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The Nature of the Path

Reading a West African Road

2017
Author:

Marcus Filippello

The Nature of the Path

Sometimes a road is more than just a road

Marcus Filippello shows how a road running through the Lama Valley in Southeastern Benin has become a mnemonic device allowing residents to counter prevailing histories. Built by the French colonial government, the road serves as a site where the Ọhọri people narrate their changing relationship to the environment and assert their independence in the political milieus of colonial and postcolonial Africa.

Offering a new type of postcolonial history that is informed by how people engage with the natural and material worlds, Marcus Filippello weaves together local and colonial narratives to make a significant contribution to our understanding of this little-studied region over several centuries of its history.

Celia Nyamweru, St. Lawrence University and Pwani University

The Nature of the Path reveals how a single road has shaped the collective identity of a community that has existed on the margins of larger societies for centuries. Marcus Filippello shows how a road running through the Lama Valley in Southeastern Benin has become a mnemonic device that has allowed residents to counter prevailing histories.

Built by the French colonial government, and following a traditional pathway, the road serves as a site where the Ọhọri people narrate their changing relationship to the environment and assert their independence in the political milieus of colonial and postcolonial Africa. Filippello first visited the Yorùbá-speaking Ọhọri community in Benin knowing only the history in archival records. Over several years, he interviewed more than 100 people with family roots in the valley and discovered that their personal identities were closely tied to the community, which in turn was inextricably linked to the history of the road that snakes through the region’s seasonal wetlands. The road—contested, welcomed, and obstructed over many years—passes through fertile farmlands and sacred forests, both rich in meaning for residents.

Filippello’s research seeks to counter prevailing notions of Africa as an “exotic” and pristine, yet contrarily war-torn, disease-ridden, environmentally challenged, and impoverished continent. His informants’ vivid construction of history through the prism of the road, coupled with his own archival research, offers new insights into Africans’ complex understandings of autonomy, identity, and engagement in the slow process we call modernization.

The Nature of the Path

Marcus Filippello is assistant professor of history at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee.

The Nature of the Path

Offering a new type of postcolonial history that is informed by how people engage with the natural and material worlds, Marcus Filippello weaves together local and colonial narratives to make a significant contribution to our understanding of this little-studied region over several centuries of its history.

Celia Nyamweru, St. Lawrence University and Pwani University

The Nature of the Path

Contents
Notes on Orthography, Diacritics, and Language
Introduction: Crossing the Black Earth
1. The Roads into Igbó Ilú: The Making of an Ọhọri Identity
2. Roads to Subversion: Displaying Independence and Displacing Authority in the Early Colonial Era
3. Going to the Greens Seller: Ọhọri Communal Expansion in the 1920s and 1930s
4. “It Has Become a Joy to Go to Tollou”: Reinterpreting the Tools of French Colonial Développement
5. Cementing Identities: Negotiating Independence in a Changing Landscape
Conclusion: Breathing with the Road
Acknowledgments
Notes
Bibliography
Index