Celebrating Professor Bolanle Awe at 90: A pioneer and towering influence

‘For Prof. Bolanle Awe, life has been full of its challenges and resplendent with successes and bouts of joy. More importantly for her, life has been fulfilling, satisfying, and laced with legacies printed on the sands of time. It is indeed a historic time to be ushered into the exclusive club of the nonagenarians…’

WELCOME to the big feast in honor of Professor Bolanle Awe! We start on January 28 with a social celebration organized by family and friends. Next, Professor Dele Layiwola is presenting a festschrift in the months ahead. And the “queen” of all the events, a major collaborative partnership by the University of Texas at Austin, the University of Lagos, and the University of Ibadan, is the two-day conference on February 13 and 14 at the University of Ibadan on the theme “Oral Traditions and Written Histories.” Length of age is a blessing; she can now enjoy all the accolades.

Being, emerging, or coming first is a heavily romanticized concept among humans. As we are innately wired to be competitive and continually pursuant to goals, it is not surprising that “first” is one of society’s most desirable qualities or outcomes. We all have our personal stories about being on either side of the divide — being the first or not. For some, it was joy and celebration among family members. For others, it was the famous question of whether the one that had emerged first had two heads. And still, some were severely beaten for emerging first — 1, the least among other numbers, only superior to zero.

The concept of first has other sides that do not receive as much thought, attention, and discourse as humans wish to lead, emerge first, and stay ahead of others. However, like the head that wears the crown, uneasy is the first position. In a more generic context, to be first means to be spotlighted. And in being spotlighted, one draws attention to oneself, and every other person’s pursuit and mission is to best the first or leading competitor. Unlike others that have someone they could feel motivated to overtake, the person in the first position can only compete with themselves and seek to be better than their previous records.

In a more specific context, being a pioneer in one’s field is desirable and enjoyable. However, several expectations, struggles, and obstacles come with this same feat. On the one hand, to have been the first or a pioneer in your field means you had little to no material to work with; and there was hardly any guidance for you. There was no one in whose footsteps you could have followed, and while you could have had mentors, their mentorship would not have been fully specific and tailored to a field you’re pioneering.

In the same vein, a pioneer in their field would bear the burden of serving as the guide to the several others that come after them. Even when a field has successfully had other experts, the pioneer will continually be consulted and expected to actively contribute to the field and participate in research and discourses — and there also exists the unspoken but ever-present pressure to remain relevant in the field.

For Professor Awe, the concept of first or pioneer is not new; it has been with her throughout her sojourn in academia. Schooled at some of the best colleges and universities in the United Kingdom and the world, Professor Bolanle Awe’s academic quest started in 1960 as the first female lecturer at the Department of History, University of Ibadan. Incidentally, her appointment marked the milestone for the first female academic staff in a Nigerian university, sharing the space and era with Adetoun Ogunsheye, who became the first female professor in the library and information science field. In a male-dominated field in a male-populated university, the then-young Bolanle was committed to making her mark and charting the course for women who would come after her, and in 1976, sixteen years after her first academic appointment, she became a professor of history.

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Prof. Bolanle Awe

Professor Bolanle Awe was not only the first woman on the academic staff of a Nigerian university but also one of the pioneers of the comprehensive study of women’s history and feminist history; she equally emerged as Nigeria’s first female professor of history. These pioneering roles meant that the professor experienced every aspect of being the first. In her role, and being the first woman to be in such an academic role, she would have had little to no guidance to inform her perspectives that, in turn, shaped her into the intellectual colossus in history that she is today.

Personal experiences and the benefits of being a pioneer in the field would have formed the basis for what, although it could have been exerting, ended up being foundational to the study of Nigerian women’s history, oral history, feminism, and feminist history. 

