Asian and African studies blog

30 December 2019

African Literature through the Language Lens: The Yorùbá Example

As one of the two 2019/2020 Chevening Research Fellows at the British Library, my work revolves around literature produced in Yorùbá.

Literature written by Africans in African languages existed before African literature in English (or other European languages). This fact, frequently overlooked, has coloured the discussion of what we talk about whenever we explore “African literature”. Some of the first writings we instinctively think or talk about when discussing African literature, for instance, are usually in English: Amos Tútùọlá’s Palm Wine Drinkard (1952), Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart (1958), Cyprian Ekwensi’s Jagua Nana (1961), among others. But the history of writing and publishing literature by Africans in Africa started much earlier, and in other African languages.

Periodicals
You can find some earlier newspapers published in Yorùbá at the British Library.
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On November 23, 1859, the first newspaper in Nigeria was published in Abeokuta, titled Ìwé Ìròhìn Fún Àwọn Ará Ẹ̀gbá àti Yorùbá. It was printed by the printing press of Henry Townsend, established five years earlier as an arm of the missionary endeavour he was involved in, and as a way to keep the few literate people in “high society” engaged in the day-to-day of society. The newspaper was published in both Yorùbá and English. It was published every fifteen days and sold for 120 cowries (about a penny at the time). Its readership rose to around 3000 subscribers before it went belly-up after the printing press was burnt during one of the skirmishes between the British visitors and the Ẹ̀gbá residents.

In 1891, another iteration of the paper resurrected in Lagos, retaining a version of the original name. Now it was called Ìwé Ìròhìn Yorùbá àti Èkó — the newspaper of Yorùbá and Lagos. The word “Yorùbá” at this point had just begun to be adopted as the general name for all the people who speak associated languages and dialect, and who live in South-western Nigeria. Before then, the word had only referred to the Oyo people. Others retained their own ethnic names: Ẹ̀gbá, Ìjẹ̀bú, Èkìtì, Ìjẹ̀ṣà, Yàgbà, etc.

Masthead of Yoruba paper Ìwé Ìròhìn Èkó. First page of Yoruba newspaper Ìwé Ìròhìn Èkó 9 May 1891.
Ìwé Ìròhìn Èkó (1891) was one of the first newspapers published in both Yorùbá and English. (1866.c.5.(18.))
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Through these publications, many of which were printed in both Yorùbá and English, the educated elite found ways to learn about what was going on in other parts of the world. Through letters to the editor, they were also able to respond, and participate in ongoing civil and social debates. It was not surprising to read then, for instance, that many Africans had read, debated, and written rejoinders to the infamous Berlin Conference of 1884 which codified the demarcation of the continent. According to this Al Jazeera news opinion , “a week before it closed, the Lagos Observer declared that ‘the world had, perhaps, never witnessed a robbery on so large a scale.’" The Lagos Observer was another one of those newspapers at the time, established in 1882. (The British Library holds copies from 1882 to 1888 in microfilm).

In 1928, another one of those newspapers was founded, called Akéde Èkó (The Lagos Herald). It was edited by Isaac Babalọlá Thomas (1888-1963), journalist and writer. In 1929, he wrote what has been generally agreed upon as “the first Yorùbá novel.” The work, titled Ìtàn Ìgbésí Ayé Èmi Ṣẹ̀gílọlá Ẹlẹ́yinjú Ẹgẹ́ Ẹlẹ́gbẹ̀rún Ọkọ L’áíyé ( The story of my life; me, Segilola, one with delicate eyes and a thousand living husbands ), was published first as a serial, disguised as a letter to the editor by a dying old lady willing to spill the story of her exciting and sometimes tawdry adventures on the pages of the newspapers. When it was eventually published, with the author being credited merely as a custodian of the story by the “anonymous” lady, it caused some scandal in the new society not used to reading such open discussion of sexual relationships.

Cover of Print Culture and the first Yoruba Novel.
Print Culture and the First Yorùbá Novel” edited by Karin Barber. (Print culture and the first Yoruba novel : I.B. Thomas's 'Life story of me, Sẹgilọla' and other texts , edited by Karin Barber (Leiden: Brill, 2012). (YD.2012.a.5228)
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There had been many pamphlets, religious texts, poems, tracts, etc. published before this time, some of them unattributed to anyone but religious organisations. But over the next decades, scores of literary works — short stories, novelettes, novels, travelogues, poetry and other personal narratives were published to limited audiences literate in Yorùbá and in the culture of the changing times. By the time the first notable English language novel The Palm Wine Drinkard was published in 1952, it had a whole generation of Nigerian Yorùbá literary oeuvre to longingly gesture towards, and borrow from.

The fame of the English language genre would come to eventually supplant and stunt the growth of Nigerian-language creative output in the subsequent generations. By the mid-eighties, long after the departure or nationalization of the earlier British establishment firms that had published some of the earlier Nigerian writers, including D.O. Fágúnwà, J.F. Ọdúnjọ and Adébáyọ̀ Fálétí, the creative output in the local language also seemed to gradually disappear. Today, there is no reputable institution publishing Nigerian language fiction or drama or poetry. There are still publications, but they are mostly self-publications with no peer review or professional vetting and critical appraising mechanism.

As a 2019/2020 Chevening Research Fellow, my work over this next year will examine the Yorùbá language collections in the British Library — containing over two hundred years of documentation and preservation — to draw patterns, find gaps, identify trends and relevant research directions for future researchers who will come to use the Library, and generally provide expert analysis of the Library’s Yorùbá language material holdings. And sometimes, non-Yorùbá texts of relevance will also come my way, as one did a few weeks ago when I discovered that the original typescript of Wọlé Ṣóyínká’s Ìdànrè, eventually published in 1965, resides in the manuscript section at the Library, still bearing the marking, handwritings and musical directions of the then 31 year-old-author.

I also happen to be a linguist, interested in the growth, development, and sustenance of the Yorùbá language (and other Nigerian languages) in literature, education, governance and technology in the 21st century. And so, I will be looking to better understand the evolution of the orthography of the language, through the texts that have carried it in literature from its early beginnings until today. The work of forbearers like Samuel Ajayi Crowther to Ayo Bamgbose stand as guiding lights, as do the work of faceless and notable writers of the Yorùbá language whose texts provide the most visible account of the language and its journey from just a spoken language to a medium of transmitting generations of stories, both in fiction and history, in the many written patterns and styles.

My thought process on these discoveries will be shared on the British Library blog as the year unfolds.

Kọ́lá Túbọ̀sún is a Nigerian linguist and writer, author of Edwardsville by Heart, a collection of poetry. He is 2019/2020 Chevening Research Fellow at the British Library.
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