoit Marsan talked to him about his research.

Interview by Benoit Marsan

Benoit Marsan: What interests you in teenagers’ perspectives of colonialism in Nigeria in the 1940s and 1950s?

Tunde Decker: Although this period in Nigeria’s history witnessed expressions of nationalism amongst the growing elite, the mass populace conformed to the demands of new and increasingly varied forms of dispensation—some of which had been entrenched before formal colonialism, and some of which were increasingly gaining acceptance by the emerging elite. The social question transformed local society through new forms of political and economic realities introduced by colonialism and the need for colonial subjects to respond. Of course, social responses to colonial realities varied. However, that of teenagers is often neglected by “serious” historical literature.

BM: What was it like to be a teenager in Nigeria in that period?

TD: It must be stated from the beginning that the teenagers we are discussing were not children of members of the elite. Their realities differed from those of the poor. To be a poor teenager between 1940 and 1950 was to be engrossed in survival strategies; to be subjected to unemployment, hunger, and the fear of kidnapping; to be forced to hawk for a relative; to be sexually abused or even raped; to be homeless; to live as a sexual apprentice in a brothel; to pick pockets; to run away from home; to ostracize oneself from family members, etc. The decade 1940-1950 was in a continuum with the decades before and the decades after and reflected the greater tendencies of that whole period.

BM: How would you describe the relationship between colonial authorities and poor youth in those years? 

TD: Colonial authorities did make efforts to cater to the interests of youth. The Colonial Welfare Office was set up in 1941. Indeed, according to archival records, very interesting attempts were made to rehabilitate children, particularly girls, and some of them were successful. This has been confirmed in new and growing research on children. The youth viewed colonial authorities and the colonial government as the providers of succour. They believed that the authorities had money to give them, jobs to provide, networks within which to educate them, food to feed them, as well as the ability to take care of their parents. As a result, teenagers consistently communicated with the authorities through several petitions stating their plight and expressing their expectations of the colonial establishment.

Of course, the youths also had their own ways of unwritten expressions—they stole, they cried, they were hungry, they hawked during traffic, they wrote, they fought, they strayed from home. At times, colonial officials would attempt to repatriate children to the hinterlands where some of them came from. Many of those attempts proved unsuccessful even if they were fruitful from time to time.

BM: In your presentation, you propose to use the phenomenon of the oríkì to metaphorically describe the experiences of teenagers in colonial Lagos. Can you explain what oríkì are and how they help to shed light on the teenagers’ backgrounds? 

TD: Oríkì are more than just nicknames among the Yoruba of Western Nigeria. They are combinations of words that are fused into something new. The words cannot be separated once they have been woven together to communicate the identity and essence of an individual or a group of people. At the same time, oríkì give voice to Yoruba cosmology, mythology and philosophy. In many Yoruba communities, they communicate the relationship between individuals, communities and ancestors. They convey information about ancestry, royalty, virtue, vice, leisure, occupation, talent, history, genealogy, individuality, intergroup relations, etc.

The expression “Yanmuyanmu Ehingbeti”, applied to the poor youth of Lagos, literally referred to the mosquitoes that were typical of colonial Lagos and were notorious for spreading malaria in Lagos as far back as the nineteenth century. In the Yoruba language, Yanmuyanmu means “mosquito” while Ehingbeti means “behind the sea”. Today, as was the case during the colonial period, Ehingbeti referred to the Lagos Marina, where virtually all the skyscrapers of the megacity of Lagos are now concentrated. Before, this part of Lagos was a dump site where even the dead bodies of children could be found. My study uses the “Yanmuyanmu Ehingbeti” as a metaphor to reflect on the status of the children, given the “nuisance” they constituted for the colonial authorities and many members of the elite in colonial Lagos who viewed the activities of the children as anathema to the Victorian urban culture. The youth were a constant challenge to the standards of morality and decency that the colonial authorities and elites wanted to establish. They struggled to contain their “nauseating” disruptions of the “orderly” and fast-growing urbanisation. As such, like an oríkì, the expression “Yanmuyanmu Ehingbeti” tells the story of the poor youth of colonial Lagos.

BM: In your research on teenagers in Nigeria, you worked with written petitions. What can be revealed and understood through the studies of those archival documents?

TD: Among other things, the petitions revealed the survival strategies that the children had to use to respond to the socio-economic demands of the new urban culture. The documents also revealed that the children had expectations from the authorities. They considered that the society within which they lived ought to be responsible for the livelihood of the vulnerable. They reveal a group of minors who—though separated, uncoordinated and without a leader—had a collective identity. They were ambitious, willing to respect authorities, desirous of the good life, non-conformist in some instances, rebellious in others, and even outright disobedient. The documents reveal young people who were at times angry, sad, dejected, depressed, expectant. Interestingly, none of the documents I came across revealed joy or happiness on the part of the children. What can be understood is that every age group has a way of appraising society, and that the way poor youth at that time felt was not particularly positive.

BM: Did the independence of Nigeria in 1960 mark a breaking point regarding teenagers aspirations and claims from the State?

TD: The independence of Nigeria in 1960 further increased expectations from those who were adults and even more so from youth. Teenagers’ aspirations exploded. Parents informed their children that it was the turn of black men in Nigeria to rule the country and that the Queen of England would no longer have authority there. They made them believe that anyone could become the president, or be whatever they dreamt of being. The year 1960 was a turning-point in respect of the dreams and aspirations of teenagers. Although Nigeria’s independence was vague and abstract to the children, they believed their parents and considered that the future would be better than the dispensation presided over by the colonialists.

BM: Your Ph.D. thesis studies the poor in Lagos between 1860 and 1961. Could you say a few words about how poverty was experienced and treated in that specific colonial context, and how that changed in the post-colonial era?

TD: The colonial period which my Ph.D. thesis covered was a time of profound social transformation, reflecting what was going on in British society itself. During this period, Britain exported its challenges and social problems to Nigeria. Thus, Lagos was profoundly changed—in ways that were fundamentally different from the transformations it underwent during the pre-colonial period. Most notably, in the pre-colonial period, poverty was non-monetary. By this, I mean that people were poor in non-monetary terms. Of course, this is not to say that money was inexistent in pre-colonial Nigerian societies. But money was not the determinant of poverty, nor was it a measure of wealth or value. With the introduction and entrenchment of colonialism, poverty and social exclusion came to be determined in monetary terms. The colonial establishment introduced monetary wage labour, new currencies and new monetary exchanges. For example, the ancient cowries—shells used as money in pre-colonial Yorubaland—became outdated overnight and people became poor almost immediately, as the time allotted by the colonial establishment for people to exchange their cowries for new currency was too brief. Poverty also increasingly became a monetary phenomenon with the entrenchment of colonialism. As a result, a new form of poverty emerged and has remained ever since. This is post-monetary poverty, in which, beyond money, basic governance and infrastructure are lacking.