Interview with Emilie Guitard // Conducting fieldwork in Ibadan to study relations to plants and nature within the city

Emilie GuitardCan you explain to us what the INFRAPATRI project is, what brings you to Ibadan and what is your role in this project?

INFRAPATRI is a program funded by the French National Research Agency (ANR), from March 2021 to March 2025. It is a program that I supervise within my research unit, PRODIG, based at the Campus Condorcet in Aubervilliers, France. The objectives of this program are to compare the relationships, knowledge, and attachments of city-dwellers and municipal authorities to plants in four cities in sub-Saharan Africa: Yaoundé in Cameroon, Ibadan in Nigeria, Porto-Novo in Benin Republic, and Dakar in Senegal. One hypothesis that we want to test in these four cities pertaining to these relationships to plants is that, in addition to the heritage policies that have been implemented in African cities and that are often focused on the built environment and, moreover, on colonial buildings, there may also be memorial attachments to plants by the inhabitants of these cities.

The idea is to see how plants in these urban contexts could represent what we termed a « heritage from below » (infra-patrimoine in French), that is to say defined outside of any institutional process of patrimonialization.  To do so, we are investigating the relationships and the knowledge that people have about urban vegetation (meaning plants, trees, etc.). When I say people, I mean average city dwellers, taking of course into account variations in age, gender, social class etc. Then we will put all this in comparison with what has been done, or not done, by the municipal authorities over the long term (from the foundation of the cities, through colonial rule, to present time) Within this project, social sciences researchers from different disciplines collaborate, essentially anthropologists, geographers, and historians, but we obviously work also with researchers in natural sciences, especially botany. Hence, it is really an interdisciplinary program.

The idea being that the plants we study, and nature more widely, has an organic reality, and therefore properties that we can apprehend through natural sciences such as ecology or botany. But at the same time, nature needs to also be understood as a social and cultural construction, evolving over time, that we can therefore apprehend by anthropological, sociological, geographical, and historical approaches.

Do you already have hypotheses, or even results?

One of our hypothesis (even if we have a rather inductive approach, so we try not to have too strong hypotheses prior to conducting our fieldwork), is that there may be quite old and strong attachments to the various plants populating these cities, leading to a rich knowledge about plants in these urban contexts. There might be great variations between cities due to their differential histories as well, since, for example, Ibadan is the only pre-colonial city of our study, and Yaoundé, which is next door, is a city that was really constituted as such after the German and the French colonization.

Obviously, this determines the way in which plants are apprehended. Our hypothesis is that attachments to plants existed, but that these attachments may have been damaged at a given moment because the vegetation itself was damaged by land speculation, demographic growth and a certain conception of modernity that is found in many of these contexts, which favors concrete and tar to the detriment of vegetation, seen as something rural and backward, etc.

But the hypothesis that we also have is that there is a renewed interest for plants, these last years in these cities, which are all capitals except Ibadan (which nevertheless remains an important city in Nigeria). This happens on the one hand under the impulse of globalized elites who have a certain attraction to plants, gardens, flowers, etc. and on the other hand because of international institutions promoting the concept of « sustainable city » which is very much in vogue since the 2010's and which, as a result, leads to an injunction of international donors to take into account plants and to reintroduce them in urban planning and management for sustainability purposes.

A third hypothesis is that the vegetation has not always necessarily been considered as something to be patrimonialized by the municipal institutions in these four cities, if not perhaps during the colonial period. And even then, it was not necessarily seen as a heritage, but rather as something to be developed, notably in public spaces, notably for hygienic purposes, and to showcase the capacity of the colonial powers to control their cities, to order them. It was then also a form of political ostentation.

You worked between 2015 and 2019 at the French Institute for Research in Africa in Ibadan. What have you missed the most since you left?

Numerous things, it would be hard to choose, but what I have always appreciated most about IFRA is that it is a bit of an empty shell, in the sense that the structure offers a lot of possibilities, and you can invest it with a lot of things. We can do a lot of things within this framework and in fact what is very beautiful is that it meets a strong local dynamism on the part of the academic, artistic, and entrepreneurial scenes, particularly in the south-west of Nigeria in my opinion. There is a real dynamism here which can allow IFRA to conceive programs and academic events that are very rich. It also responds to a certain extent to a demand from students and from colleagues, who are sometimes a little frustrated by the state of federal universities in Nigeria, which now are coming out of a long strike as we know. IFRA can offer this space where we can still do things together. We can create interesting projects together and we can set up collaborations between foreign researchers, French but not only because we also have colleagues from all over the world who often come, and Nigerian students and academics who are extremely dynamic. I had missed this atmosphere and I am very happy to find these people and to work with them again.

What is your favourite tree here in Ibadan?

It's hard because they are all very beautiful, notably in UI. Now I've been talking again these days about Igi Nla (Ceiba pentandra), which seems to be an extremely interesting and important tree in the Yoruba religion. It is a very dangerous tree, very powerful and you rarely encounter them nowadays in the city, even if several are still present on UI campus. Otherwise, I also like Iroko (Milicia excelsa) a lot, for its cultural significance in the Yoruba context. And I am also quite fond of the Odan (Ficus), that you can still find in front of the compounds all over the old centre of Ibadan.

Tags: Nature, Anthropology

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