From a European or American perspective, West Africa is historically seen as a place of exile, where many people were kidnapped from their homes, sold, and taken away to be enslaved. But in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, this region became a place of convergence. Many freed people from all over the African diaspora returned to the city of Lagos, Nigeria, bringing a panoply of new cultures and experiences with them.

“A lot of them had been exported in chains, and when they got their freedom, they came back to what they thought of as their home,” says Abosede George, an associate professor of history and Africana studies. Lagos was an active port and major trading center that made it a magnet for economic migrants. “It was a place where they knew they could find like-minded people and be fully human, fully modern, and fully explore their potential.”

Photograph by William Mebane

George is now on a mission to recover that history through the Ekopolitan Project, which uses oral history to document the stories that have gotten lost on Lagos’ way to a sprawling metropolis of 20 million. “A frequent lament people have is there is no understanding of the history of Lagos,” she says. “I am trying to raise people’s awareness of this place as one of convergence and reinvention.”

The project has personal roots for George, who grew up in Lagos and was surprised to find out when she was 12 that her great-great-grandparents came from Brazil. “It made me realize how much I took for granted and made me wonder what other questions I wasn’t asking,” she says. Those questions drew her to the field of African studies. As a PhD student at Stanford, she explored the stories of girls in 20th-century Lagos who worked as illegal street hawkers and the social reformers who tried to “save” them. To supplement written records, George conducted oral histories of some 400 Lagosians for a more complete picture of the girls’ lives.

For her latest project, George is conducting oral histories to record the family tales that have been relayed from one generation of Lagosians to the next. “I am trying to understand what kind of narratives get handed down,” she says. The histories will be supplemented by archival records from the U.S., Britain, Brazil, and Nigeria and, with permission from participants, made public in an archive or online database that can be shared among Africans in Lagos and throughout the world. “There is a real hunger for this history,” says George, “and real inspiration that can be taken from it.” •