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From Creoledom to Kriodom: A Rejoinder

10 July 2014 at 05:32 | 1808 views

By Professor Cecil Magbailey-Fyle, Freetown, Sierra Leone.

I believe I have to respond to this disappointing presentation by Ibrahim Abdullah so that the records can be set straight. This lecture, published in Awoko starting June 17, 2014, roams around major issues in African History, would need some context so that readers can follow some of the more cryptic statements made by Abdullah.

At the heart of this issue are our attitudes and epistemology about African History, more specifically here, of Sierra Leone history. Historians of Africa have been grappling with conceptualization of African history in a more African sense, even though our presentations have almost always been in European languages. We developed our framework for studying about our own societies from the European based training we received, though some of us have moved away from this considerably. Others are stuck in the rot, criticizing but having no viable solutions to some of these intractable problems. In this latter category I put those like Abdullah, always attacking Sierra Leone History constructions, particularly if it came from Fourah Bay College (FBC). Let me elaborate.

Two years ago, I took Abdullah on in relation to the issue of periodization of African History. Historians always find it comfortable to break up history into periods, primarily for convenience. The most convenient marker for African history is the colonial period, more recent but also having more observable beginning and ending. Virtually all of Africa was conquered by the 1890s, the start of the colonial period which ended by 1960, taken as the year African countries regained their independence, albeit in newly constructed contours. Colonial rule had very similar impacts on Africans, both psychologically and materially. These commonalities make colonialism, as a period, without question in African history. What happened after 1960 is often referred to as post-colonial. The biggest problem has been naming what happened before the colonial period, the time before African countries lost their independence of action about their own affairs. But if one talks of post-colonial, then pre-colonial is in order. But this is an unwieldy period, hard to give contours to due partly to its vastness and the unevenness of developments across such a vast continent. Many people, including Abdullah and myself, are not comfortable with the term pre-colonial, but finding a replacement term has been dogged with many objections including, a la Abdullah, the fact that the term, like the other two the colonial and post colonial- derive their nomenclature from European/Western designations. Toying with this has not been fun for the historians, but the Abdullah school reiterates this problem harshly without being able to offer any alternative.

I have engaged Abdullah on this before, by email and luckily I printed and kept transcripts of this engagement. This is the question I put to him in an exchange (Fyle/Abdullah) dated 23,1,2011:
Early in 2009, CODESRIA organized a workshop in Freetown on African History for budding African historians in the Mano River Region. Ismail (Rashid) and yourself played prominent roles in that workshop and I was invited as a motivational speaker. I attended late on the first day and after being introduced I made preliminary remarks. As I left, one of the Gambian delegates followed me out in haste. He looked rather disturbed and said to me that you had told them that there is nothing like Pre-Colonial African History or words to that effect. I assured him that there was and digressed on this the next day in my presentation. What I would like to know is, did you make any such pronouncement to those delegates? I am tempted to comment on this but thought I should find out from you whether that was the case… .

I cannot reproduce all of the exchanges we had on this here, though interested parties can see them. Part of his response ran:

I did say that pre-colonial as a category/periodization of history in Africa is an invention by Africanists and flows out of Euro-centric conception of African social formation.

History existed in every society on earth; to pre and post African history based on European experience in Africa is not the best way to understand/approach African history.

Having been thinking about this for such a long while and being so hostile to the term pre-colonial, one would have hoped Abdullah would have come up with some alternative. I pressed him over and over in the exchanges with the question, “what will you call that period”. I reminded him that denying the conception of pre-colonial history, the period when Africans ruled themselves, sounds like the colonialists who had said that Africans have no history. He had no answer, it turned out, and in the end he stated “I’ve never publicly engaged your work on Sierra Leone… in part because I do not see myself as an expert in what you call pre-colonial history-your area of speciality. My interest in your work is solely as a student of Salone history and society”.

I then reminded him of comments he had made in reviewing Wyse’s work, about the sort of history coming from FBC and he finally retorted “I really do not have time for your nonsense. I thought you were serious. Hence I (my) initial response. Now that I know where you are coming from, am done with you” And that is how the exchanges ended.

Opposing our pre- or post-ing African history and then within three or four paragraphs into the lecture on Kriodom using the term’ post-colonial’ twice leaves much to be desired about the sanity of Abdullah’s theorizing. The first use was wrongly represented, as he was referring to pre-colonial history but apparently disliking that term, by some sleight of consciousness, he ended up using the term post-colonial.

