ktravula – a travelogue!

art. language. travel

Documenting African Names

I’ve always been fascinated by names, and I can’t say since when. I’ve also always been fascinated with technology. It was no coincidence then when, while researching topics for my undergraduate project at the University of Ibadan, I settled on creating A Multimedia Dictionary of Yoruba Names. It was the first undergraduate project in the department (and, I hear, in the university) which made use of only electronic materials. There was no hard bound copy of any written material. Everything was hypertext and audio, burnt onto a compact disk. For audio I had the help of friends and colleagues to obtain fluent Yoruba speakers willing to help pronounce these names that formed the bulk of the audio database. Then, with my little knowledge of html, I designed an reference interface to access the sounds. Users could click to hear a name pronounced, or they could merely look up a name to discover the meaning.

oruko-logoI found the project stimulating  to work on, hard as the challenge of audio recording was, sometimes across two continents, but it gave me great pleasure, and something worthwhile to work on at that time when academic endeavour as a student looked like a chore with no silver linings. It helped to have had a couple of published materials to use, but researching the meaning of names proved interesting enough to mitigate the boredom of the final years of school. I got my degree, and left the university, with a niggling desire at the back of my mind to one day return to the project in a larger form. The choice was either to find money, call up some of the original collaborators and do it again, this time without the constraints of a university environment, or to simply pursue it as a solo side project. The reality turned out to be that because of other commitments, I would never be able to individually pursue it as a solo project anymore.

Time and chance has kept me in the orbit of project and vocations that relate to African (Yoruba particularly) languages and culture, and my masters thesis focused on the problems and peculiarities of learning Yoruba tone as a second language learner/speaker. Growing up as a monolingual speaker of English in Europe or America, how easy is it to learn Yoruba (or any other tone language for that matter? Mandarin, Vietnamese, Igbo etc). The result of my research yielded fascinating insights to second language learning and acquisition and I have sworn to return to that research as well at a later date. Scholars who have dismissed the possibility of monolingual English speakers to learn and master tone at a second language level will be disappointed by the challenge posed to their premature conclusion.

The reason I have been interested and involved in these things (beside the obvious one of it being in the orbit of my profession as a linguist) is my consternation at the absence of enough cultural materials online from this (Yoruba) and many other African cultures. In this century when most of what is knowable (particularly about Western culture and civilisation) is online and accessible to everyone, it is appalling that Africa seems to be left out. True, most of our cultural information are oral and thus based in the memory of griots and other living libraries scattered around our hamlets. This however can’t be an excuse to shy away from the tools of new technology to document them for future generations. Foreign media who need to pronounce names of African celebrities resort to Anglicizing them without consequences. If a Nigerian can pronounce “Krauthammer” or “Schwarzenegger” or “Spielberg” or “Reagan”, why would folks like Chiwetalu Ejiofor (as the Igbo will spell and pronounce the name) need to change their names to “Chiwetel” in order to get by in Hollywood? In this video from The Tonight’s Show, British actor of Nigerian origin, David Oyelowo tries to teach Jimmy Fallon how to correctly pronounce his Yoruba name.

In a world where linguists and cultural practitioners from Africa do their jobs well, Jimmy Fallon would have had to consult a dictionary of African names online and learnt the correct pronunciation before his guest comes on the show. He would do that for a Swedish guest, after all, no?

My life’s work then, it seems day after day (as I’ve found myself gradually gravitating towards) is to find all the ways possible to make the African experience part of the world experience, using tools provided by information technology. But not just that, it will also include making technology friendly and accessible to Africans who would otherwise have been put off by its alien language and lack of enough user-friendliness. Between 2012  and 2014, we successfully petitioned Twitter to allow the platform be translated into Yoruba. This was a huge victory for language survival and a testament to the open-mindedness of the folks at Twitter, recognizing the ability of the platform to be even more efficient in the hands of more people, and in more languages.

logo1My current project is to document ALL Yoruba names, by crowdsourcing, along with their etymology, meaning, phonetic/morphological properties, and all other stories and cultural dimensions to them. This time, we’re trying to make not just a dictionary, but a resource centre with dictionary, encyclopedic, and linguistic/multimedia information. I am raising funds on Indiegogo to meet the goal of creating the software backbone of the project and we have got a number of volunteers and goodwill. The larger aim is to kickstart a process that will lead to an awakening, and an eventual movement by all concerned, to put more effort in the documentation of our cultural experience in spite of the onslaught of a type of monolcultural globalisation that only leaves us bereft of any signpost of our identity and place in the world. Not just for Yoruba, however, but for all African languages. But we have to start somewhere.

