‘Heritage is not just about monuments’

  • November 24, 2021
‘Heritage is not just about monuments’

Stanley Onyemechalu talks about his research into the impact of the Nigerian civil war on culture

I argue that Archaeology in a lot of the global north is obsessed with material things, but in places like West Africa the people place more value on non-material things...It is not written down, but lies in people’s memories in layered narratives.

Stanley Onyemechalu

Heritage studies tend to be based on Western models and case studies, with a lot of emphasis on monuments and tangible artefacts. “That’s quite a Western lens,” says Stanley Onyemechalu, who has just started his PhD at Cambridge. “I argue that Archaeology in a lot of the global north is obsessed with material things, but in places like West Africa the people place more value on non-material things such as language, food, music, festivals, dance, traditional medicine and indigenous knowledge. It is not written down, but lies in people’s memories in layered narratives.”

He will look at these narratives and how they are impacted by conflict in the context of Nigeria’s civil war also known as the Biafran war. Stanley grew up among elderly Igbo people who would often talk about life “before the War…”, how things used to be and how things could have been and those narratives have always stayed with him. He says: “I will focus on the complex interaction of conflict and intangible heritage and the dissonances in memorialisation, canonisation, representation and silencing. I hope to further our understanding of the uses of heritage during conflicts and to help post-conflict communities to develop comprehensive approaches to their heritage in order to inform policies for dealing with the legacies of difficult pasts.”

Early years

Stanley [2021] was born and grew up in Lagos, Nigeria, until he was 10 when he passed the entrance test for a missionary boarding school in South Eastern Nigeria. There he was able to learn Igbo and about his family’s culture. There were lots of extracurricular activities at the school, such as a student parliament and a model UN. Stanley was a leader from an early age. A senior prefect, he was also elected head boy of his school. Moreover, he got involved in student politics and was elected to position in local, state and then national youth politics. 

When he was 16, Stanley was one of two young people from his state chosen to do a three-year stint at the National Children’s Parliament in Nigeria. Stanley was among 70 young people from around the country who came together to debate issues such as female genital mutilation and child abuse. His time in Abuja coincided with the mass kidnap of schoolchildren by Boko Haram. ”We held an extraordinary session to voice our support for their release and put pressure on the government,” says Stanley. “Seeing how politics worked opened my eyes. I could see it was a double-edged sword,” he adds.

He decided that, while he still wanted to be involved in politics, he was also keen to continue his studies. Initially he wanted to study law, but was unable to get a place on a law course so he chose Archaeology. He was also inspired by his Archaeology lecturers, including Gates Cambridge Scholar Chioma Ngonadi’s success. 

Undergraduate studies and national service

The decision to commit to a degree in Archaeology was a turning point for Stanley. From his second year he started doing fieldwork, each time in a new place, learning about the culture and environment in different regions of Nigeria. Stanley discovered that studying cultures and past human activities provided more context for navigating the present and more insight for reshaping the future – a key leadership asset.  He did a project investigating how prolonged interregnal periods in certain Igbo communities, occasioned by succession difficulties after the death of a king, could impact cultural continuity. “Everything is tied to the king in my area,” he says. “Everyone rallies around the king’s calendar. I wanted to understand how the absence of one person could hinder the cultural process within communities and how culture can be interrupted by the kingship process.” 

Stanley got a first class degree and the university had a policy of retaining first class students so he knew he had a teaching job there. After his degree he had to do a year’s community service in the National Youth Service Corps (NYSC). He was posted outside his region to a university in Ogun State in the south west of Nigeria. He worked there as an administrative assistant in the exams and records unit where, among other things, he dealt with students’ applications for scholarships. It opened his mind to how the scholarship system works. Stanley was also president of the NYSC educational development group and convinced his university to sponsor some educational projects in return for putting information about it on the back of school textbooks.

Postgraduate studies

After his national service Stanley returned to his university in 2017 to join the lectureship cadre while doing a master’s focused on the cultural impact of the Nigerian Civil War. His study gathered preliminary information on three Nsukka communities in Igboland who had witnessed the war and looked at how it had affected their heritage, something he is expanding  for his PhD to more communities. 

During his master’s programme in 2018, Stanley volunteered as a research assistant with the German Leprosy and Tuberculosis Relief Association, Nigeria, on their ‘Oral History Project on Leprosy’ funded by the Sasakawa Memorial Health Foundation in Japan. The project aimed to correct misconceptions about leprosy, which has led to societal discrimination against patients, survivors and caregivers in Nigeria. Stanley’s ethnographic data collection and transcription expertise earned him a full appreciation page in the book that was published about the project. 

He finished his master’s in January 2020, just before the pandemic struck and applied to Cambridge. He was told that Chioma had given a talk about Cambridge and he contacted her to find out more about the application process to Cambridge. Nigerian universities went on strike between March and November which meant he had time off from teaching and was able to reflect more on his proposed PhD topic. 

Stanley, who has three peer-reviewed articles in reputable international journals, chose Cambridge because of its reputation in conflict and heritage studies. For his PhD he will do extensive field work and talk to the survivors of Nigeria’s civil war and their descendants in the Igbo region and will also visit a museum dedicated to the civil war to see how it represents the national narrative. He will combine that with critical heritage perspectives and extensive training in qualitative research methods from Cambridge.

Stanley’s long-term goal is to be a consultant for UNESCO about conflict and heritage management and to give a West African perspective on their policies, moving them away from a focus on monuments. Stanley’s PhD supervisor is Dr Dacia Viejo Rose who has worked at UNESCO and is an expert on conflict-heritage studies. “Africa is underrepresented in world heritage as a result,” he says. “It is only recently that UNESCO started looking at intangible information and recognised that heritage in some parts of the world is not based on monuments.”

Latest News

Building Indigenous people’s citizenship rights: the role of heritage

Oscar Espinoza Martin [2024] sees archaeology and cultural heritage as tools for strengthening Indigenous people’s sense of citizenship. “It is important how people feel about their past and how they navigate from there to the present,” he says. As an Indigenous person growing up in Lima with an early interest in history and philosophy, he […]

Scholar appointed VP of the Human Frontier Science Program

A former Gates Cambridge Scholar has been elected a Vice President of the Human Frontier Science Program (HFSP), an international programme funding excellent frontier research in the life sciences. Christian Boehm’s appointment was announced in late June at an event in Washington D.C. to celebrate the 35th anniversary of the HFSP. The programme, founded in […]

Inside Unit X

A Gates Cambridge Scholar has co-authored a book which gives an inside look at Unit X, the elite unit within the Pentagon that brings Silicon Valley’s cutting-edge technology to America’s military. Christopher Kirchhoff is co-author with Raj M Shah of Unit X: How the Pentagon and Silicon Valley Are Transforming the Future of War, published […]

Gates Cambridge welcomes new Interim Director

Dr Holly Tilbrook has been appointed Interim Director of Gates Cambridge. Currently Deputy Director in the Academic Centres Division at the University of Cambridge, Dr Tilbrook joins Gates Cambridge in August following a diverse career at the University of Cambridge. She describes herself as “the classic generalist administrator”. Starting in the Faculty of Classics in […]