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Professor Sotunsa Mobolanle: Breaking down the walls of patriarchy in African scholarship

By Toyin Falola

 

From the 21st to the 23rd of June 2021, Professor Mobolanle Sotunsa will be co-convening the 6th J. A. Atanda Lectures and Conference, which will bring 400 speakers to Babcock University, Nigeria. Her talent and managerial capability are the driving force behind this success. Prof. Sotunsa does not find this new, as she has achieved comparable feats in the past. She has stories to tell, with drums and songs to accompany them; however, she must first listen to us introduce her.

Prof. Mobolanle Sotunsa is one of the most versatile women breaking academic frontiers in Nigeria. Her place in the knowledge production sector of the country remains firmly sustained because of her rounds of stimulating academic engagements, which can be ascribed to her zeal, dedication, and hunger for success. The Nigerian, and then African, academic sector is dominated by males so much that women, in some settings, are almost synonymous with ignorance and docility, despite their impressive contributions in cognitively shaping and developing every child. Therefore, Sotunsa’s valiant academic feats are informed by the decision to showcase the deep-seated immersion of African women in knowledge production and how their efforts are worthy of intellectual recognition. Her fame as an academic leader is strengthened by the groundbreaking intellectual additions she has made to scholarship since her rise to academic recognition. Sotunsa has not only contributed to the education system through her wide-ranging research and knowledge, but she has also erected for herself a sturdy image whose foundation cannot be threatened by any factor.

Born when the country experienced unprecedented economic growth, the impact spread to her as she had access to valuable content during her formative years. Sotunsa started her academic journey as a child at Moremi Nursery and Primary School, where she acquired elementary education to guide her in her advancement. Her extraordinary performance as a pupil fast-tracked her journey and placed her on the right pedestal on which she built her career. After her secondary school education at Command Secondary School, Ibadan, Oyo State, Nigeria, Mobolanle proceeded to the premier university, the University of Ibadan, where she obtained her Bachelor of Arts degree in English within the stipulated time.

Her interest in education was cemented by her quest to immediately progress to graduate studies so that she can consolidate the already acquired knowledge with a more sophisticated academic engagement. But before this, she decided to sharpen her communications skills by gathering expert information in appropriate fields. This led to her enrollment into a journalism school, where she became a certified journalist within a year. More importantly, she continued with her pursuit of academic excellence at the University of Ibadan, where she obtained Masters of Arts in English Studies, before finally capping the whole engagements with a doctorate in the same school in 2005.

One should be impressed by Sotunsa’s academic feat in earning her Ph.D. In that case, there is hardly anyone who can deny or resist her elegance when they are treated to the vast academic engagements she has pulled in the course of her teaching career. She has written books, made sound contributions to journals, edited books of enthusing contents, written articles in many publications, organized conferences, and offered many other impressive academic insights. Generally, she has made impressive contributions to academic discourse so much that one cannot contest that she is worthy of national and international accolades.

Although her Ph.D. was got in English (Literature), Sotunsa has not failed to address sociocultural, sociopolitical, socioeconomic, and cultural matters through the literary lens of which she is an expert. The scent of her academic beauty percolates different spheres of influence, which explains why she has been continually celebrated, respected, and revered in the academic circle and the general social network of powerful essence. She has proven herself to be versatile and has made contributions to gender issues. Her efforts to expand the frontiers of language education cannot also be sidelined.

As a marker of her academic journey, the Professor’s inaugural lecture spotlights what she has been doing for many years as an academic. The lecture titled “Gender Matters and Cultural Dilemma in African Literature” dives into the politicization of gender roles in Africa, using African literature as her professional practice laboratory. She indicates that the excessive concentration on the contributions of the male folks in every human endeavor has uncharacteristically sidelined, if you will, silenced women’s voices. In most cases, it is not a deliberate act, but the proliferation of a single voice naturally eclipses the others. For instance, when one considers how roles are allocated to women in most of the works authored by African males, there is a glaring inequity perpetuated by the patriarchal system allowed to go on for so long without any recognizable impediment. This particularly works especially in the oversimplification of African women because the failure to report their contributions to the general development and advancement of the continent automatically positions them negatively where undue generalizations about them are excused. Perhaps Sotunsa’s diligent research is informed by the understanding that the continuation of such a trend would ineluctably downgrade women.