If you believe in this dream, please go to the project page on Indiegogo to donate whatever you can. Every dollar counts.

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New Project: A Yoruba Names Dictionary

Hi Blog Readers,

Happy new year to you! I hope that you’ve been busy. I have.

IMG_6258 - CopyAlong with a few researchers (and with anticipated support from a few institutions), we are proposing to build a multimedia dictionary of Yoruba names. It is a project that has been dear to my heart for a while now, and a continuation of an earlier project from university days. As the name suggests, it will be a dictionary. And being a dictionary, it will have a number of important linguistic, cultural, and artistic resources attached to each entry. We envision a cross between a wiki and a dictionary.

I wrote more about it on the Indiegogo campaign page. Please donate and help make it happen. (UPDATE: I hear that the previous link wasn’t working. I’ve fixed it now. Thanks @hardcorekancil on twitter)

It’s been ten days so far, and we have already been featured at Tech Cabal, WeRunThings and The Cable, and in countless retweets and words of mouth. We thank them! We have also raised about 30% of our target, which is incredible considering the period (after a major spending holiday). We have 50 days to go, so there is still time to chip in no matter how little.

Many of you readers have already heard about the project, and many of you have donated. Thank you. If anyone of you are interested in joining in the campaign in any way (or supporting it in any other non-financial way), please drop me a line at kt at ktravula dot com.

So, what have you guys been up to?

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At Agodi Gardens, Ibadan

IMG_5833 IMG_6082IMG_5835 IMG_5836 IMG_5837 IMG_5841 IMG_5863 IMG_5865 IMG_5885 IMG_5887 IMG_5889 IMG_5891 IMG_5896 IMG_5914 IMG_5943 IMG_5988 IMG_5989 IMG_5990 IMG_6032 IMG_6045 IMG_6065 IMG_6072 There’s a reason, I assume, why the midwest United States appeals more to me – of all the regions in the country – than places like the coast, for instance. True, New York City and California are dream destinations for the amount of fun and activities that they pack. What I’ve heard about them, however, in terms of serenity and the freedom to pursue contemplative vocations, aren’t encouraging. I could be wrong, of course.

In any case, living in Edwardsville and Glen Carbon (both in Southern Illinois) accustomed me to a certain standard of serenity that I haven’t found anywhere else. Not in Lagos, anyway, where the drag of motor traffic coupled with the bustle of daily rituals combine with noise, filth, and other minor indignities to distract a questing mind. The nearest open park I’ve been in in Lagos is the Lekki Conservation Plaza which, as good as it is, still leaves much to be desired. Terrible walking planks, poor labelling, and a general poverty of ideas regarding the management and purpose of the establishment. Still, it’s a great respite for the concrete jungle that Lagos is. There are other great places in Lagos, of course, but they are not open, public, parks with affordable access to families and chasers of serenity. (Sure, Tinubu Square is better looking now than it used to be. Bridges and other public places have been fixed up by the APC-led administration in Lagos. But for a city with so many people and such busy and hardworking people, more avenues for relaxation is needed. If you want to relax in Lagos, and you have some money, go to Inagbe Resorts).

Enter Ibadan, a town that has always been equally notorious, equally famous for both its serenity and its capacity for turmoil and mischief. On the mischief side, the republican town has been quoted in almost all the political turmoils of note in Nigeria, from the Wild West 1965 crises to the Adedibu imperial areaboyship of the early 2000s. Notably, the state has never reelected a governor. Ever. Every election season is a battle, and it always leads to the defeat of the incumbent. For me, more than being my home, Ibadan is also a getaway location for serenity after months in the jungle that is Lagos. Unfortunately, the typical rap that the town gets – especially as relates to its uneducated populace – manages to get more airplay than its reputation as a destination for serenity and intellection. Go to Linda Ikeji’s Blog, Nigeria’s most popular gossip blog, and the most popular post relating to Ibadan is likely to relate to a crowd at the opening of a Mall or a decrepit arrival lounge at it’s local airport. For some reason not far from mischief, it has always been better to laugh at Ibadan for its inadequacies than to celebrate its distinctiveness.

