- Reforming Girlhood in Colonial Lagos
In Making Modern Girls, Abosede George offers an engaging and complex study of "girl-savers" in 1940s Lagos, Nigeria, and of the developmentalist colonial state that they helped call into being. George's central argument is that colonial interventions vis-à-vis juvenile delinquents, children in "moral danger," and girl hawkers, who sold food and other goods on the street, rendered the child as the "first category of native to emerge as a universal subject in Africa" (6). She is most concerned with the activities of the elite African women who participated in the Lagos Women's League and who took up the issue of girl hawking as part of an urban reform agenda. She also documents the work of the Colony Welfare Office, which brought British practices of social work to Nigeria. These groups sometimes cooperated, but they maintained distinct sets of priorities as they sought to reform aspects of working-class childhood that they found problematic. Given this focus, George's book is an excellent account of the production of ideas about girlhood by both elite African women reformers and colonial welfare workers, but it is not really a study of girls.
The book consists of seven chapters and begins with two that provide an early twentieth-century context in which to situate the key developments of the 1940s and early 1950s that animate the rest of the book. Chapter one introduces the reader to the landscape, neighborhoods, and diverse populations of early twentieth-century Lagos; discusses life histories of elite African women reformers; and provides a sketch of working-class girlhood drawn from survey data and interviews. George then introduces the Lagos Women's League, a voluntary association for elite African women that aimed to rectify the social ills of the city and improve the lot of ordinary African girls. The second chapter traces the emergence of colonial policy on juvenile reform in the interwar period, focusing on the Enugu Reformatory for Boys. George identifies a distinct gender-specific approach to juvenile reform, which would continue to shape policies into the postwar period. While the Enugu Reformatory dealt with problem boys by providing a [End Page 148] regimented environment and training in a trade, the state sent problem girls to convents or foster homes to prepare for marriage.
George returns to Lagos in chapter three, detailing how the Colony Welfare Office took up juvenile delinquency in the early 1940s and how it initially dealt only with boys. This chapter is key to the book's main argument since it contends that, by applying insights and methods from social work to the problem of delinquency, welfare workers approached the "Lagosian child" as "a universal child who would respond to the same principles and methods of juvenile reform that were applied to children in Europe" (101). In response, the Lagos Women's League pushed the state to do more about wayward girls and focused intently on the problem of girl hawkers. The subsequent passage of the 1943 Children and Young Person's Ordinance gave the state a significantly greater role in "disciplining Nigerian children and young people," George claims, and a subsection of the ordinance placed such sweeping new limitations on street trading that it banned most girls and some boys from hawking (109).
The remaining chapters explore, in various ways, how colonial welfare workers and African women reformers worked to save girls from "moral danger" following the passage of the 1943 ordinance. In chapter four, George shows how both elite African women and British officials attempted to save girl hawkers from the underage prostitution with which they had become associated. Yet despite this shared focus, George points out, a different set of concerns motivated these actors, with African women intent on articulating a particular kind of modern female urban identity and with welfare workers extending the reach of the developmentalist state. Chapter five elaborates on the...