Nwando Achebe: Teaching, for Good

February 17, 2020 - Liz Schondelmayer

Dr. Nwando Achebe is an award-winning oral historian and a fierce advocate for positive change. An author of six books, she is an expert on women, gender and sexuality in the context of African history. But above all, Dr. Achebe is an award winning teacher and passionate professor, going above and beyond expectations and responsibilities to teach her students about a topic near and dear to her heart: Africa, as she knows and loves it. 

“I ask myself, why do I keep teaching this huge undergraduate IAH service course? I keep teaching it semester after semester because I have a passion for what I do. I truly do. You couldn’t pay me enough to not do this job. This is where I’m supposed to be,” notes Dr. Achebe. “I see myself as a missionary in reverse. For me, it's about introducing this Africa that I know, this Africa that I love, this Africa that I have so much passion for, to my American students in a way that they don't ‘other’ the continent.

“The fact that we never see Africa reported on in the US news media, except in crises, has an impact on us and our perception of Africa. So, my whole approach to teaching Africa is about balance. One of my favorite activities that I do with my students at the beginning of each semester is my “Perception or Reality” activity. The purpose of this activity is to consider “how our perspective or point of view can determine what we see in the world, and how we react to it.” I show my students a series of images of slums, and I ask them to first describe what it is that they see; and second, guess where in the world each image is from. They also are asked to consider how they judge the images; why they judge the images the way they do; and how fair their judgment is.

My students are always shocked to discover that the vast majority of the images are from the US. This activity gives me the opportunity to teach my students that poverty looks the same worldwide. I follow this activity up with a short video called, “The Africa They Will Never Show You.” It is a video of beautiful African cities and landscapes. And every year I show this video, students--especially African American students--come to me, expressing the fact that they feel lied to, because they’ve just never been shown this side of Africa before. If you're a photographer that lands in an African city and chooses to only capture images of poverty, you will of course find it. There is poverty everywhere. But, is that really the essence of the African continent? I would argue not.” 

“I live for those undergraduate students who really do not want to be in my classes, but because of my passion for Africa, and the way that I teach about Africa, decide to visit Africa and then find themselves falling in love with it.”

Dr. Achebe’s passion for presenting Africa as it truly is - not as Westerners portray it - is reflected in her research as well. Dissatisfied with the way African people and African women specifically were presented in academic texts as a Masters student, Dr. Achebe set out to tell a well-rounded, culturally-informed account of African history through her own academic work.

“When I was a grad student in the early 90s studying African history at UCLA, I was moved to study African women’s and gender history after an unfortunate incident in one of my grad classes. We were assigned to read all of these texts that were supposedly about me - in the general sense that I see myself as a quintessential African woman. I remember looking at the scholarship and thinking, who the heck are these people talking about?

"Two articles we read were written by Margaret Kinsman and Jeff Guy. Kinsman’s article was entitled, ‘Beast of Burden: The Subordination of Tswana Women.’ Jeff Guyis article essentially argued that South African women were sold to the highest bidder for their productive and reproductive labor. What perturbed me about the Kinsman article, was that the evidence that she used to justify her arguments was that Tswana women went to farm right after giving birth with their kids tied to their backs - which, by the way, every African woman works, and we all tie our children to our backs, even the educated ones of us! In fact, medical science validates the fact that this body-to-body contact is important for babies.. So, Kinsman’s argument was essentially that because Tswana women are farming with their babies on their backs, they are ‘Beasts of Burden.’ 

"But, did these researchers, Kinsman included, ever think to ask African women what they thought of the Western, Victorian-era woman who dressed up and sipped afternoon tea? Because to an African woman of the time, that woman would certainly have been considered lazy. What it comes down to is perspective: depending on what your positionality is, you can look at the same evidence, and see different things. There's a great African proverb that speaks to this fact, and it goes something like this, ‘one can not appreciate the beauty of a masquerade dance by standing in one position.’ So, while I was extremely mad after reading this piece and other scholarship about African women, I knew it wasn’t enough to be mad. Being mad would not change anything. The way that I could correct perceptions about African women was to write my own history about them. Because, if I publish my own African herstories, then my scholarship can be read against scholarship just like Kinsman’s and Guy’s.” 

To Dr. Achebe, her teaching doesn’t end when she leaves the classroom. The daughter of Chinua Achebe, world-famous author of novels such as Things Fall Apart, she is committed to using her esteemed name and successful career to make positive social change. Dr. Achebe has taken to educating the African public and lawmakers about decriminalizing homosexuality and ending child marriage within the continent. 

“At this stage in my career, I have decided that all of my scholarship from now on is going to be scholarship-advocacy. If it's not, I don't want to do it. Providence has been good to me, with regards to being born into the family that I have been born into. I have this name that means something in the African context, Therefore, I have decided to put that name to good use. I happen to have been born in a country that has decided that homosexuality is a crime; it can even be your death sentence to be identified as gay!

"It pains me because the average Nigerian does not truly know why s/he is in support of punishing homosexuality. As a historian, I have started to unpack that for them. No African nation that I know of, before colonialism, ever criminalized homosexuality. It was rather, the European colonialists that brought these laws into Africa, and present-day African governments are taking those old discriminatory laws and turning them into their own laws.

"To me, my work is to not only to unpack this, but to use my voice for good. Thus, I have made it a point to speak about same-sex desire in Nigeria, a country where I could have been imprisoned for 14 years for speaking out as an ally. I am able to do this because of my last name; and people are willing to listen and not simply shout me down, again because of my last name. It is my hope that having had the opportunity to speak on so charged a subject, that I was able to get one person to start looking at this issue a little differently.

"With regards to child marriage, which has come up in in my research, I can not simply sit back and not take a stand. Child marriage is wrong; plain and simple. So in my new work, while uplifting and supporting the girl child in Africa, I take an unequivocal stand against child marriage in all its forms. By doing so, my hope is that I can push African governments to hopefully also take a stand against this and to reject the use of the so-called religious rights of men to allow this practice to continue.

"This work is hard; at times it is thankless and even dangerous. But, it is the work that I choose to do. To use my voice and my scholarship to attempt to make a difference. And honestly speaking, I don't want to publish another book or article that does not have an advocacy purpose to it. I want to use my work to potentially change lives.”

Dr. Achebe leads the College of Social Sciences Dean's Advisory Board on Diversity and Inclusion, and was recently named one of the MSU Center for Gender in Global Context’s Inspirational Women of the Year. She continues to serve as an educator and researcher here at MSU. Learn more about Dr. Achebe’s accomplishments and published works here.