I can say, from other experiences, that I’ve found many more rare books in bookshops in Ibadan than anywhere else around the country.  Today’s steal are “An Overview of the English Language in Nigeria” by Ayo Banjo, and “Iwe Itan Ibadan ati Die Ninu Awon Ilu Agbegbe Re Bi Iwo, Osogbo ati Ikirun” by Oba B. Akinyele (Olubadan of Ibadan from 1955 to 1964). Books are not the only things that make the town a premier in innovation (The University of Ibadan, founded in 1948, is the first university in the country, and the television station, WTNV – later NTA – founded in 1959, is the first on the continent), its spacial peculiarity (it’s the largest city in West Africa) and it’s intellectual pedigree in the Nigerian space (produced Soyinka, Achebe, Clarke, etc) makes it the most natural claimant to the role as a significant watering hole.

That said, this post, is about a new discovery in Ibadan: the Agodi Gardens. It’s not a new place, of course, but it has now been newly renovated by the current administration and made conducive for visitation and contemplation. It was never always like this. Like the Trans Amusement Park and the University Zoo inside the University of Ibadan, the Gardens used to be an eyesore. But unlike the earlier two, this one has been diligently fixed up to be just as good as any community/city park in anywhere in the world. The following is true: if someone else had taken the following pictures, I could have been confused as to where they were taken: Illinois or Ibadan. That’s quite impressive, but it shouldn’t be. We have the resources. Let’s hope that the administration of the state continues to use public funds for more public good of this kind. And, to temper the enthusiasm a little bit, the zoo ensconced in the Gardens is still terrible looking. Hope that this gets a similarly impressive upgrade to a standard worthy of such an important city.

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Memories from Ake (i): Okey and the Students

Last week, between November 18 and 22, writers and thinkers converged on Abeokuta for the second edition of the Ake Arts and Book Festival. It was also my second time of participating in the event, but the first as a guest. For some reason, the organisers thought it important this year to involve a linguist with but a finger or two in the literary pie in a festival of poets, writers and other makers of creative ideas. (Fake modesty out of the way, it was a beautiful, engaging, and stimulating event of which I was glad and proud to be a part). On Thursday the 20th, I gathered fourteen students from Whitesands School where I currently teach English, along with a colleague and award-winning journalist Bayo Olupohunda, into the school bus and headed to Abeokuta.

IMG_734910443236_885590758127197_8532045416560099830_oIMG_7317IMG_4475The drive to the quiet rockhill town north-east of Lagos has always been a delight, at least the second leg of the journey that begins on the Abeokuta-Owode Road. The Lagos-Ibadan expressway is still under construction and subject to surprises in the form of potholes, narrowed lanes, broken down vehicles, and diversions. For someone meant to host a Book Chat at 10.30 am on that same day, the choices are limited. One either leaves Lagos as early as possible so as to avoid all traffic-related delays, or sleep in Abeokuta in one of the luxurious hotel rooms already booked for guests at the Festival. If one is a teacher in a high school, traveling with students who have been brought to school by their parents and need to be returned to school on the same day; and particularly if one is a husband of a working wife, with a nine-month old baby who one would terribly miss if one were to take the second choice alone, the choices become hard.

We were supposed to head out of the school by 8.am, but by almost nine o’ clock, we were still stuck in Ikoyi traffic. By even the most conservative calculations, we were starting to be late. I began to worry that I might miss my session. The author I would be chatting with, notable columnist, journalist, professor, and novelist, Okey Ndibe, had just returned from the United States a couple of days earlier. How could someone from the US arrive earlier in Abeokuta than someone who lives in Lagos? How disappointing. Lola Shoneyin (poet and author, organiser of the Festival) would be even more disappointed, I thought, as I urged the driver to speed up as much as he could within sensible limits. By 9.30, Lola started tracking me via text messages. I assured her of my location, and pleaded that if I didn’t show up on time, my panel be swapped for someone else’s. She assured that if the worst happens, we’d postpone it for an hour. A few minutes later, a tweet went out that our book chat would begin at 11.30am. That was a relief.