With this background one should start reading the lecture on “From Creoledom to Kriodom.”

The opening statement is saying that apart from Rodney, a West Indian, Sierra Leonean historians have done nothing about the period before 1500. This may be so; but what about the 300 or so years after that? This does not fit into his attack so he is silent about it. And this is his pattern, ignoring evidence that disproves his sweeping conclusions, or worse still, being totally unaware of such evidence.

The next statement brings us to the heart of his attack weapon, on ethnic history written by Sierra Leonean historians who emerged from FBC’s school of history. He opines that “without exception the first generation of Sierra Leonean historians either did their primary research on a national group or subsequently devoted their post-doctoral research on same”. Then how does Gus Deveneaux fit into this criticism, not having done research on any specific ethnic group? Correction here, Lenga-Koroma did not write on the Limba as Abdullah ignorantly asserts, but on the Thaimne. He goes on to what he called the second generation, citing a few names who wrote on ethnic histories and leaving the larger numbers who wrote on other themes people like Joe Alie, David Moore-Sieray, Ismail Rashid, Sylvia Ojukutu-Macauley to name some of them. But he would not mention these as that would disprove the attack weapon he was throwing.

But coming to the question again, what is wrong with writing ethnic histories? He opined that “much thick description, the real stuff of history, gets lost if not buried in this ethnic cocoon within which the Sierra Leonean past has been crafted”. I do not see this’ real stuff of history’ in his own writings and I regard this statement on the real stuff of history as a hoo-ha opinion. If politicians have misused ethnicity in their quest to find easy support from constituencies, that does not mean that we should not study ethnic histories. If we are struggling to gain a better understanding of the entity called Sierra Leone, we need to know more about each of the sub-cultures that exist in Sierra Leone and from there develop common trends of interaction between ethnic groups, towards a more nationalistic perception of the workings of history. This is the way I, and many other African historians who have struggled with pre-colonial history see the situation and we would and should not be dissuaded by Abdullah, who has shown no evidence that he has as much as read an iota of these works on this period when Africans developed and executed their own conceptions of government, thought, trade, you name it.

Let me come now to the main subject of his presentation, the issue of Krio history I will not dwell on this topic lengthily as may perhaps be necessary. I will invite readers to see my most researched explanation in a piece in the eJournal, Research in Sierra Leone Studies on the internet, titled “Nationalism should trump Ethnicity: The Krio saga in Sierra Leone History”, published in December, 2013. Further interested, you can look at C. Magbaily Fyle, “The Yoruba Factor in Sierra Leone’s Krio Socety”. (in Falola and Matt Childs, The Yoruba Diaspora in the Atlantic World. Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 2004). These pieces are not being put forward as definitive, but do make a contribution to the debate. It does not appear that Abdullah has read these contributions or he would have tried to pick holes in them and would not have said “I refrain from discussing Magbailey-Fyle …because he has not made any original contribution to the conversation”. But the first piece he attacks is one jointly written by Wyse and Magbaily Fyle. In this attack, he states ‘The stridency with which their views were articulated came across as part of a larger project to lay the basis of their collective claim to Krio ethnicity’. I am not sure I have heard any more ethnically divisive statement before, particularly coming from a historian. Is it contemptible if one writes about one’s ethnicity, or does the community find a much more informed analysis from that advantage?

Much of the discussion of categories of ”Kriolists” seems to me like splitting hairs. The matter, simply put, as with all historical analyses, is one of carefully looking at available evidence and extant writings on the subject, before developing theories and struggling to re-invent the wheel. Abdullah is not good at this kind of scholarly exercise. The key evidence about the first written representation of the term ‘Creole’ in this context in 1843 (the date is the only thing he got right) is woefully misplaced. Abdullah should go back to Fyfe, who has an unrivalled knowledge of the extant documentation on this issue. The first written reference in question was made by J. Miller, who was Inspector of Schools in the Colony, not by a surgeon named Clarke as Abdullah has invented. Miller’s Report on Education in the Colony is still extant in the Archives.

