THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Asian and African studies blog

32 posts categorized "Africa"

02 September 2020

Early Yorùbá books at the BL and how to find (some of) them online

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This blog deals with the earliest Yorùbá books held at the British Library up to 1870, some of which have been digitized. At the end of this blog is a link to a bibliography of all these items and where they are available digitally.

Vocabulary of Yoruba Language by Samuel Ajayi Crowther
Vocabulary of Yorùbá Language by Samuel Ajayi Crowther (General Reference Collection 1333.f.23)
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The first Yorùbá-language published item in the British Library dates to 1843. That is:

Subsequent items published around the same time give an insight into the early days of Yorùbá language publishing — a list of them is available for download at the end of this list. There are thirty-five items I found catalogued between 1843 and 1879, using a list of catalogued entries with ‘yor’ language classification, along with other speculative searches on BL Explore.

Out of these, fourteen have been successfully digitized and exist either as a digital collection item or on Google Books, with a few exceptions. But all reachable from the British Library website.

The last digitized item is —

Both Crowther and Gollmer have been dead for more than seventy years, which allows for their work to be made public in this way, as prescribed by copyright laws governing the entry of published books into the public domain. All the other works in this list also fall under this description.

What is most notable about these works is that they are mostly either a record of missionary activities or a record of outputs of missionary activities of these early writers. The books of the bible were common. The first in this list is

This is the first published book of the bible into Yorùbá. Others followed at different times.

Then there are books of common prayers, like

But there was also commentary on the religious practices of the environment in which these missionaries worked. For instance

Or

Kristi ti Awon Sacramenti. Shelfmark General Reference Collection 012991.r.14
Kristi ti Awon Sacramenti
. One of the early missionary books in Yorùbá published in 1960 by Longmans London (General Reference Collection 012991.r.14)
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There is also travel writing, for instance:

which has invaluable knowledge of the àrokò system, described briefly in this essay by the British Library Africa Curator, Dr. Marion Wallace;

Abbeokuta or Sunrise within the Tropics an outline of the origin and progress of the Yoruba Mission
Message of good will from Abbeokuta; or Sunrise within the Tropics: an outline of the origin and progress of the Yoruba Mission
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and

The rest are grammar books, like the aforementioned Vocabulary of the Yorùbá.

There are also periodicals, such as

which I have talked about at length in an earlier blog.

The digitization of some of these materials have put them in the hands of people who may not have been able to physically come to the British Library — especially now during this time of the pandemic. While the physical copies remain at the Library and will remain available for time to come, having them digitally present extends the reach of their use to a wider audience. It is of immense benefit for researchers interested in the origins of Yorùbá language publishing, the work of the early Yorùbá language missionaries, the record of the original translations of the bible into Yorùbá, the thoughts of people traveling within the Yorùbá country in the middle of the 19th Century, and any other interesting tidbits that can be obtained by contact with such records.

One of the books within this range—

—no longer exists as a physical item at the British Library. A note in the record says “Physical condition: Copy at D-4419.h.24.. Destroyed in World War II.” It may exist in some other library or private hands, but the record puts into sharp relief the benefits of digitization for the long term survival of these records.

As I mentioned earlier, some of these items are on Google Books while some are on the British Library website. Their presentations are also different. The Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Romans, for instance, does not have its cover page on Google Books; one lands on the title page. Whereas, in the BL Viewer, one begins on the cover page, with a chance to see the cover art and enjoy a little faux sensation of encountering a real book. The BL viewer also presents full metadata on the right side of the page. What Google Books has that the BL Viewer does not is a search box, allowing the user a chance to go directly to the search term they may be looking for. On the BL Viewer, one can only go to specific pages, not to specific terms/words.

Having both options available for researchers is a great help. Unfortunately, not all the digitized options show up on the BL search results. I have indicated in the linked list: Publications in Yorùbá 1843 – 1879 held by the British Library where they have been digitized and where they have not.