We arrived at the June 12 Cultural Centre, venue of the event, at about a quarter to eleven. Fifteen minutes later, I was in the hall meeting Okey Ndibe for the very first time. Weeks before, I read everything I could find about him on the internet. Some I’d read before, some I was reading for the first time. His life, work, and opinions have made him an interesting person and personality in the Nigerian literary and political space for a very long time. Conversations with other friends and colleagues about him have also guided me into a number of relevant points of inquiry. Our Book Chat was going to be one hour of conversation in front of a room full of writers and festival goers. Okey is a simple but dignified man, as his poise, dressing, and personality immediately showed. While he chatted with a few other folks around the hall, I glanced at a few of the questions I had prepared. His latest book Foreign Gods Inc is a fast-paced thriller of many layers of social and political commentary. I had two copies, one on my kindle, and one hard copy which a couple of my students had developed an attraction for on the way to Abeokuta. On arrival at the venue of the Festival, Lola Shoneyin hinted to the students that two of them would win an electronic tab for thoughtful questions. 


_DSC0121One hour went by like a flash. As I’d been told of him, Okey Ndibe engaged each question with the thoughtfulness and breeziness of a seasoned professor, with humour, friendliness, tact, dynamism and thoughtfulness. Why did he dump on James Hardly Chase so much? What does he mean by Achebe saving him from Chase? How did he meet Chinua Achebe and what was the relationship over the years? What does he mean by Nigeria not having a real national character? What is “an ethnicity of values” anyway? What influenced him to write Foreign Gods Inc.? Any influences from the real life event in Soyinka’s autobiography of having to sneak into Brazil so as to kidnap a supposed stolen god? How would Professor Ndibe like the book read: as an ethnographic material on African people, or as a migrant literature, like Chimamanda Adichie’s Americanah? How has the reception been so far? Would he like to read a part of the novel to the audience? By the time it was over, the seats had been filled, and the applause was genuine. I had a great time, and so did the students. Questions were asked, by the students and by other members of the audience, and we were done. Two students won tablets for their questions (and the rest were mad at me for not calling them when their hands went up. We resolved it on the way back to Lagos).


A few other questions went unasked, because of time: What’s the relationship with Christopher Okigbo and his family? He was afterall the keynote speaker at the Ohaneze Ndigbo event in Belgium in honour of that important poet about two years ago. Okey, being a young boy during the Biafran War, remembered a little of it, detailed in his essay My Biafran Eyes, how deep was that experience in shaping his upbringing? What does he think about language use in African literature? As a child of a culture with dying languages all around, how does he think that this can be reversed? Which writer in his generation does he consider an influence? What of older generations? And younger ones? He’s working on “An African Doing Dutch in America” – a memoir. What can he tell us about that? When will it be published? What was his experience as a Fulbright scholar teaching at Unilag? What inspired his first novel Arrows of Rain? He currently teaches fiction and African literature at Trinity College in Hartford, CT. What’s it like there? Has he stopped being harassed by the SSS at the airport?


IMG_7331IMG_7271FB_20141129_15_27_57_Saved_PictureThe students split up and attended one more session. In the session involving the president of the Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA) Professor Remi Raji and author Yejide Kilanko, which was well attended, one more student won a tablet for his thoughtful question to the author. He seemed very pleased. Their day being sufficiently made, not only by their winning of electronic tablets but the idea of meeting and chatting with world-famous authors and learning a few things they hadn’t heard about before, they headed to lunch downstairs by the festival bookstore before heading back to Lagos. There a few of the students met with some other writers, chatted them up about stuff, took autographs, bought books, and generally took in the festival air.

