In March this year, speakers of Yoruba, a language spoken by over 30 million people in Nigeria and in the neighbouring West African countries of Benin and Togo, set Twitter aflame with tweets in the language. The Tweet Yorùbá Day was an effort to revive and publicize this tonal language on Twitter. Nigerian poet, writer and linguist, Kola Tubosun was part of the effort behind Yoruba day.
A passionate advocate of African literature, the use of local languages and social media, Tubosun is a freelance editor with Author-Me.com, and the editor of the NTLitMag, a literary journal resident in NigeriansTalk.org news opinion website. He can be found on Twitter as @baroka and blogs at KTravula.com, a travel blog. His first collection of poetry “Headfirst into the Meddle” was published in April, 2005.
After meeting for the first time following a long virtual correspondence, Global Voices author, Nwachukwu Egbunike, spoke with Tubosun about African languages, Nigerian literature, and how new technologies are shaking our assumptions of what a ‘book’ is.
Kola Tubosun (KT): I’m all of the above, and more, of course. I have also worked in broadcasting.
I am the fifth child out of six. I was born in Ibadan and schooled there, mostly, and I’ve grown up within environments that made it easy, fun, and necessary, to continue to express myself, just as I was brought up. I was also educated in Kenya and the United States. I am a writer because writing is my primary means of engaging with the world. I am linguist because this is what I went to school to be qualified to do. Both are my professions and passions at the same time. However, I would hope that I’m known as someone who used his skills and passion to influence the world for good.
I am interested in a number of things that excite me, but my daily fascination is with being able to create or facilitate innovations in language technology and/or literature. I grew up around artists, so I like journalism and broadcasting. My interest/passion for blogging stems from this background. It also informs my interest in literary journalism. I write poetry and I am rounding off work on a collection of poems I’d been working on for a number of years.
I gave up a while ago trying to put myself in a box of descriptions. Hope this works.
NE: You were part of the facilitators of the Tweet Yoruba Day. What were the main successes of the Twitter initiative?
KT: For me, the first victory was getting Twitter’s attention. This happened in March 2012, on the first Tweet Yoruba Day which we had set up to pressure Twitter so that Yoruba is included in the list of languages into which the platform is currently being translated. The response was a promise by Twitter to do more in “the next couple of months”. And though we haven’t got as far as we hope, it encouraged me to continue work on the project, but this time to celebrate the use of Yoruba in the 21st century. The linguist in me is interested in observing trends in contemporary language use, so the annual Tweet Yoruba Day makes that possible.
Since the first Tweet Yoruba Day, there have also been a few encouraging news: Apple included Yoruba in the list of languages that can be used on iPhones (and I assume, iPads and iPods). It is impressive to be able to have African languages being represented and recognized in this form at last. Just last month, I also found out that Google Translate is including Yoruba in its list of languages. You can now translate from English to Yoruba, and from Yoruba to English. The machine isn’t perfect yet – as I said in a blog post – but the baby steps are highly encouraging. I’m happy to be part of the movement to create the awareness that makes these steps a reality.
NE: How are Yoruba speakers using Twitter?
KT: Same as everyone else. Code switching with English or whatever language soothes their need at the moment. This is fine. I think it’s important to mention that our intention at the start of the Tweet Yoruba project was not to turn every Yoruba speaker on twitter to monolingual Yoruba “tweeterer”. No, it was to encourage use and improve the current attitude to indigenous language use anywhere. Yoruba just happens to be the language I’m most familiar with. I am interested in (and always encouraged by) indigenous language use anywhere/everywhere, even along with other international languages, until the attitude that one of them is inferior on the basis of the number of speakers is discredited.
But if your question is about how folks who participate in the Tweet Yoruba Day have used twitter, I’d say it has been pretty impressive. I’ll categorize the users into three: the first are the top-rate Yoruba speakers, capable of conducting conversations in the language (and in writing) without any code switching/mixing. They have the native competence and can translate texts from their second language (English) into Yoruba. The second level below that are those who can speak fluently but can’t write fluently because of their complex about the use of tone marks. Because of this, most of them just participate by reading and re-tweeting, while lamenting how bad their writing skills are. The last level, are those who can’t write or speak it fluently for a number of reasons (some of which includes the fact that they grew up not being encouraged to do so, or a lack of sufficient education). Some of them still tried to cash in on the Tweet Yoruba day by participating in the crudest way they could muster, while some just sat and called us names. For them, that was a way to get back at those knowledgeable in the language enough to make them look bad. I found it all fascinating.
NE: Why do few Africans communicate on social media using local languages?
KT: The obvious reason is the absence of an audience. If you’re followed by people from different parts of the world, the obvious way to communicate is in a language that most people can understand. I look forward to finding a twitter feed on which only Yoruba is spoken, though. In the absence of one, it would be nice to found one, where you’re already sure that the audience are self-selected. You don’t follow the feed if you don’t want to read Yoruba tweets. Simple. (You’ve just been intimated with the next project of the Tweet Yoruba movement J ). It would be nice if the same happens for other local languages. I know many Kenyan tweeters who tweet mainly in Swahili. It adds to the dynamism that twitter represents. But then, the exclusive use of Swahili (and Zulu, and a few other African languages) is common among educated citizens in those places perhaps because they don’t have the hang-ups that many of us in West-Africa have about ours. And most people who are monolingual Yoruba speakers likely don’t know what Twitter is, or have any interest in using it. One of my interests is pursuing opportunities that can bridge that divide between people considered “illiterate” by the old definition of “the ability to read and write” and the tools of information technology.