A story of the mission at Ibadan in the Yoruba country, published by the Basle Missionary Society.
Oguyomi. A story of the mission at Ibadan in the Yoruba country, published by the Basle Missionary Society. Romansch. Basel, 1867 (General Reference Collection 884.a.13.(2.))
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Kọ́lá Túbọ̀sún is a Nigerian linguist, scholar, 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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14 August 2020

How Should We Write Yorùbá? Diacritics in Modern Yoruba Writing

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Chart of letters with diacritics in Yorùbá in black and white
A version of Yorùbá letters for the computer.
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Working in the British Library collections — as Chevening British Library Fellow in the Asian and African Collections — has given me a unique insight into some issues in the orthography of Yorùbá. Having spent close to a year working with the printed materials in the language from the very first published texts to the modern day, I have as much familiarity with some of the problems as many new questions of my own. As my fellowship wraps up, I consider this an opportune time to engage with relevant stakeholders in a conversation on this subject with a view to providing direction to the future of the language. And with COVID-19 keeping everyone at home, an online conversation provides a good opportunity.

The proposed event — an online symposium on Yorùbá Orthography in the 21 st century — will be held on Wednesday 2 and Thursday 3 September 2020, 15.00-17.00 (details below).

Writing in Yorùbá with the computer has always been an issue. I first noticed it as an undergraduate at the university in the early 2000s, where my Microsoft Word underlined my name with a red wriggly line because it was not recognizable in English; but also when I couldn’t find the diacritics under the symbols menu to properly write the name. Yorùbá, being a tone language, uses diacritics (special symbols under and on top of vowels and some consonants) to differentiate words that have similar spellings but different meanings. (I spoke more about this problem in a recent essay on a new writing script for Igbo.)

Names in Yorùbá are given with the express purpose of couching meaning, cultural values, ambitions, prayers, and aspirations for the child, among others. If they are written in a way that doesn’t convey their meanings, perhaps because of the lack of diacritics, then their purposes have been defeated. Yet many writers have had to write Yorùbá names without diacritics, mostly for the lack of computer technological resources to write them in any other way; but also because over time, literacy in reading and writing Yorùbá also had begun to wane, leaving many to assume that the language can be written in official publications without the use of diacritics.

As an adult graduate of linguistics, I found that the issue was not limited to Yorùbá or Nigeria at all, but to many minority languages in the world, especially ones with special characters.

Three books at an angle over a book stop with a toy-sized man
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But there are other issues in Yorùbá orthography that are worth discussing. Since Bishop Àjàyí Crowther first wrote the language down in 1843, there have been very many changes made to the writing of Yorùbá, most notably in 1967 by Ayọ̀ Bámgbóṣé, a Professor of Linguistics. There have been others, from formal critiques and reviews to informal suggestions and creative use in literature and social media. And scholars working in the language — even writers using it in code-switching instances in their literature — have had to grapple with the many complications arising from using Yorùbá in the 21st century, not least how it is supposed to work on the web – where young writers are circumventing the old orthography with words like “oshey” or “wayray” or “jor” showing up to replace “oṣé” (thank you), “wèrè” (a mad person) and “jọ̀ọ́” (please).

That’s why the British Library, in partnership with the Lagos Studies Association and Africa Writes, is organising an online conversation to discuss these issues. It is titled:

How Should We Write Yorùbá?

A Two-session Online Symposium on Yorùbá Orthography in the 21 st century

(Wednesday 2 and Thursday 3 September 2020

15.00-17.00, West African and UK time).

The event brings together experts in the field to share their experience and thoughts. There will be plenty of time to discuss issues raised by our panels as well as by audience members, who we hope will come from all around the world.

The conversation will be of interest to anyone interested in Yorùbá, writing in any tonal language that uses diacritics, publishing, code-switching, language scripts, language evolution, and challenges in African language writing in the 21st century in general.

Day 1: Yorùbá: From Mission Field to Web Page

Wednesday 2 September, 15.00-17.00 West African/UK time

Day 2: Using Yorùbá Today: Literature, Leisure and the Academy

Thursday 3 September, 15.00-17.00 West African/UK time

Register here to attend.

