Room 203, Luce hall, Yale University, had a distinct feel to it on the days of October 6 & 7, 2016. It had to with over 2-dozen guests drawn from various fields of African language studies across the world; most of them from Africa.
For thoroughbred Africans like myself away from home, it’s in these gatherings that the sometimes-overlooked traits of native African Cultures strike your consciousness; familiarity in looks, names, greetings and chatters with sweet-flowing tongues of native speakers complete with peculiar gestures. The fusion of Swahili, Yoruba, Zulu, Lingala, Shona and other African tongues filled the air producing melodic outputs like a mix-tape from Africa’s finest native speakers.
Perhaps the only missing items were some Afro-beats looping in the background and Afro dishes to whet our appetites. From experience, those two components have proven effective at lighting up atmospheres where Africans are gathered but then this was an academic event :-). Still, it felt homely until one stepped outside into the larger Yale campus with its imposing structures and beautiful landscape.
So, why were we here?
For all that’s said of the state of African languages today – declining interest, growth and emergence of new varieties – the Yale conference tagged “Urbanization, Youth Languages and Technological Innovations in Africa” was an interesting platform to make the connection between different angles of the subject. For non-academics (aspiring academics) like myself, it was a learning experience.
From what I’ve come to learn, the subject of promoting and preserving Africa’s over 1,000 languages is not one to be done in isolation. In fact, the nature of the subject calls for a regular convergence of speakers, writers, researchers, techies and just about anyone concerned about the subject. Thus, it was an honour to be selected to present my paper titled “Indigenous African Languages and Technology: Yoruba101 example“. It was also an avenue to draw inspiration from different speakers and their experiences around the languages going by their research works.
My paper examined the intersection between technology and African languages drawing from my growing experience at Genii Games where we develop Apps and cartoons to promote and preserve native African languages and custom for kids. I used our popular Yoruba101 App as context sharing insights on the role of technology and trends that are likely to shape interests in these native languages in our globalized world. Some of my views can be seen in related posts as follows:
- Beyonce’s lemonade and influencers as drivers of African Cultures
- Selfies with African Deities
- What makes a native language tick?
Beyond my presentation, I soaked myself in the 2-day conference sharing and learning interesting facts about some underlying factors shaping African languages. And it didn’t disappoint. I came away with the following highlights:
Presentation after presentation from Ghanaian, Kenyan and Tanzanian researchers hinted at the shift in commercially driven ads hitherto run in English to local languages in those countries. The underlying message was local narratives are now more relevant when it comes to reaching the youth market and major brands recognize that!
Professor Francis Egbokhare, Department of Linguistics, University of Ibadan, Nigeria reinforced the foregoing with extensive data showing the growth of pidgin and native language driven radio stations across Nigeria. Prof. Francis used the term follow the money to show that the spread wasn’t accidental but rather as a result of a captive audience with potential spending power.
Dr. Abednego Mandlenkosi Maphumulo, University of Kwazulu-Natal, South Africa reeled the audience with a poem titled Ekhoneni, a demonstration of the emergence of language mixing/code-switching among African youths. The poem reminded me of one of my favourite books by Professor Wole Soyinka, Lion and the Jewel with character Lakunle babbling Sidi with choice words in a bid to woo her against all odds.
Dr. Emuobonuvie Ajiboye, Delta State University, Nigeria cracked the audience up with her paper, “Forms and Function of Wafi Slangs” citing various wafi words and their meanings .
The Nollywood effect was also evident in some of the papers most notably by non-Nigerians. Speakers from Kenya and Tanzania made references to Nollywood movies for some emerging slangs among their country’s youths. Sylvia Kadenyi Amisi cited Chineke (God in Igbo language) to name a few that have become popular among Kenyans owing to the influence of Nollywood movies.
Still on the Nollywood effect, our Kenyan counterparts regularly teased me and Professor Francis with the term Igwe - a popular title among the Igbo people. You could tell how much they fancied it in the way they continuously used the term to salute us.
And it was also a platform to hack African languages. Thus, it was no surprise that I picked up the popular Swahili greeting, Ashante Sana (thank you)
I returned home inspired by all I’d learnt and those I’d interacted with. There was comfort in knowing that academics recognize the trends affecting native African languages and are working to document them in ways that serve its larger interest beyond my lifetime. Add that to the creative use of technology which Genii Games continues to explore and there’s indeed more to come from our beautiful heritage.