One good reason I am unable to part ways permanently with the black pot that is Nigeria is that on every occasion when that pot takes on the blackest hue possible, a white pap sallies forth, untainted, from within it, making hope in the future of that country an imperative.
Saturday October 15th was our 2nd Annual Institute of African Studies’ Undergraduate Research Conference here at Carleton University. Like the Institute herself, this conference is the only full-fledged international and interdisciplinary academic conference devoted exclusively to Africa and organized 100% by undergraduate for undergraduates in the whole of Canada.
The strategic thinking behind the conference is that if the best in Africa is now summed up by her youth demographic, that demographic, whether she is from Africa or is passionate about her, needs to be involved in the urgent task of inventing new ways of engaging Africa. The invention of new scholarly approaches, new theoretical paradigms and discourses, new interdisciplinary conversations, and the opening up of new horizons of knowledge and critical inquiry about Africa should not be the exclusive preserve of Professors.
On the contrary, we see our undergraduate students as important partners in the generation of new knowledges about the continent. The conference also allows us to train these young scholars and introduce them to the nitty-gritty of organizing an international academic conference. How to form committees; how to generate the conference theme and sub-themes; how to draft and publicize the call for abstracts and panels; how to approach a keynote speaker; etc.
In short, we take them through everything you’d go through to convene an annual edition of the African Studies Association or the African Literature Association. And they do it all by themselves. We, faculty, play a minimal advisory role behind the scenes. Last year, the inaugural edition featured undergraduate presenters and panelists from Canada, the United States, and Europe. This year, the panelists came from an expanded list of countries. Let’s hear from my colleague, Professor, Nduka Otiono, advisor to the conference and in whose undergraduate class the original idea of the conference had germinated last year:
“It was a thrilling intellectual feast as Carleton IAS undergraduate students were joined by mates around the world for the 2nd international research conference at Carleton's Discovery Centre. Participants included students from Detroit, New York, Calgary, Montreal, Ilorin Nigeria, and Qatar. The keynote speaker was Ambassador Jane Onsongo of the Kenyan High Commission, Canada. The theme of the conference was "Africa after Africa Rising: Politics, Development, Youth, and Innovation in an Era of Globalization." True to its provocative tenor, the presentations ignited passionate intellectual fireworks. Already, the students are looking forward to the 3rd edition of the conference.”
The undergraduate student from Ilorin is Oladimeji Olaleye. He is a 400-Level Law student at the University of Ilorin. He first came to my attention when the conference organizing committee notified me that an abstract proposal had arrived from Nigeria and had been accepted. As Director of the Institute, I had to write visa letters for conference participants coming from outside of Canada.
An abstract all the way from Ilorin in Nigeria? And it had made the cut? The committee receives abstracts from all over the world and they have space for only 14 speakers spread over three or four panels. Unknown to the organizing committee, my mind was already busy processing the implications of what had just happened.
Tucked away on the campus of the University of Ilorin, and undergraduate and a millennial, is spending his time surfing the internet for international conference opportunities. His search takes him to our conference website and he puts an abstract together and sends it to us? And it makes the cut and gets accepted in that highly competitive selection process? This in a depressing recession-ravaged anti-intellectual context in which peer pressure could have led him to spend hours daily on the internet trying to curate his image on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram as Horlardeemayjee Horlarleye in accordance with standard practice in his generation?
I filed his name in my memory and emailed him his conference acceptance and visa letters. He wrote back the following day notifying me, predictably, that he is just a poor undergraduate student in Ilorin and he would not be able to sponsor a trip to Ottawa without financial aid. I noted the professional and very respectful note of his email. He did not write: “Sup Prof? Am sorry I cnt mke it 2 Ottawa cos of no funds in our skul. Tnx.” For a second time, I was impressed by this millennial.
Unfortunately, the minimal grant we give to those whose papers have been accepted for the conference is hardly more than $200 which we prorate according to your distance from Ottawa. For those coming in from Montreal, Toronto, and other neighbouring cities, it could pay their bus fare or train ticket. We also subsidize their accommodation.
