Africa in Our Lives: Akin Ogundiran

Over the next few weeks, the African Studies Program will profile several presenters for our upcoming conference, PLEASURE AND THE PLEASURABLE in Africa and the African Diaspora. The first of these profiles features Professor Akin Ogundiran of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. Growing up in Ibadan, Nigeria, Dr. Ogundiran learned at an early age how history could be used to solve everyday  problems. He shares how his historical approach has impacted his research, and some of his favorite parts about teaching African history and archaeology.

Field of Study: Archaeology and History
Hometown: Ibadan, Nigeria

“Pleasure as a category of humanness drove the tempo of creativity, innovation, trade, and empire formation. It still powers what we do today.” -Akin Ogundiran (submitted photo)

What led you to study social complexity in Yorubaland, Atlantic Africa and the African Diaspora?

I grew up in the “traditional” part of a big city, one of the largest three cities in Africa. It was a cosmopolitan environment, with diversity of interests – Muslims, Christians, Orisa devotees, etc. Very early on, I realized that the elders around me paid attention to history, stories, things, and places in the way they solved problems, negotiated difference, managed conflicts, and organized towards a common goal. This was the background that shaped my unconscious orientation. Maybe, my interest in the study of history began with immersion into that kind of environment. When I became much self-aware, I wanted to double major in history and literature in college (University of Ife, Nigeria). Then I discovered archaeology. I was fortunate to realize that I could develop my interest in history and literature while also becoming an archaeologist. In archaeology, I saw the opportunity to broaden the deep-time history of the Yoruba people. I was not content with the tribal model of African history and the static model of African culture that tend to be implied in the popular imagination and even academic studies. I started my scholarly career asking questions about the history of cultures and local communities. I began to take interest in how the vast regional and global networks of economic, political, cultural interactions shaped the history of local communities. It was eye-opening when I realized that the Yoruba cultural presence reached far away to the Americas. I became curious to understand how they got there. My understanding improved when I moved to Boston University where I earned my doctoral degree. This also made me to realize the gaps that we need to fill. Filling some of those gaps have preoccupied my research labor. In a way, my scholarly interests have always followed the path of my own travels. My location and travels have shaped the questions that I ask. By travel, I mean both physical movement and the mobility of the mind (call it imagination). My coming to Madison, Wisconsin is one leg of that travel. On this journey, it would be a pleasure to ask and answer new questions about Pleasure.

Tell us one surprising fact about you.

I am ordinary, with ordinary experiences. When I was a kid, I was fascinated by the US space exploration program. I read all about it in the newspaper and from radio broadcast (sorry, no TV for me). I dreamt of becoming an astronaut and landing on the moon. That was in the early 1970s. Since then, I’ve occasionally made it above the clouds during my travels but not beyond that. I didn’t make it to the moon but it’s gratifying that I’ve spent my explorative curiosity digging the earth for human-material footprints. There is as much to learn digging down here as in traveling up there. But maybe one day I will get to dig on the moon.

What has been the most exciting moment in your academic career so far?

The most exciting moment is the momentous process of the everyday: (1) teaching about Africa and its place in world history; (2) discovering new chapters in Yoruba history through my archaeological and historical research; (3) seeing my students moving on to become industry leaders, professors, entrepreneurs, policy makers, teachers, and many more.

Tell us a little bit about your current research.

I am currently finishing a book on Yoruba cultural history from about 300 BC to AD 1830. I am basically trying to figure out how the ancestral Yoruba experienced time for about two thousand years and the practices that they created as a result of those experiences. To the best of my knowledge, this is the first work that will locate aspects of the Yoruba cultural formation in specific social temporalities (experiences of time).

What subjects or topics do you most enjoy teaching and why?

I greatly enjoy teaching African Civilizations, Yoruba Culture, and African Diaspora Cultures. These courses allow my students to explore alternative theories of knowledge and the ways of being that are different from the ones they are familiar with. Through these courses, my students discover the plurality that make up human universalism as well as the global forces that have shaped African experiences.

What would you tell students who are debating whether or not to study Africa?

Africa is central to the understanding of our common humanity. It does not matter which discipline you pursue, Africa challenges what we know and how we know what we know. Africa is a product of time. So, never assume that what you see today in Africa is the way Africa has always been. In fact, ancestral Africans confronted and answered some of the social questions we are struggling with today in the West. We have something to learn from Africa as much as we have something to share with Africa. The same thing applies to the field of science. Not a few of the innovations in tropical medicine that are patented in the West, for example, originated in Africa. For a just world, we need a fair collaboration with Africa. This begins with learning, understanding, and appreciating African knowledge systems.

Why is the study of pleasure in Africa and the African Diaspora important?

The quest for pleasure has been the driving agent of human civilization from the very time our hominid ancestors started their journey in Africa. Pleasure as a category of humanness drove the tempo of creativity, innovation, trade, and empire formation. It still powers what we do today. When we study the African and African Diaspora experience through the everyday pleasure, we are on the path of discovering the logic of African cultural creativity and how pleasure has been mobilized as a strategy of resilience in Africa’s long historical journey.

Give us a teaser for your presentation at PLEASURE AND THE PLEASURABLE in Africa and the African Diaspora.

I hope to talk about the relationship between power and pleasure in the process of cultural formation.

Registration is now open for PLEASURE AND THE PLEASURABLE in Africa and the African Diaspora! Visit the conference website to learn more and register.

Profile produced by Kyra Fox.

Click here to view more “Africa in Our Lives” profiles.