The marginalization of women creates a cultural quandary that becomes an impediment to the true emancipation of the people. We should be attentive to the avant-garde piece by Sotunsa and not allow something remarkable about her research to evade us. Considering that the scope of her work is African literature, one would see the basic association of social and gender stratification that emerged in Africa as a brainchild of the colonial relationship. This, for one reason, is occasioned by the understanding that the conversion of the African experiences into orthographical narrative coincided with the emergence of colonialism in the continent. The cultural difficulty that emerged comes because of how gender is favored while the other is disrespected in the same medium of information sharing–the literature. Africa thus came to the level of a cultural dilemma because the narratological style offered in the creative engagement does not conform with the existing socio-cultural arrangement. In other words, promoting one-sided narratives in African texts creates a gap that cannot be immediately covered in the social environment. While they take their actual role in the development of African children, women are underrepresented in the novels written about them. Sotunsa’s input became known by her ability to establish a connection between these experiences.

There is the likelihood of making ideologically inaccurate generalizations about Sotunsa if you are not familiar with her intellectualism. But as you get closer to her works, there will be a change of mindset. Would it not be impressive to understand her incredible role in diaspora politics and how it is evolving? In one of the books Sotunsa jointly edited with Akinloye Ojo, Expressions of Indigenous and Local Knowledge in Africa and its Diaspora, we are treated to the diaporization of knowledge that has been historically linked to Africa from time immemorial. Africans, wherever they are in the world, confidently express their indigenous knowledge, which helps to indicate the fluidity of knowledge production in general terms. The awareness that people move with their knowledge epistemologies discountenances the general egoistic charade of Eurocentric narratives laying claims to universal knowledge-making as if Africans are passive and inordinate in generating knowledge to better themselves and improve their human conditions. The fact that recent and contemporary Africans demonstrate their indigenous knowledge wherever they are and whenever possible gives substantial evidence about the transportation of knowledge with individuals to places they migrate.

In essence, Africans have benefited through the generation of knowledge that is done to improve their sociopolitical and sociocultural conditions in the continent, and they have also corroborated this by transforming other places where they find themselves with the knowledge that is indigenous to them. To a degree, this corroborates what Lawrence Barham and Peter Mitchel stand on in their very stimulating academic work, The First Africans: Archaeology from the Earliest Toolmakers to Most Recent Foragers. As a result, one understands very pointedly that the association of knowledge and human experience, expertise, and excellence to Africans, as indicated in Sotunsa’s work, is born from the understanding that Africans are a continually impactful people with a record of influence and contributions made in the course of migration and movement. Apart from this underlying implication of her work, it cools the spirit to know again that the place of the diaspora in the facilitation of knowledge expansion is sacrosanct. While the cross-border relationship and intermingling help provide the atmosphere for the display of cultural knowledge and framework, it also allows expanding one’s information horizon. This confirms the mutuality and duality of importance and purpose ascribed to the said diaspora environment.

Contrary to the wrong assumption about the supposed homogeneous nature of African culture, there are many cultures in the continent, each with its distinctive oral legacies. Generally, Africans have been said to document their history and experience in oral archives from where everyone or succeeding generations draw knowledge to continue in a predicted fashion. However, an outsider would be weaned off the knowledge that the African oral traditions and cultures are almost limitless or interminable. The vastness of this oral tradition places limitations on what a researcher can cover at a stretch in an academic engagement. However, it is documented that very many African scholars have made strenuous efforts to record impressive feats in this regard. Fortunately, Professor Sotunsa is grounded in African oral legacies and remains one of the credible researchers who have done extensive and impressive research in this trajectory.

In her work, “Fieldwork in Nigerian Oral Literature,” Sotunsa made very impressive efforts to understand some oral traditions in Nigeria. Her findings reveal that there are many people and identities that have beautiful oral legacies that can be looked into for professional purposes. There is “Ijala” among the hunters in Yorubaland. This oral tradition is performed as acts of celebration and adoration of their profession. The hunters take pride in the job because they are logically one of the earliest cognitively evolved beings who make available the materials needed to navigate their human environment. Therefore, to understand them and their songs is to understand the history and also to be able to trace the historical trajectory of Yoruba people along the lines of their technological development and their scientific skills and contributions that can be linked to the globalization age.

There is also “Ekun Iyawo” among the Yoruba, which is done specifically to welcome the bride to adulthood and tell a story of the cultural conception of marriage. Human society evolved from the individual to social arrangements, and the marriage institution is one of the methods devised to keep this social bonding going. Marriage is encouraged among individuals with no immediate familial ties and affiliation so that the grouping of the society would be kept intact and rotating. Therefore, “Ekun Iyawo” provides the social opportunity to recount the experiences and relationship of the parents with the would-be bride. There are many other oral traditions explored in this work too.

