Raphael Oyelade

“It was just: ‘I’m going to write my dissertation’. I was just doing my coursework”. Casual words from Precious Oyelade, whose coursework “Changing Representations of Nigerian Identity: An Exploration through Nollywood and its Audience” was awarded a 78 per cent First when she graduated this year. To add to that casualness, she collected her data and wrote her 10,000 words within one hectic, epic month. Do not doubt that this was a passionate project though. Exploring how young Brits like her relate to the Nigerian culture portrayed in its films has had an impact beyond simple coursework, one that she never could have expected.

Because Nollywood, Nigeria’s billion dollar film industry, is sometimes accused of “plenty of quantity, not a lot of quality”, I wondered whether she had ever imagined that she would consider it academically. “No, not at all actually. My parents watched Nollywood when I was younger but they didn’t necessarily like it, so I didn’t necessarily like it either” she reflects. “My dissertation grew out of an identity crisis within myself. When I came to Cambridge I wondered, who am I? Coming from what you’d typically call a working class background, and being in upper-middle class Cambridge, where do I find my sense of self? So, identifying not only as Black Britsh but as a Nigerian, I looked to Nollywood to cement who I was. My academic interest in third year came when I thought, well, if Nollywood has had such an impact on my identity, what impact has it had on the identity of others who are born in the diaspora?”

It was the film Gone Too Far! written by Bola Agbaje and directed by Destiny Ekaragha, screened at the Centre for African Studies Film Festival in Cambridge, that convinced her to seek out what second generation Nigerian diasporans like her were thinking. “There’s so much to say about growing up in multicultural urban settings where you’re surrounded, not only by other Nigerians, but Caribbeans, Indians…I was interested that someone who is of the diaspora had written a film about being in the diaspora, but it had this Nollywood-esque comedy to it. I thought, no, I have to look at this. What do people think of this?”

Finding literature references, other than the one book on Nollywood in the UL, was not straightforward. In writing her dissertation she was documenting an experience of dual cultural identity that many would discuss, but no one had yet written down – just as writers of the second and third generation Caribbean diaspora, like Stuart Hall and Paul Gilroy, did when their identity crisis came about in the 70s and 80s. “Obviously, when you’re trying to justify why you’re doing a piece of writing, yes it’s important to highlight that [other writing] is not here. Especially after three years of trawling through stuff in Cambridge, it’s like, there’s nothing about me here.”

Thankfully, she was undeterred, unpressured to choose a more mainstream topic despite the risk that comes with a subject in which no supervisor is an expert. “It was more like, should I do my dissertation, or should I just do another paper? Because for me it was Nollywood or nothing. It was definitely Nollywood or die! (laughs)”. This is of course why her result is so remarkable and why her dissertation has had such wide publicity – high firsts from Cambridge are rare, but academic papers about the Nigerian diaspora and Nollywood were, before hers, non-existent.

As such, her research involved focus groups, a fun three weeks of “Who wants to come and watch this really cool film and talk about Nollywood?”. She found that Nollywood films were created to appeal to the diaspora’s first generation who, unlike many of the students she talked to, had a grounding in Nigeria. Although her volunteers balanced their British-Nigerian identities differently, a common thread was clear: “It’s not that they didn’t have these feelings or that they couldn’t articulate them, it’s that no one had ever created a forum for such a discussion. That was literally it.”

I am reminded of Audre Lorde and the importance of not letting others define us. Anyone who denies the importance of a dedicated space, physical or intellectual, to discuss one’s identity, simply hasn’t noticed that for them this space is daily life. So it’s easy to understand Precious’s achievement academically, less obvious is the precedent for space that she has built, for British Nigerians to harness their identities and take Nollywood, as art and as narrative, seriously. “This is it,” she nods, “it’s great that [academics] have recognised the dissertation because that is what has given me the publicity that I have now, but it’s so that this conversation can be had where it is supposed to be had. It’s not really about having academics be like, ‘this is coherent’, that’s not really what it’s about.”

Although she insists that she did not uncover anything new in her work, the effects of something more important are clear: adding visibility and concrete possibility for these conversations to continue in all domains. “I’ve had people from Durham and other universities inboxing me and saying ‘I want to do this dissertation, how did you go about it?’ on different aspects of Nollywood, so people have been inspired and I hope that they continue to be.” She is even creating a shortened version of the thesis, as well as the one that will most likely be published, just so that those who are most interested can read it. “Nollywood is powerful!” she remarks, “I love it, absolutely love it.”

With such a reasoned and passionate voice, I’m not surprised to hear that not just students have been inspired. “Even the person who wrote one of the films I used for my focus group emailed me and talked about how inspiration works in circles, because her film inspired me to do my dissertation. And she was thinking ‘who’s listening to what I’m saying about my experience growing up in Britain? No one.’ But actually this, my dissertation and people seeing it, inspired her to keep on writing! That’s the kind of thing I want to do!”

It seems only right that the circle of inspiration has come right back round. “And even now I’m considering further study” she shares jovially, “whereas before I thought ‘never’. But now I think this is something that I’d actually want to study, so why not? But we’ll talk about that another time!” I have no doubt that we will.