In the 1930s, Ralph Bunche (1904–1971) pioneered “the view of the native” in the field of African Studies. According to the prominent Africanist Pearl Robinson, “He believed that a deep, empirically based knowledge of Africa provided a better understanding of the vital interests of the general population than many of the positions articulated by political authorities on their behalf.”
Nollywood films first inspired my imagination on board Ghana’s regional buses during my junior year semester abroad. As I spent countless hours crisscrossing the red dirt roads from Accra to Tamale, I became captivated by the vivid storytelling of family dramas, rags-to-riches tales, and tensions between new and older forms of spirituality. As African stories told by African voices, these films were my cultural ambassador, introducing me to the immanent challenges and triumphs of West African urban life undisclosed in classroom lectures.
So what would Ralph Bunche think of the Nigerian film industry? At the beginning of his career at Howard University, he would have valued Nollywood’s “native perception” as the most valid data in documenting the social, political, and economic welfare of Nigerians. But by the time that Bunche arrived in the Congo to head its UN Operation in the 1960s, the lack of local knowledge often resulted in UN policies made without an understanding of the local context. It was during this period that Joseph Mobutu seized power, whose thirty-year dictatorship of the Congo is often referenced in textbook definitions of kleptocracy.
Perhaps Bunche’s example teaches us that African Studies should not be an aloof pursuit, but one that relies on the locally produced knowledge for which Nollywood is known.