In essence, the bulk of the trip to Ottawa has to be borne by the students. In parts of the world where undergraduate research is taken seriously, undergraduate students have many sources of conference travel aid and funding that they could apply for in their Universities. In Nigeria, sadly, the philosophy of undergraduate education hardly sees the undergraduate as a knowledge producer. The undergraduate in Nigeria is still largely perspectivized as a dormant receptacle of handouts and lecture notes in a top-down process from his or her lecturer.
Hence, resources, where available at all, do not privilege the undergraduate as a researcher. Universities unable to even fund lecturers properly for international conference travel would be hard put to fund masters and doctoral students for such international endeavours. And when you start asking them to fund undergraduate conference travel, you are already pushing it or doing what the Yoruba call aseju.
In essence, Oladimeji Olaleye, had no recourse, no chance whatsoever, to apply for conference funding in his home University in Ilorin. He would not be deterred. He opted for participation by video from Ilorin and went ahead to prepare his paper. On conference day, he was absolutely brilliant and we were grateful to have been enriched by his perspectives. He gave a brilliant paper entitled, “Challenges to the Development of Feminism in Africa.”
I was particularly struck by his knowledge of the theoretical bases of feminist discourses in Africa, as well as the contextual nuances and conversations he introduced on contemporary dimensions of the feminist project in Nigeria. I was struck by his poise and his delivery. I was struck by his confidence. I was struck by the cross-fertilization of ideas between him and his peers from the rest of the world.
Oladimeji Olaleye has a great future ahead of him. If you are an undergraduate in Nigeria and you are reading this, I am telling this story because of you. From your peer whose story I am telling here, I want you to learn that there is no alternative to initiative, self-drive, self-motivation, and innovation for your generation. Never allow Nigeria to be an excuse for fatalism, laziness, self-pity and lack of drive.
It is true that Nigeria will always be a valid excuse for mediocrity on your part because she offers you nothing and at every point steals your future without remorse. But it is in that same Nigeria and in the context of those extreme limitations that Oladimeji Olaleye sold himself to the world and gave such an amazing account of himself.
You must never allow Nigerian politicians to be your excuse for not rising up to the challenges of the 21st century for your generation. It is true that they are thieves and have no vision. It is true that they have nothing to offer you. But every time you think of your President, your Federal Ministers, your Senators, your Reps, your state Governors, your Local Government Chairmen, and all the other layers of visionlessness and irresponsibility running Nigeria, I want you to know that posterity will not forgive you if you allow them to become an excuse for being absent for the appointment with your own destiny.
Also, the idea of politicians and political leaders as role models is very 20th century. It was tied to the dynamic of the nationalist era in Africa. Forget your political leaders in Nigeria. You do not need them as role models. They are in no position to be role models anyway because of corruption and their ethical deficiencies. The 21st century has no use for the politician as a role model. We have moved beyond that reality. Our era has democratized and broadened the idea of the role model. Look within your own generation for people like Oladimeji. They are the role model you need. They are the motivation you need. They are the inspiration you need.
Oladimeji Olaleye could have been moaning and using irresponsible leadership as an excuse for lacking the funds to come to Ottawa. Rather, he remained undaunted and found innovative ways to be part of this international exercise. He is an undergraduate like you. Also, I want you to remember that he could have chosen to spend his time on the internet fighting for and defending corrupt and useless Nigerian politicians. He used it to market himself instead. Now I know him and I am circulating his name quietly in circuits of opportunity. Since he is in Law, I am hoping that my friend, Professor Ikechi Mgbeoji, would find a masters programme in Law for him at Osgoode in York University when he graduates from Ilorin.
Social media is a powerful intellectual weapon that can positively change your life if you know how to use it. Use it like Oladimeji. Stop using it to defend those who stole all the money that would have allowed Nigerian universities to be innovative enough to have international travel bursaries for undergraduates like you to go and meet your peers in the rest of the world.
Nigeria is all the names you call her because of the terrible things she has done to your lives, promise and potential as a generation. However, you must never allow her to be an excuse.