Meanwhile, in all of Professor Sotunsa’s engagements, she has not for a bit forgotten her academic first love, literature, as her continuous academic researches are a romanticization of the subject. For example, in one of her papers titled “From Theory to Practice: Advanced Literary Text Analysis,” the professor opens up the discourse around literary theories and their place when interrogating texts. Ordinarily, the average individual goes about reading texts without being aware of the socio-historical and socio-temporal issues that have necessitated and mandated their emergence. In the most basic form, the non-theorist reader evaluates literary productions based on their aesthetic importance alone, whereas several things are unknown to this type of reader, and they would have evaded important information in the course of their reading. To educate such innocent readers who read without the proper systems of theories to understand the work, Sotunsa has bridged the gap between the theories and the texts in the highlighted paper. We are extensively educated on the cardinality of the theories to the evaluation, interpretations, and interrogation of literary materials. The knowledge of each theory gives the direction to follow when reading the texts and, as a result, brings out the beauty of the work.

During the textual analysis undertaken by the scholar, we understand the pretext of the materials in most cases. In other words, readers are usually unfamiliar with the economic, psychological, social, and political circumstances that give birth to the work they read. In essence, when conflict or struggle arises between two or more characters in the text, we are unaware that they are perhaps reacting or responding to the country’s economic system that the elites of such an environment have configured. Without appropriating the Marxist theory for reading such a text, one would not understand why people’s frustrations triggered the conflict. On some other occasions, we come across characters who are not stable and who refuse to settle within themselves. At one point or the other, they are usually fazed by the external challenges that confront them to the level that they are unsettled internally. Unless one brings up the psychoanalytical theory that provides the basis for understanding this form of literature, one obviously would not be kept abreast of the appropriate information that pushes characters to act in certain ways.

It is important to know that Sotunsa’s versatility does not end with discussing intellectually exclusive topics that thrust into the professional trajectory she has taken. Instead, she touches on areas that have continental and global imports. For example, in one of her collaborations with other good minds, she produced one significant knowledge content in the book, Emerging Discourses on the Future of Higher Education in Africa, where they address issues around the transformation of the African educational system. Despite having strong human resources, the continent is lagging in the speed of academic productions they have made in recent history. Members of the African political elite refuse to merge their energy with what those in intellectual circles have done through their energetic zeal and mental investment to move the continent forward. The political system’s failure is observed in its inability to provide the necessary facilities in African schools to enhance learning.

As a result, the future of the African educational system is clouded not because the people lack intellectual capacity but rather because they have not been properly equipped with the necessary instruments that can drive knowledge into them. This action has systematically hindered them, and the absence of facilities in the contemporary world, in particular, means that people suffering from this lack would have predictable progress. However, the degree of knowledge production in any clime cannot be used as a factor to predict their intellectuality and versatility. This is underscored by the awareness that immediately they set their feet on other civilizations, swelling numbers of Africans do academically fine in international communities. Therefore, we are safe to say that the despoliation of African intellectualism is deliberate because nothing can absolve a government who fails to invest brilliantly in their education from the blame and embarrassment resulting from their inactions. As such, the works by these brilliant minds x-ray the African present to predict their future academic trajectory.

All these contributions, regardless, Professor Sotunsa has made additional important input in the development of academics generally. This explains the recognition she has been accorded in the time past. Without a doubt, she has been identified as one of the most successful Nigerian women who thrive exceptionally in areas that have hitherto been delineated as men’s terrain. She has been honored with different awards of excellence and has been designated to function in different socio-academic capacities–Travel Grant by the University of Birmingham in 2018; Scholar in Residence by the University of Georgia in 2013; and Visiting Scholar by the School of Oriental African and Studies (SOAS) in 2009. All of these have consolidated the vibrant and energetic works that she has put in place.

Beyond this, Professor Sotunsa has been given recognition in different places as an appreciation of what she has grown to become as an academic in this part of the divide. The number of Ph.D. and Masters graduates that she has seen to their development is a testament to one of her achievements as an academic. Undeniably, Professor Sotunsa has established herself in Nigerian scholarship because of the outstanding contributions credited to her name. All these can only corroborate the conclusion that she has singled herself out among the class of scholars who have made commendable efforts to transform themselves and the people around them.

 

*Toyin Falola is Professor of History, University Distinguished Teaching Professor, and   Humanity Chair, the University of Texas at Austin

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