Editor's Note: This personal essay was written after a Twitter campaign organized by Global Voices from Sub-Saharan Africa and Rising Voices in which each week a different language activist expressed his perspective on the intersection of digital rights and African languages. within the project “The Matrix identity: Platform for regulating threats to online expression in Africa”.
Throughout the world, each group of people is identified through its own culture and identity. Sadly, the colonial foray into Africa disrupted the pride most Africans feel for their cultural identities: for example, there is the misguided narrative that the history of Africa has only just begun from the intrusion of European explorers.
This narrative has already lost its support thanks to the innovative work of African historians such as Kenneth Dike, who use the oral narratives of our cultures instead of written history. Furthermore, the codification of Yoruba literature in printed and digital books reinforces the historicity of the language.
Yoruba is a tonal language with some 30 million speakers in southwestern Nigeria and in the neighboring countries of Benin, Togo and Sierra Leone. The language also has some 100,000 speakers in the United Kingdom and another 190,000 in the United States.
Yoruba is not listed among the world's endangered languages, but are the Yoruba language and culture totally out of the question? Will the next generation identify with Yoruba culture, or will the language even be spoken in a hundred years?
These questions motivated me to create the Yobamoodua Cultural Heritage, a defense organization dedicated to reviving and documenting the Yoruba language in digital spaces.
Why is the diversity of languages in the network important?
“No person is an island,” nor does he have a monopoly on knowledge. My people say ibi tí ọgbọ́n ẹnìkan pin si ni ti ẹlòmìíràn ti bẹ̀rẹ̀ ('Where one person's wisdom ends, another's begins.')
For our world to prosper, we must take advantage of the knowledge present in other regions, as well as the adẹ́mu (‘Wine palm extractor’) removes the wine from the palm for our consumption. Plus, there are millions of ways to do the same things. We say kò si ibi tí a ì í kó ẹdìẹ alẹ́, omi ọbẹ̀ ló dùn ju ara wọn lọ (‘All make stews, but some are more succulent than others’).
Cultural values are the fundamental principles and ideals upon which an entire community exists. They group together all the elements of a person's world view: customs made from traditions and rituals; the values or beliefs, and the culture or guiding values of a group. Cultural elements include food, folktales, fashion, philosophy, medicine, music, concepts, and much more.
The language has been described as the conveyor belt of culture. Èdè ẹni ni ìdánimọ̀ ẹni (‘Our language is our identity’). Identity is integrated into culture: it is the creative expression through which we tell our stories, remember the past and imagine the future.
Unfortunately, the Yoruba language is relegated to the back of the internet and is generally crushed or ignored.
For example, you cannot mention an office or government representative of Yoruba origin in a tweet written in Yoruba and wait for a response. Some sporadic response usually comes with the indication: “Please, tweet in English.” When this happens, I feel silly for tweeting on my tongue, and it seems like I communicate in a way that no one wants to hear.
And not to mention the hate speech, or rather, “linguistic hatred”, which predominates on the Nigerian internet. I remember sending a direct message to an influencer of Yoruba origin who wrote in Yoruba with the diacritics. Still, he decided to ignore my candid question, perhaps because I chose to write to him in Yoruba?
However, these meetings will not prevent me from using my language – a store of experiences that must be preserved on the internet – because ‘Ẹnìkan kì í pa ohùn mọ́ agogo lẹ́nu’ ('No one will dare to silence the sound of the gong'). Anyone who tries to prevent me from communicating in my native lingua franca tries to stop the spread of my culture, and that person hinders my right to freedom of expression.
Culture is the amalgam that unites people, creates social solidarity and drives a vibrant community. Above all, economic benefits through cultural knowledge and creativity underpin thriving economies.
And culture is a right, online and offline.
Yobamoodua Cultural Heritage manifests this right to use Yoruba to spread Yoruba cultural heritage: The right to access Internet information in the language of the Ọmọ Káàárọ̀-o-ò-jí-ire (Y the Yoruba ’, referring to the culture of greeting), the right to use the Yoruba language on all digital platforms.
Open digital spaces to all languages
My tweet for the week focused on universal internet indicators or ROAM principles promoted by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). The ROAM principles are four schemes that measure the respect of the internet for human rights, openness, accessibility and the participation of multiple stakeholders.
I noted that the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – the United Nations plan to achieve a “better and more sustainable future for all” – will only be successful if the internet is open to all.
Every language and culture has the right to be freely and easily available online. However, this is not the case today. English predominates in almost 50% of online content.
Most languages, such as Yoruba, are not easily accessible online due to a digital divide exacerbated by slow and costly internet access in Africa.
Sadly, this has also hindered participation to promote cultural and linguistic diversity online.
For four days, I have been tweeting about the Yorùbá language & its Rights on the Internet. I've presented background info on the development of the Yorùbá orthography, its acceptance & how we have been employing tools on the digital space for advocacy. #IdentityMatrix #Yoruba
– GV SSAfrica (@gvssafrica) May 15, 2020
For four days, I was tweeting about the Yoruba language and its right to internet presence. I presented contextual information about the development of Yoruba spelling, its acceptance, and how we use digital space tools for its defense.
The lack of adequate support from government entities and other organizations is a setback for activists' efforts to revive the linguistic and cultural heritage. Most funding opportunities only come from foreign grant agencies and agencies, few come from within the continent.
Likewise, there are no government policies in Nigeria to promote language resurrection activities, and language activists often carry that heavy cross alone.
On my Twitter account (@yobamoodua), I spread the ancient knowledge of my ancestors in order to educate and motivate my followers to preserve our precious cultural heritage. I usually spend questions and answers on Wednesdays, and whoever wins usually gets a data usage time voucher.
In order to make terminologies that never existed in Yoruba available, Yobamoodua creates new vocabulary of science and technology. To promote this initiative, I am going to organize a first summit on the Yoruba metalanguage before the end of 2020.
It is necessary to circulate knowledge about the world, that's why I also created educational resources about climate change in Yoruba.
If we want to achieve the SDGs, we must create the conditions for indigenous languages to flourish. Our world will prosper when the internet is the place of all languages. With a sense of belonging and pride, Yoruba speakers will feel that our culture and identity are safe in the digital space for generations to come.