Head shot of man outdoorsHead shot of woman outdoors
Presenters Dr Túndé Adégbọlá (left) and Professor Karin Barber (right). (© Kọ́lá Túbọ̀sún)

Confirmed speakers include:

• ● Professor Adélékè Adéẹ̀kọ́,Humanities Distinguished Professor, Ohio State University

• ● Dr Túndé Adegbọlá, Human Language Technologist, and Executive Director, African Languages Technology Initiative

• ● Mosúnmọ́lá Adéọjọ, doctoral student and Writing Instructor at the University of Florida

• ● Àrẹ̀mú Adéọlá, the Yorùbá scrabble inventor

• ● Professor Karin Barber (CBE), cultural anthropologist and academic; currently London School of Economics Centennial Professor

• ● Dr Carli Coetzee, editor of the Journal of African Cultural Studies and Research Associate, African Studies Centre, University of Oxford

• ● Kọ́lá Túbọ̀sún, Nigerian linguist, creative writer and currently a Chevening British Library Fellow working in the Asian and African Collections

• ● Mọlará Wood, writer, cultural activist and critic

Host: Dr. Marion Wallace, Lead Curator, Africa, at the British Library

I look forward to seeing you there.

Kọ́lá Túbọ̀sún is a Nigerian linguist, scholar, 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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10 August 2020

Magic and Divination in Ethiopian Manuscripts

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Inset of amulet scroll focusing on image of rider with lance
One of the most beautifully illustrated 18th-century amulet scrolls featuring a rider bearing a lance fighting a horned demon armed with a sword. (Or 12859)
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With the exception of a few works, magic, medicine, talismans, and divination in Ethiopian manuscripts have received little serious scholarly attention. Research on the subject has so far been mostly restricted to the texts found on manuscripts. The scholarship on Ethiopian magic is very small and not fully investigated; the subject is still in its infancy.

This short illustrated blog will explore some magic and divination in Ethiopian manuscripts and other items, such as amulets from the collection, making use of images from some of the best examples of the manuscripts and amulet scrolls in the British Library’s collections. As well as containing spells, charts, magical squares and numbers, these manuscripts are adorned with rich illustrations. For an introduction to the amulets, see my previous blog post.

Collection of illustration in red and black ink from practitioner's handbook
An 18th-century practitioner’s handbook. This manuscript is decorated with over 200 illustrations of magical pictures, squares and lines of magical and talismans. (Or 11390, f. 47v)
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The English term "magic" is a cultural construct rooted in Western thought and in a particular ethnocentric history, more specifically in the complex of Greco-Roman culture overlaid with Judaeo-Christian theology. Thus, the late 19th-century Western approach to the study of magic was, to a large extent, shaped by its inheritance. Consequently, the term "magic" has been problematized, and has become the focus of endless scholarly debate leading to a situation in which both its definition and its relation to religion has become contingent upon the interest and research area of each particular scholar. Nevertheless, there is a fair amount of agreement that one of the main characteristics of magic can broadly be described as having an immediate goal, while the purpose and function of religion is long term.

Close-up of charts and magic squares in Ge'ez script in red and black ink
While most divination treatises are usually just texts, this example has an elaborate drawing of charts and magic square. (Or 12034, f.64v)
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There are many factors distinguishing the Ethiopian tradition of magic from its Near-Eastern counterpart. One aspect is the strong connection between the divination and amulet scrolls. Only the Ethiopian tradition has a firm, established, and attested connection between the amulet writers and the Church; this is not found in either Near-Eastern Christianity or Judaism.

We must therefore be cautious when discussing "magic" in general outside of its cultural construct in Western scholarship, since the difference of terms changes their meanings from culture to culture. In order for us to understand Ethiopian magic and what constitutes it, it needs to be contextualized by its historical and cultural heritage and characterized in reference to a variety of areas of study.

Divination cycle arranged as a wheel in red and black ink
Another example is this 17th-century divination manual Awda nagaśt “Cycle of the kings” (Add MS 16247, f. 14v)
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Ethiopian magic and divination books are a striking and very distinctive form of Ethiopian material culture. Part of a rich magical literature of incantation, these manuscripts are also adorned with a variety of illustrations that were created for spiritual edification and for protection from real or imagined harm. While Christian icons were intended to promote spiritual growth, Ethiopian magical art consists of visual representations of the world of demons and the supernatural, making the invisible visible for all believers.

Inset of illustration in red, yellow and black inks from amulet scroll
An 18th-century amulet scroll composed of three strips of parchment measuring 1570 X 70 mm. It features an incantation against various diseases, accompanied with talisman and magical characters. (Or 5424)
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The British Library's collection of magic, divination, and magico-medical writing that fits into this group of manuscripts numbers over 40, making it the largest in the UK. The Wellcome Trust possesses 16 manuscripts, and the Cambridge University Library holds 14 manuscripts.