In the bus on the journey back, conversations ranged from the shock of realizing that their English teacher was a relevant enough person to have been invited to take part in a book festival (“You never told us that you were a writer! What book have you written? Aren’t you Mr. Olatubosun? Why does it say Kola Tubosun on the guest list? How did you know Okey Ndibe, Lola Shoneyin, and all these people? Do you know Wole Soyinka too? Where is Wole Soyinka anyway? Why isn’t he ever here when we’re around? among others) to the choice of theme in writing (“I write too, you know, but I never knew that one could be famous by writing African stories”, “Are you serious that people will buy your work if you set it in the Nigerian environment rather than abroad?” “I never knew that. All my characters have English names.” “How do I get published?” “Would you read my work?” “Can I come next year? Alone?” etc).

The most heartwarming comment followed later, halfway into the trip homewards when lethargy and torpor had us all but sprawled around the seats: “If I don’t make it into the final list of students coming here next, or after I leave school a couple of years from now, I’ll try to find my way to the next Ake Festival, or another one in the future.” Seems like a comment that the organisers will thoroughly enjoy. In the end, the decision to bring them along seemed like a great idea.


Photos courtesy of self, Akefestival.org, and Chidera Ezeokeke, and Tamilore Ogunbanjo

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Indigenous Language in Literature: What Hip-Hop Can Teach Us

One of the highlights of my participation in the recently concluded Ake Arts and Book Festival was at a panel I moderated titled “Teacher Don’t Teach Me Nonsense: Taming Colonial Tongues”. In that panel were Mukoma wa Ngugi (writer and son of prominent African writer and perennial Nobel favourite Ngugi wa Thiong’o), Kei Miller (a Caribbean novelist and poet), and Eghosa Imasuen (author and publisher from Kachifo Farafina). Our task was to examine the use of languages in contemporary fiction by African writers, perhaps with hopes of prescribing a better dynamic for the future. It was during that panel that this new Mabati-Cornell Kiswahili Prize for African Literature was first announced, a prize that broke new grounds for being the first major prize on the continent that awards literature in indigenous languages.

The discussion on the panel had focused on this issue itself, examining the complexities of contemporary language use and the logic in the argument of those who insist that English has already taken root as one of Africa’s languages. If not the largest, certainly the one with the most reach around the continent. But nagging us back to the importance of using languages native to the continent in literatures documenting hopes, aspirations and experiences on/of the same continent, was the embarrassing lack of a large industry among intellectuals for publishing in the native language. Excepting Miller (who is from Jamaica) whose first and only language is English and its creolized cousin (the Jamaican patois), the argument eventually coalesced into the diametric poles of Ngugi’s description of the use of English in the third world “metaphysical empire” and Eghosa’s acceptance of English (this time of the Nigerian variation) as a first and most intimate language. It’s an old debate, featuring Ngugi wa Thiong’o and Chinua Achebe. I highly recommend this video too, as well as this review by Mukoma’s of the recently published Africa 39, anthology.

Why do Nigerian publishers shy away from publishing in Yoruba, or Igbo, or Hausa, to start with the country’s biggest languages? According to Eghosa, the publisher on the panel, it has to do with the nature of the market. In the Q&A, Bibi Bakare (publisher at Cassava Republic) rejected this premise, citing the case of Onitsha market literature and a number of locally produced literature in northern Nigeria that have sold out in the hundreds of thousands through mostly informal means. Unfortunately, the panel ended too abruptly for the discussion to thrive. The consensus however appeared to have favoured the resurgence of literature in African language through a conscious and concert effort by those concerned. English, after all, isn’t going away anytime soon. It will never have a reason to worry about any threat to its existence. We can’t say the same of the indigenous languages of the continent.

I have just watched a music video by Nigerian hip-hop rave of the moment, Olamide, whose fusion of Yoruba slangs, proverbs, and codes with sparse English and pidgin  English words stands out in a unique genre, made famous by the now late DaGrin a few years ago. What the success of people like DaGrin, Olamide, Olu Maintain, etc teach us with respect to language is that the market for local language in art production is still a booming one. It will only take the courage to take the risk, and the conviction to persist. The market usually responds to novelty and dynamism more than they do compliance and monotony. The inauguration of the Mabati-Cornell Prize is just the start. We need even more of those types of incentives for literature in African languages, for works in translation, for bold new experiment s that reject the bland consensus that English has won. We are richer for more ways of expression, not just in style and content, but also in language. Our literature (and, most importantly, our imagination) and our cultural experiences will be the richer for it.


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