NE: Nigeria has produced ‘literary institutions’ and has also continued to evolve with many young and talented voices. What is your take on literature in Nigeria and the continent?
KT: For anyone interested in literature, and literary development, this is a good time to be alive, not just because of the quality of output and the zeal of the participants, but also because of the presence of new media and the dynamism it has allowed for the production of new forms, and new ways of expression. We have a new generation of writers doing great things in the face of tremendous odds. We are doing well. Last year’s Caine Prize had four out of five Nigerians (Five writers of Nigerian descent, if you consider Pede Hollist). Teju Cole, Chimamanda Adichie, Chika Unigwe, Igoni Barrett are doing great out there, and new ones are coming up behind them: Emmanuel Iduma, Dami Ajayi, Ukamaka Olisakwe, Ayodele Olofintuade, etc. The Booker also has Zimbabwean NoViolet Bulawayo, who might as well win it. I think we’re doing well.
I hope, of course, that new media eventually gets its pride of place in the mainstream of literary appraisal. It already does well in consumption and reach. Until the Booker, the NLNG, the Orange, or any other major prize rewards someone whose platform is mainly online, then we haven’t reached there yet. I don’t advocate for the death of the book, just like inventors of the automobile didn’t go ahead and shoot all the horses. But judges of prizes need to start looking at the quality of production in the new media, and begin to pay attention to them. It is the future. We may as well get used to it.
NE: Can social media revive the culture of creative writing and reading? Or it will do the opposite?
KT: I believe so. Like I said earlier, social media already makes it easy to get literary output to reach a number of previously ignored audiences. Our attention span in today’s world, and the number of things that compete for them, makes the platform of the web a very helpful medium of sharing and receiving. It might change how information is shared and consumed. It will shake our assumptions about what a ‘book’ is – after all, an e-book is a book – but the overall impact is that information gets to reach more people. Sticklers to traditional modes of publishing will lament this as retrogression, but they will be wrong.
NE: Critics have sounded the death knell on African literature with the propensity of authors to create “poverty porn” narratives. What can be done to reverse this trend?
KT: Well, what we need to first acknowledge is that poverty itself is a present and continuing reality on the continent (and outside of it). And for that reason, literature that describes and reflects this reality will always continue to exist (until even long after poverty is a thing of the past). See countless movies/literature about European or American wars, or the cannibalism of vampire stories, or literature about royalty. Nobody complains that there are too much of those, so it should be the same about human distress. As long as something feeds an audience or an imagination, it will always be written for entertainment. Were that not the case, movies like Precious, or The Color Purple, or Gone With the Wind, or Slumdog Millionaire would not have become hits. What is important is not that the story reflects poverty or is set in a place where poverty exists, or show depravity in a way that probably has already been said a thousand times before. It is that the story tells us something else other than what we already know, or tells us something we already know in a different emotional and imaginative form. That’s more important.
Death knell? I don’t know about that. African literature will continue to exist for as long as there are Africans. They will also continue to be as diverse as they are now, reflecting the realities and imaginations of the continent.
NE: Recently, you suffered a violation of your intellectual rights when your photograph was used by a Nigerian print medium without your consent. Did you seek legal redress?
KT: No, I didn’t. Let me point you to an interview I did with Critical Margins on the matter. I found out that the most I could get in redress – even if I won a lawsuit that could cost me a fortune to pursue to a logical end, and many productive years of my life – would not even be enough to pay the lawyer’s fees, so I never bothered with a lawsuit. I however got a temporary reprieve in form of a belated attribution by the newspaper. I wish many more editors took more care before violating other people’s intellectual property rights, and that more newspapers responded to such complaints faster than they do now. But until the punishment for violating other people’s intellectual rights is grave on the violator, much isn’t going to change.
NE: There is an ongoing global conversation about copyrights and intellectual property rights as personified in the ‘martyrdom’ of Aaron Swartz. Do you think the same scenario is present within the continent when placed side-by-side with your personal experience?
KT: Well, usually I have a liberal outlook to access to information. I am 100% in support of the principle of fair use, where information is available to everyone everywhere, as long as the original creator of the content is credited. That is why my blog has the Creative Commons tag, saying that anyone can use any part of the contents in the blog as long as credit is provided on the site of second use. I once fought with a popular Nigerian youth site because of this same issue. They were taking articles written by people for Nigerian newspapers and reusing them on their site without proper attribution. Sometimes, they even removed the name of the original writer. This is not only wrong, it is criminal, and I’ve called them out on it a number of times.
However, what happened to Aaron Swartz was a tragedy that shouldn’t have happened: threatening a young man with such extreme punishments because of his pursuit of knowledge was heartbreaking. I think it was also political, perhaps because of his earlier work against SOPA et al. If all one is seeking is information, which in his case had no way of hurting anyone at all, I don’t see why he should have been so prosecuted. I think information should be free and accessible. I also believe that they should be used responsibly and with proper attribution. What happened to me was a violation because the paper used my photographic work without acknowledging that it was mine, and it took days and a threat of lawsuits before the attribution was done.
I understand the argument for increased monetary gain for the artist from a total prevention of any form of sharing at all of works in the public domain. I just don’t buy it, pardon the pun. If art is a noble and important endeavour, it should also be capable of transcending avarice. Its ability to delight and inspire as many people as possible should, I believe, trump its need for exclusive privilege prompted by greed.