The majority of the Scrolls were acquired after the Maqdala collection catalog's publication in 1877. The provenance preserved in some of the manuscripts themselves or in the library register allows us to confirm their origin; however, the vast majority of the Scrolls contain no mention of where they came from.

Eyob Derillo, Ethiopic Collections Engagement Support
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Further reading:

Derillo, Eyob, “Case Study, Traveling Medicine: Medieval Ethiopian Amulet Scrolls and Practitioners' Handbooks,” in Toward a Global Middle Ages: Encountering the World Through Illuminated Manuscripts , edited by Brian C. Keene (Los Angeles: The J. Paul Getty Museum, 2019), pp. 121-124. (Document Supply on order)

Mercier, Jacques, Art That Heals: The Image as Medicine in Ethiopia. New York: Prestel, 1997. (LB.31.b.15213)

27 May 2020

Èṣù at the BL: Journeys Through Literature and Technology

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A sculpture of Esu against a backdrop of books
A sculpture of Èṣù. (© orishaimage.com, used by permission)

This character in Yorùbá mythology, Èṣù, achieved a somewhat more controversial status at the beginning of the 19th Century when it entered into literature. (The name is sometimes written as “Eshu” or “Exu/Echu” in Latin American literature or Legba, Elegba, Laaroye, Legba, Elegbara, among many others).

Oyelaran (2020) describes the deity as “the most important primordial bastion of the Yorùbá people’s metaphysical embodiments of organising and regulatory existential principles.” A mouthful of a description, more comprehensive than previous easy substitutions like "trickster god" or "messenger god", which have been used in the past, especially in Western literature. Wọlé Ṣóyínká calls Èṣù a “master dialectician” — one of the many important deities in the Yorùbá religious system, notable for its role as a sort of intermediary for other higher deities. Èṣù’s errands, according to stories in Ifá literature, were of different shapes, but the outcome — at least for those who crossed paths with him — could be either good or bad. But it was never just one thing, and those who worshipped it, or encountered it in a shrine or on the road, knew what propitiation was necessary to avoid its wrath or seek its warmth or direct them on another errand. Sophie Olúwọlé called Èṣù something akin to a policeman, a law enforcement agent who did not make rules but was often called upon to enforce them.

In the early 19th century, however, notably at the hands of the early missionary translators, Èṣù became something else: a total and exclusive symbol of evil. In translating the words “Satan” and “Devil” in his book Vocabulary of the Yorùbá Language (1843) [Digital Store 1333.f.23.], Samuel Ajayi Crowther had settled on “Èṣù” as the most appropriate word.

A listing of words including Satan along with its Yoruba translation
The entry on “Satan”. (Crowther, Samuel, Vocabulary of the Yoruba Language: Part 1 (London: Church Missionary Society, 1843). (General Reference Collection 1333.f.23)).
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Àjàyí Crowther was an early missionary and the first African Bishop on the Niger. A Yorùbá man himself — though he was kidnapped as a child and sold into slavery. After his rescue by the British, he was educated in Sierra Leone and eventually returned home. He was intimately familiar with Yorùbá religious and cultural patterns, which made his choice of "Èṣù" for "Satan" an odd one. By settling on this rendering, however, history was forever changed. It had huge, perhaps unintended, consequences for the worship of the deity, the attitude to those who bore it as a root morpheme in their names (Èsùbíyì, Èsùgbàyí, Èsùlékè, Dáraléṣù, etc), and the perception of good and evil in Yorùbá culture and religion. (The same, later, happened in Igbo with “Ekwensu”).

Subsequent dictionaries of Yorùbá followed this particular tradition, retaining Èṣù as the appropriate translation of Satan, devil, or even demon. The Dictionary of Yorùbá Language, published by the Church Missionary Society in 1913 [X.208/3458.], did the same, as did many others. (See this review of Yorùbá dictionaries to see how Èṣù was rendered throughout history till current time). It was only natural that when technology took over as the repository of words and translations, Google Translate began to render the translation of Èṣù as “Satan” or “devil” or “demon” as well. This didn’t go well with a number of people. Adherents did not take too kindly to the association with evil, although for over a century they could not do anything about it.

