5 April 2007 (Ibadan)
It’s been a lovely couple of weeks, having a routine, some much-needed solitude, and finally getting some good research done. The intense amount of traveling I’ve done over the past several months has really taken its toll on me, and Ruth’s house has been a Godsend. I’ve been hanging out with the other Fellowship scholars, and have gotten particularly close to Helen.* She’s a writer of both fiction and non-fiction, mostly short stories. I like her wit. She’s down-to-earth and has a sophisticated sense of humor. After a long day of staring at documents, it’s nice to unwind with a cold beer and some fresh Suya or Akara.
I try to put in a minimum of five hours at the archives each day, but find that my resolve doesn’t last much beyond four hours. Inconsistent electricity, inadequate lighting, and a fair amount of dust floating around in the air really work to slow me down. Mr. Abraham, a senior staff member here, has been a savior. He checks in on me, making sure I get my documents as quickly as possible. Unfortunately, not all the documents I request actually surface. They are somehow lost in the system, and even though Mr. Abraham puts in a search for them, I don’t have much hope that they will resurface. Some of these are really juicy files too: mostly on grievances lodged against the colonial government by local communities. (I know: I’m a nerd…) I have a clue about how files might easily go missing. Frequently the junior staff are not present in the reading room, leaving the users in the room alone with the documents. I could easily walk out with a file without anyone noticing. There is a television in the reading room (yes) and it is always on (at low volume, of course, but audible none-the-less), and the staff often station themselves in front of it, their backs turned on the readers, to pass the time away. Some mornings, I arrive a bit too early, say, 9 a.m., and I sit out with some of the staff at the entrance to the Archives. I’ve learned that they haven’t received a paycheck since the end of last year. It is clear: morale is low, to say the least.
Over time, hovering over documents to snap digital photos can take its toll on one’s back. This, along with the lighting difficulties, makes for a tricky choreography. I’m sure I look comical to the staff, shifting this way and that, sometimes standing on tip-toe to get a good, unobstructed, well-lit shot of the documents. The files often come to me in unruly, jumbled, yet fragile compilations. I am often afraid to handle some of the documents because they are on the verge of disintegrating completely. These are twentieth century documents. They are not old. And, as I slowly make my way through these files, I observe other users casually, roughly handling similar documents at their tables. Because the staff have not been properly trained, there is no one to advise users on proper handling of the documents. The lack of a controlled environment, along with a lack of institutional support or value is quickly destroying this archive. Everyday, I watch fragments of paper flake onto the tabletops and to the floor without notice. I feel helpless.
I wish I could have begun this work earlier…had not wasted so much time in Benin. But how could I have known that Benin was not the place to start? I try not to panic at the thought that I have yet to begin conducting interviews in the Delta. And I am so far away, here in Ibadan, sifting through documents. Then there is the consistent, nagging doubt that the documents I am going through are the right ones. I constantly question whether I am recording enough information, or selecting the right files. Then there is the awful thought that I may not get enough, that I won’t finish…and then…finally…what if I don’t finish this dissertation? The downward spiral of negative thoughts circle round the stale, fuzzy words on the pages in front of me, and I have to catch my breath; call myself back to the task at hand.
I return to Benin in a couple of days. I have to get back before elections begin. The Archives will close due to the Easter Holiday. They shut down for a Muslim holiday last week and on Monday this week there was another civil servant’s holiday. Early last week, the staff arbitrarily announced, at around noon, that they were going to close the Archives at 1:00 that day. There was no forewarning, no explanation. Come to think of it, the routine I had mentioned earlier really isn’t much of a routine. I just have it in my head that I am on a campus, and that my daily focus is to get as much information from this place as I can.
I dread the upcoming elections. I should have begun my interviews this month, but everyone I’ve spoken to, who are helping me arrange them, have asked me to be patient until elections have passed. I have also been advised to return home, to Benin; it is safer to be in a familiar environment, close to family, than far away in an unfamiliar place. This means two weeks of no work. My mouth gets dry just thinking about it.
* Name changed to protect identity.