With the theme of this issue being gender and sexuality, Manchester’s Steven Pierce, a senior lecturer in African history, talks to Dane Massey about one of his specialist research areas.
Steven, this semester, you run a course on gender and sexuality in modern Africa. Could you tell us a bit about this course, and how you tailor it for everybody who picks it?
Well, I intend for the course to work both for people who have an existing interest in Africa, and to provide students with an introduction to either or both of African and gender studies and historians uses of gender history and gender theory.
We spend the first couple of weeks with just an introduction to both of those fields. So, we spend one week looking at some classic work in gender history, and then I do a fast overview of African gender studies.
By the time we get to the bulk of the course, we are more or less on the same page with thinking about recent approaches that scholars have taken in the historical study of gender that can be used by Africanist historians. And, of course, it gives people experience in thinking about African studies.
Gender and Sexuality is one of your specialist research topics. Why does it fascinate you so much?
Good question. I’d say that all my academic interests are to do with politics and government. So, something that has been at the forefront of my thoughts ever since I was an undergraduate was the principles that govern people’s everyday behaviour – that is a kind of government after all.
On the one hand, from the time I was a kid really, I was interested in the question of gender, gender inequality, the reasons that men and women had different expectations put on them. As I was beginning to think about academic research, I realised my interests along those lines really did fit in with a much broader set of questions about how human behaviour is regulated and constrained by forces outside of the individual.
Going more specific, I believe your niche is Nigerian history. Nigeria is a country home to nearly 200 million people – so inevitably it’s a very diverse nation. We know from reading the news and social media how diverse a topic gender and sexuality is. But why is it such a complex topic when focusing on it in the context of Nigeria?
Well, for about the same reasons anything is complicated when we think about Nigeria. Nigerians themselves call it the ‘Nigeria factor.’
My research on gender consists of a whole series of articles. So, I write lots of different bits of things in which I can address problems in which I can deal with them adequately.
So, I have targeted issues that I am interested in. They are all terrifically complex, and Nigeria’s diversity in federalism makes that even more complicated. But of course, that would be true of any society.
You’ve lived in Nigeria for two years. Is it different to here (Manchester) or in the US?
It is extraordinarily different. I’m a white person, and I live now and grew up in white majority countries. It is very useful to live in a place where you aren’t just a minority race, but you look freakish. If I go out on a street in Nigeria, I’m immediately surrounded by a hoard of children because I look weird.
It is also, I will say, and I say this as an American – in some ways its quite wonderful to go to a place which is not poisoned by America’s racial politics.
On the other hand, Nigeria has terrible poverty –children die all the time. Here, it is almost an unimaginable tragedy to hear about a five-year-old who dies. In Nigeria, it’s a common thing, and that changes the way you think about the world.
We’ve spoken a lot about Nigeria. But of course, Nigeria isn’t the only country in Africa. The vast continent contains 54 countries. Linking Nigeria to other African countries, is there anything distinct about gender and sexuality in Nigeria compared to other countries?
That’s a hard one to answer. I don’t know that Nigeria is the right unit of analysis because it is so culturally diverse.
So culturally diverse to even other African countries?
In some ways, there are greater continuities between Northern Nigeria and Southern Niger. Many people in both are ethnically Hausa, and Muslim. Then there are between Northern Nigeria and South-eastern Nigeria, where Igbo is the dominant language and most people are Christian.
You can certainly find parallels in many places. Nigeria is in some ways distinct, but it relates to particular national patterns of language.