Eshu_drawing
Oríta Mẹ́ta by Moussa Kone, ink and watercolour on paper, 76 x 56 cm, painted in 2020. (© Moussa Kone, used by permission).

When I worked at Google from 2015-2016, I worked on the first permanent fix of that online problem. I have written about that in a 2016 blog post. In the end, Èṣù, having no direct equivalent in English, was retained as “Esu" in English translation on Google Translate. Demon became “Ànjọ̀nú”, and Devil/evil became “Bìlísì” — a Yorubanized version of “Iblis”, an Arabic word for devil (which had also shown up in later translation of the bible in the line for “deliver us from evil” as “gba wa lowo bilisi”).

I had known for a while that Àjàyí Crowther had something to do with the misrepresentation of Èṣù in modern imagination — Wole Ṣóyínká in 1976 had alleged that the Bishop had “grovelled before his white missionary superiors in a plea for patience and understanding of his ‘backward, heathen, brutish’ brothers”. But many who have engaged with the topic over the years had assumed that this mistranslation happened during the Bishop’s translation of the Bible. It was, earlier this year, while working with the physical copy of The Vocabulary of Yorùbá at the British Library (referenced earlier) that I discovered the original source of the problem. It predated the work on the Bible by a number of years.

Figures of Esu2
Figures of Èṣù published in the Dictionary of Modern Yorùbá. (Abraham, Roy Clive, H. J. Sutton (illustrator), Dictionary of Modern Yoruba (London: University of London Press, 1958).) (12912.m.25)
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Now while one could argue that the skills used in dictionary lexicography are necessarily different from those used in prose translation, the eventual consequences of the choice of words used still point to the influence of Christian ideas about good and evil in the Bishop’s lexicographical choices. In today’s spoken Yorùbá, the word Èṣù is used interchangeably with ‘devil’ or ‘satan’, to the consternation of those cognisant of the initial error. But this is only in Nigeria. The diaspora Yorùbá in Cuba, Brazil, and other parts of Latin America appear to have kept the deity in his place of reverence and celebration, along with the other deities.

Most dictionaries of Yorùbá, alas, have followed Àjàyí Crowther. Even dictionaries published as late as Kayode Fakinlede’s 2003 Modern Practical Dictionary [YC.2006.a.19076] have retained that original “evil” association. Most who speak the language today do not even know of the time when the association wasn’t always present. To call someone “Ọmọ Èṣù” in Yorùbá today only means “child of the devil”. So whether the bell of the evil linkage can be successfully unrung is a question that will remain up in the air.

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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References

Ayankunle, Lamidi (bata); Baba Lati (bata); Baba Nasiru (bata),Eshu (Erin Osun, Osun State, Nigeria: 1985). [Live performance] ( ^A184405)

Harper, Peggy (sound recordist), “Eṣu”, on Peggy Harper African Recordings (Otu, Iseyin district, Western State, Nigeria: 18 November 1968). ( ^A250464). Available for listening in the British Library reading rooms only.

Ogundipẹ, Ayọdele, Èșù Elegbára: change, chance, uncertainty in Yorùbá mythology (Ilorin, Kwara State : Kwara State University Press, 2012). [ Asia, Pacific & Africa YP.2020.a.678 ]

Ogundele, W., “Esu-Elegbara: Ambivalence in Yoruba philosophy,” in Bayreuth African Studies, 38 (2001), pp. 29-36. ( 1871.242550 )

Ogunyẹmi, Wale, Eshu Elegbara (Ibadan: Orisun Acting Editions, 1970.) ( X.908/25448 ).

 

Further readings

Adefarakan, Temitope, “ 'At a Crossroads': Spirituality and The Politics of Exile: The Case of the Yoruba Orisa ,” Obsidian, 9:1 (2008), pp. 31-58.

Bacelar da Silva, Antonio José, “Exu is not Satan – the dialogics of memory and resistance among Afro-Brazilians,” African and Black Diaspora: An International Journal, 13:1 (2020), pp. 54-67. (doi: 10.1080/17528631.2019.1637143)

Kone, Moussa, “ Yorùbá Dictionaries ,” Orisha Image Blog, 15 May 2018.

