Marius Kothor received her MA in History from the University of Iowa in Spring, 2017. She will be entering the PhD program in History at Yale University in Fall, 2017. Her research focuses on the role of market women in the construction of national identity in Togo. Follow her on Twitter @AfrikanaPress.
The Nana Benz are powerful cultural icons in the small west African nation of Togo. Starting in the mid-twentieth century, this group of female textile traders built a commercial empire by gaining exclusive rights to the wax patterned prints produced by the United Africa Company for the West African market. My dissertation examines how the Nana Benz used their cultural, economic and transnational networks to shape the political culture of the Togolese independence movement.
Last summer, I conducted oral interviews with some of the Nana Benz in Togo, and this summer, with the support of a Next Gen Digital PhD summer internship, I began the process of uploading these life histories onto the ESRI Story Maps platform. In translating and transcribing the interviews for this project, I noticed an important, and often overlooked, theme in the African women’s lives. Specifically, I discovered how important migration has been in shaping the lives of these influential women.
The mobility of individual Nana Benz throughout their lifetimes adds nuance to the historical literature on migration in Africa during the first half of the twentieth century. Studies on migrancy in colonial Africa have tended to stress the movement of men to urban areas in search of wage labor, thereby leaving women secluded in the rural regions with only the land to sustain them. In these narratives, African women emerge as agency-less, immobile, victims whose sole purpose is to reproduce the labor force for the colonial economy.
The life histories of the Nana Benz disrupt this gendered representation of migration in colonial Africa. Take for example, the story of Mama Afi, a prominent textile trader in Togo’s capital city, Lomé. (The name Mama Afi is an alias.) She was born in the predominantly Ewe-speaking town of Kpalimé in the early 1930s in what was then French Togoland. Despite her birth in the French occupied territory, Mama Afi’s family originated from the Ewe-speaking region of the British Gold Coast colony (Ghana). While she began her career as a market trader by selling household items in the rural markets in Kpalimé, she relocated to the bustling port city of Lomé in her late teens in search of a broader consumer base for her products. While in Lomé, Mama Afi also relied on her connections with market women’s associations in her ancestral homeland in the British controlled Gold Coast to finance her business ventures. With help from these organizations, she established lucrative transnational trading partnerships that eventually led to her becoming a premier distributor of the much sought after Dutch-Wax textiles.
Mama Afi’s story highlights the need for a more nuanced view of African women’s mobility during colonialism. Her movements between the rural and urban areas of Kpalimé, Lomé and the Gold Coast present a striking departure from the historical representation of African women as immobile during the colonial period. Moreover, Mama Afi’s lived experiences illustrate that, despite the limiting impact of European colonial rule on individual self-determination in Togo, the market place, as a historically feminine space in Ewe culture, allowed Togolese women some agency in defining the direction of their lives.
The Next Gen summer internship has given me the opportunity to spend the summer experimenting with various ways to digitally present the life histories of women like Mama Afi. In translating and transcribing oral narratives about the Nana Benz for this project, I discovered important insights into the ways in which migration was gendered in the late colonial period in Togo. This discovery solidified my belief that ESRI Story Maps is the most useful platform for my project because it enables me to map how individual women traversed regional boundaries as well as colonial borders throughout their lifetimes. By showcasing the stories of the Nana Benz in an interactive online platform, I hope to offer public access to a set of narratives about African women’s lives that is contextualized within the larger historical literature on African Women’s history.