Engaged Anthropology Grant: Ndubueze Leonard Mbah

Dr. Ndubueze Leonard Mbah is Assistant Professor of History at the University at Buffalo. In 2011, while a Ph.D. candidate at Michigan State University, he received a Dissertation Fieldwork Grant to aid research on ‘Emergent Masculinities: The Gendered Struggle for Power in Southeastern Nigeria, 1850-1920,’ supervised by Dr. Nwando Achebe. In 2015, he received the Engaged Anthropology Grant to produce a gendered narrative reconciliation film ethnography, juxtaposing male narratives and practices that seek to efface women and depict the Ohafia-Igbo as a militant Igbo society dominated by male warriors who subjugated women and preyed on non-Igbo neighbors for slaves; with female narratives and practices that posit Ohafia as a distinct matrilineal Igbo society dominated by female breadwinners and political rulers who forged filial links among multiple ethnicities in a borderland geography. 

I successfully carried out my community engagement ethnography with the Ohafia-Igbo, from June 1 to July 15, 2015, during the society’s annual homecoming festivals. I fulfilled the project’s primary goal, which was to share through accessible media, the findings of my historical ethnography with my community research partners. Moreover, I video recorded their reactions and feedback to the findings. The local custodians’ constructive criticisms, commentaries, validations and further clarification of my historical narrative and ethnographic interpretations, which I was able to obtain through this process, were most rewarding. The entire research journey, accessible in video media, affords students of history and anthropology a rare perspective into the methodology of historical ethnography.

In phase I, I developed and screened for Ohafia-Igbo participatory audiences, a 2h:40m documentary video of local gendered rituals and material culture politics, which memorialize the impact of the Atlantic world on transformations in gender identities and regimes over the past 300 years. Through tree cutting and plantain hunting rituals, war dances and new yam festivals, male-centered narratives memorialize the successive histories of settlement, slave production, and wealth masculinity. On the other hand, women’s contemporary rituals such as uzo-iyi (virginity testing) and ije akpaka (ritual declaration of war), political resistance strategies such as ibo ezi (strike and boycott) and ikpo mgbogho (social ostracism), and material culture practices such as the raising of matrilineal ancestress pot monuments (ududu), constitute female-centered narratives that celebrate women’s historic position as breadwinners and reproducers of matrilineages. The documentary presented these male and female narratives as complementary. Ohafia-Igbo villagers, including children, adult men and women, and members of specialist guilds such as spirit mediums, constituted the primary audience for the video documentary. The screening took place in village community halls, with the collaboration of community leaders, who assisted with conducive scheduling and public announcements (through town-criers). With the aid of a professional videographer, I filmed the audiences’ reactions to the documentary, as well as the extensive questions and debates that followed. In two particular cases, where the subject of debate was too politically sensitive to be discussed openly, I followed up with the concerned parties in private video-recorded interviews. I gifted copies of the documentary video to the village communities at the conclusion of the engagement.

In phase II, I assembled the male kings of the twenty-five Ohafia-Igbo villages, representatives of the female kings of three villages, several compound chiefs, university professors, and Nde Ikpirikpe Ogu (war dancers) at Elu, the society’s ancestral capital, on June 24, 2015. With the aid of a computer, projector screen and loudspeakers, I presented my book manuscript in the local language – Ohafia-Igbo. The event, which was also video-recorded, began with a public performance of the society’s history of migration and settlement through dance and songs by renowned Ohafia War Dancers. At the end of my 1-hour presentation, I received glowing affirmations of my thesis, namely, that the society’s concerted engagements with the Atlantic world through slave production, legitimate commerce, colonialism and Christianity between 1750 and 1920, shaped the demography of the African forced Diaspora, transformed local gender ideologies, and ushered a shift from a pre-colonial period characterized by female breadwinners and more powerful female political institutions, to a colonial period of male political domination. The audience was most impressed by the broader implications of their community’s history for the Atlantic world. Following my presentation, the Udumeze (king of kings) of Ohafia, in consort with the kings-in-council, honored me with royal Ima Nzu – the ritual adoption of an individual as a son-of-the-soil, as well as the War Dance – which signified that I had ‘gone to battle and cut a head’ for the community, in this case, by capturing what the Udumeze called “the very essence of our history, beyond the capacity of what we could have done ourselves.”

This Wenner-Gren Engaged Anthropology Fellowship experience has been one of my most intellectually rewarding undertakings in the past seven years. It afforded me a wonderful opportunity to give back to my research community – by acknowledging their indispensability to the knowledge production process, and their co-ownership of the research product. It provided a platform for Ohafia men to publically acknowledge the central role of women in complex social transformations in their society, as well as the post-colonial marginalization of women from dominant spheres of political and economic power. Hence, while the engagement achieved the goal of mirroring before Ohafia participatory audiences the historical threads that have produced social inequalities, the process also engendered communitas. The community engagement has cemented the multi-disciplinary strength of my research methodology and provided me with a solid footing for the revision of my book manuscript.

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