Professor Awe has spent about sixty years of her fruitful and fulfilling life in commitment to studies, research, contributions to, and the advancement of, history and historical studies in Nigeria, with a special focus on Nigerian women’s history, feminist history, and oral history. Despite the foundational challenges of being the first to chart the course as a female historian, Prof. Awe made large strides and wrote her name alongside the pioneering greats. History and historians cannot forget her immense contributions to the study of pre-colonial Nigeria and Nigerian women across several pockets of historical timelines, many of whom had been maligned and marginalized, having little to no traced history and documentation of the exploits that they did. Prof. Awe’s scholarship saw her produce intellectual assets to enrich and support the academic community at a desirable rate.

In the 1970s, when women-focused historical research was still in its embryonic stage, and there were fundamental issues that needed to be addressed to better inform the research into and documentation of Nigerian women’s history, Prof. Awe was one of the leading voices that contributed actively in academic research, seminar participation, and engaging in the diplomatic and external work that was needed to get the right support for seminars, conferences, and comprehensive research and reports. For years, she served as an active member of the Women in Nigeria (WIN) association — Nigeria’s first cohesive feminist movement that directly influenced women-focused research.

In the 1980s, when a group of women banded to work assiduously toward the founding of the Women’s Research and Documentation Centre (WORDOC), domiciled at the University of Ibadan’s Institute of African Studies, Prof. Awe was, as you guessed, one of those women. The founding of this Center catalyzed the intensity of women and gender studies in Nigeria and the expansion of the scope of women’s history and studies that had existed before the establishment of the Center. The significance of the Center to women’s studies in Nigeria cannot be overemphasized, as it served as the pioneering means of fostering intercontinental exchanges, collaboration and research among Nigerian scholars and universities and foreign scholars and universities in North America, Europe, and Asia on women’s studies, gender, and women’s history.

Beyond the academic realm, the Center also built a robust relationship with the town — which it still actively builds on to date — and this relationship has positively affected the availability of research assets and resources, opening scholars’ eyes to existing concerns in society through their engagement with women outside the academic environment, and also forming the basis for discourses and providing research areas and perspectives to the scholars.

Today, the Women’s Research and Documentation Centre remains in existence and continues to do its work in engaging the community and gown, organizing conferences, being the home for women scholars and researchers, and supporting women-focused research. Although the founding members may no longer be the active faces of the organization, their legacy and commitment have birthed the contemporary generation and leaders of the organization. Indeed, another win for the pioneering Professor Bolanle Awe.

Aside from administrative work, Prof. Awe has authored several books. In her collection of written books, one stands out for me, especially as it ties back to the essence of her work and commitment over the years. It is a book titled Nigerian Women and Pioneer Icons. It’s a solid tracing and evaluation of the contributions and achievements of Nigerians in several fields of endeavor. Particularly, this book draws on data from the pre-colonial era and, more importantly, how these women’s contributions, though individually, form part of the collective contributions that could be historically traced vis-à-vis the evolution and development of the Nigerian nation-state.

Beyond academia, Prof. Awe excelled in her service to the Nigerian nation and the world. From 1990 to 1992, she served, yet again, in an inaugural position as the first Chair of the Nigerian Commission for Women, which was set up in 1989 by the Federal Government. She assiduously served to push for women’s welfare and development without the attendant political undertones that were initially the government’s basis for establishing the Commission. Prof. Awe’s service was faithful to the mission statement of the Commission, a bravery that would eventually result in her resignation when the lines became blurry as to the service the Commission was supposed to commit to.

Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown, and weary are the shoulders that bear the weight of responsibilities. To be a pioneer is to be constantly in the spotlight and under the scrutiny of people, many of whom did not have enough bravery to embark on the course that you chose to chart. For Prof. Bolanle Awe, life has been full of its challenges and resplendent with successes and bouts of joy. More importantly for her, life has been fulfilling, satisfying, and laced with legacies printed on the sands of time. It is indeed a historic time to be ushered into the exclusive club of the nonagenarians, Prof. Awe. Happy Birthday and hearty cheers!

Please join us in February at the University of Ibadan for an elaborate intellectual feast. https://bit.ly/3iz80KL

*Falola is Professor Emeritus in the Humanities, Lead City University, Ibadan

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