Oyèláràn, Ọ., “ Èṣù and ethics in the Yorùbá world view ,” Africa, 90:2 (2020), pp. 377-407. (doi:10.1017/S0001972019001098)

23 March 2020

Ulli Beier at the British Library

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I occasionally come across relevant materials in the British Library collection in connection with my original mandate on the Yorùbá print materials (see earlier blog post), even when they are not published in my target language, Yorùbá.

Recently, I stumbled on the materials on Ulli Beier, the German writer, editor, curator, and art scholar and enthusiast who lived in Nigeria between 1950 and 1966, and whose papers and other archives reside now in Osogbo at the Centre for Black Culture and International Understanding, and at the Iwalewa Haus at Bayreuth University in Germany.

Yoruba myths Yoruba poetry

The distance between Beier’s work and the Yorùbá collections at the Library isn’t much, in fact. The writer’s creative output during his stay in Nigeria includes a number of original writings in the Yorùbá, translations from and into the language, and the promotion of work of writers producing in the language to the rest of the world. His work of translation of traditional Yorùbá poetry, myths, and proverbs into English are some of the most notable works of documentation done by any one person during that period.

His interest was in art and oral literature, but also drama, performance, and written literature. He helped introduce to an international audience, some of Nigeria’s later successful writers and artists, from Wọlé Ṣóyínká to Chinua Achebe with both of whom he founded the Mbari Club in Ìbàdàn and the M̀bárí M̀báyọ̀ in Òṣogbo; Dúró Ládípọ̀; and many others he published in Black Orpheus, a literary and arts magazine he edited. His first wife, Susanne Wenger, remained in Òṣogbo and became a devotee of the river goddess, and artist. As a creative writer himself, Beier also often published under the Yorùbá pen name "Ọ̀bọ́túndé Ìjímèrè".

30 years of Oshogbo art

The following are some of his works — or works related to him — that I have found in the British Library Catalogue relating to Yorùbá.

There are a number of other works about Beier, not particularly relevant to this write-up, just as there are a few dozen others about his work on Nigerian poetry in English as well as his work on Papua New Guinea. All these can be found in the British Library catalogue.

Yoruba poetry2 The stolen images

Here are a few more, including some published under his adopted Yorùbá penname “Ọ̀bọ́túndé Ìjímèrè”.

Researchers interested in the life and work of Beier will find a lot to benefit their work using the Library’s extensive collections on the man without whom a lot of what came to define Nigerian literature and art movements in the sixties and seventies may not have come to be.

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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30 December 2019

African Literature through the Language Lens: The Yorùbá Example

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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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09 December 2019

Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic Designers promoting Aids awareness on Asian, African & Middle Eastern postage stamps (2)

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World Aids Day was first marked on 1 December 1988, an historic event commemorated by the issue of postage stamps all over the world, including in Asia, Africa and the Middle East. As noted in the first of this two-part blog post, issued on 1 December 2019, the philatelic material produced then and in subsequent years can thus provide important insights into Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) contributions towards art and design, and more examples are presented in the second part of this post.

Ethiopia issued three stamps commemorating World Aids Day on 18 June 1991. Lithograph-printed by the State Printing Works in Vienna, each one depicts a design created by Ethiopian artist Million Abiyou.
Figure 14_20191126_10405191  Figure 15_20191126_10414529
British Library, Philatelic Collections: UPU Collection, Ethiopia
The 15c stamp charts the decline of a young Ethiopian man’s heath until his death after contracting HIV and Aids. The 85c stamp depicts a lecturer teaching an unspecified audience about Aids prevention.
Figure 16_20191126_10422793
British Library, Philatelic Collections: UPU Collection, Ethiopia
This 1b stamp depicts preventative measures to reduce the risk of contracting HIV and Aids, including practicing ‘safe sex’ as well as avoiding needles, razors and other items containing blood possibly contaminated with HIV and Aids. It also depicts a family sheltered underneath an umbrella symbolising protection.

Figure 17_20191126_10512158  Figure 18_20191126_10514990
British Library, Philatelic Collections: Publicity Material, Cyprus
On 13 December 1991, the Turkish Cypriot Post issued a 1000 TL stamp commemorating World Aids Day. Designed by Sanatcinin Adi it depicts four different sources of infection including safe sex, drug, transmission of infected blood and an unborn baby contracting the disease of an infected mother. The British Library’s Philatelic Collections does not hold an example of the stamp but does have the publicity leaflet released by the Postal Authority containing information on its manufacture, production and sale.