If Abdullah had got this right, it could have led him to writings on education in the Colony, the most prominent of such writings being Sumner’s Education in Sierra Leone which I doubt whether Abdullah knows about. Sumner’s detailed exposition on Miller’s report addresses for the historian the question, “who were the people being described by Miller as ‘Creoles’? As it turns out, this was a small group of newly arrived Liberated Africans, mostly Yoruba, who were being refused entrance into the CMS schools in the Colony, the CMS claiming that such education for the newcomers was to be provided by the Liberated African Department, which was ill funded and therefore incapable of providing such schooling. A previous arrangement between the CMS and Colonial Government had broken down and the CMS retaliated by refusing admission into their schools for the newcomers.

This markedly elevated the importance of the CMS schools and those who were having education in such schools, a good number of these also being Yoruba. These latter came to regard themselves as ‘Colony born’, a status which they tenaciously clung to, as different from the newcomers, destitute and being looked down upon. This distinction between Colony born and ‘Creoles’ was to later become distorted, as everyone wanted to be regarded as colony born.
It is clear to this writer that upon his investigation, Miller was told that this new insignificant group of newcomers were called “akiriyo” , then obviously regarded as a contemptuous term. Miller, not getting this pronunciation properly, and having some sense of a creolization process in motion (a point I had made before) easily rendered it in writing as ‘Creole’ and there started a whole lot of confusion Abdullah and others have been working on.

Those of us who have labored with pre-colonial history are familiar with the initial transcription of African place names into writing by European travellers who first visited places in Africa. This is not a matter of Yoruba transcription, but of Europeans from a different cultural background listening to Africans reciting names to them and thinking that what they heard was as formulated in their own culture. Since we often use European writings in reconstructing African history, we are always faced with these problems and use other bits of data to resolve them. There are plenty of examples of this in African history and therefore in the Sierra Leone context. That is how Soso becomes Susu, Thaimne came to be rendered as Temne, etc. The last name of Momoh Kai Kai, a prominent leader in Southern Sierra Leone in the late nineteenth century was written at first as ‘Kiki’.
I do not believe that the historians Abdullah is attacking have belaboured the point of the term ‘Krio’ being derived from the word ‘Creole’. A process of creolization was taking place but as Gibril Cole and Dixon-Fyle have rightly pointed out, the word ‘Krio’ did not derive from ‘Creole’. That this could readily have emerged from Akiriyo is the likeliest conclusion and the analysis about Yoruba linguistic rules not supporting this development is pure fantasy. Yoruba living anew in the Colony of Sierra Leone, struggling to be regarded as Colony born, dominated both in their psyche and in reality by a colonial administration shoving English values down their throats, would hardly be concerned about Yoruba rules of breaking words. This is a common feature of breaking Yoruba words in the emerging Krio society, a matter I have dealt with before. Thus removing the initial “A” in Akiriyo was very likely. What Gibril Cole’s work is doing is elaborating on the history of people of Yoruba descent in places like Sierra Leone.

The issue of the development of the use of the term ‘Krio” is simply one of orthography. Again African oral cultures facilitated a free rein in the development of what should become the right spelling of words. Orthograpy is still in the process of standardization. A couple of months ago, I attended a book launching of a work written in Krio by Solomon Pratt who is in his nineties. When I brought up the issue of standardizing orthography in an intervention after the launching (Pratt had followed his own rules), one of his daughters retorted that they want their father to get to 100 and didn’t need to have over-exerted himself by following the orthography proposed by Clifford Fyle and Eldred Jones in the Krio Dictionary.

The spellings used as time progressed Creeo, Krio, – all pointed to the same rendition of the word and all Wyse and others have done was to have settled on one spelling, Krio.

I don’t think much more needs to be said about Abdullah’s diatribe. If he is keenly interested in Krio history, he needs to start all over again by paying attention to existing data on the basis of which he can do informed analyses. I end with the quote he made from my contribution to the book on New Perspectives on the Sierra Leone Krio edited by Dixon Fyle and Gibril Cole. He wrote “Magbaily-Fyle had me ‘taking the entire machinery of Sierra Leone history production at FBC to task”. The full sentence from the book read: Abdullah was in effect taking the entire machinery of Sierra Leone history production at Fourah Bay to task though it was clear from his review that he was totally unfamiliar with what else was being done with Sierra Leone history at Fourah Bay, apart from the work he was reviewing”
I rest my case.

By C. Magbaily Fyle

Monday July 07, 2014.

Photo: Professor Cecil Magbailey-Fyle.