Figure 19_20191126_10532183
British Library, Philatelic Collections: UPU Collection, Morocco
Morocco issued a 3f stamp commemorating World Aids Day on 20 November 1991. Produced by Belgian artist Lisette Delooz’s design depicts two figures within a splash of blood.

On 31 January 1992, Kenya issued four stamps lithograph-printed by Cartor as part of an Anti-Aids Campaign. Each one has a separate design created by designer H. Mogul.

Figure 20_20191126_10071468  Figure 21_20191126_10073416
British Library, Philatelic Collections: Crown Agents Philatelic & Security Printing Archive, Kenya
The 2/- stamp depicts a generic male figure with a hand touching his right shoulder with the statement ‘AIDS. YOU TOO CAN BE INFECTED.’ The 6/- stamp depicts a man within a Petrie dish above medications overlaid with a red cross with the statement Surmounting the design is the statement ‘AIDS HAS NO CURE.’

Figure 22_20191126_10075251  Figure 23_20191126_10080899
British Library, Philatelic Collections: Crown Agents Philatelic & Security Printing Archive, Kenya
This 8/50 stamp depicts the male and female symbol representing a heterosexual couple accompanied by the statement ‘AIDS. CASUAL SEX IS UNSAFE.’ The 11/- stamp depicts a generic male figure standing behind a hypodermic syringe in the foreground with the text ‘AIDS. STERILISE SYRINGE BEFORE USE.’

On 22 January 2001 Lesotho issued four Anti-Aids Campaign stamps for the Positive Action Society Lesotho designed by Seatile Nkhomo and lithograph-printed by Questa.
Figure 24  Figure 25
British Library, Philatelic Collections: General Collection
The 70s stamp depicts a Basotho warrior fighting Aids whilst the 1m carries the text ‘SPEED KILLS SO DOES AIDS. Go Slow’

Figure 26  Figure 27
British Library, Philatelic Collections: General Collection
The 1m.50 stamp depicts two women with the statement ‘People with AIDS need friends not rejection’; and the 2m.10 stamp illustrates a rifle, military helmet, unused condom and boots beside the text ‘Even when you’re off duty protect the nation.’

Finally, Nigeria issued two stamps commemorating World Aids Day on 3 May 2003, all designed by Nigerian artist T. Faluyi.
Figure 28_20191126_10544746  Figure 29_20191126_10550580
British Library, Philatelic Collections: Crown Agents Philatelic & Security Printing Archive, Nigeria
The 20N stamp illustrates a nurse tending to a seriously ill patient accompanied by the text ‘Caring for Aids victim.’ On the left side of the stamp can be seen the iconic World Aids Day ribbon. Meanwhile, the 50N stamp depicts a woman using a microphone addressing a crowd whilst gesturing towards a poster with the text ‘AIDS is REAL Beware!’

The philatelic materials discussed from Africa, Asia and the Middle East show how important stamps are in researching consistent contributions from the BAME community towards art and design. An obvious question remains: where is the original design and artwork located? Sadly, it is impossible to answer this question at present. We suspect such artwork and design material will exist within various official archival and unofficial private collections scattered globally. As its cultural value becomes increasingly recognised, the locations of such material will hopefully become known.

According to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, almost thirty seven million individuals around the globe live with the HIV virus whilst nearly as many people have died from HIV-related complications, including Aids, since the 1980s. Such figures of course fail to take into account the stigma that individuals who have contracted Aids can suffer. Sub-Saharan Africa is the hardest hit region, with more than seventy percent of the world’s people living with HIV. The study of Aids can therefore extend way beyond medical science and incorporate intensely personal cultural and historic perspectives, a deserving issue demanding further research.

In addition to surveying the British Library’s Philatelic Collections, both authors conducted a wider scoping exercise to identify Aids-related material in various languages held within the British Library’s collections. From a visual and textual culture perspective, our rich holdings include journals, monographs, research papers, pamphlets, NGO publications and audio material. We call upon curators and academics to research this important subject further, to develop a resource for mainstream audiences in a more sustainable form.

Richard Scott Morel, Curator, Philatelic Collections
Eyob Derillo, Ethiopic Collections Engagement Support Ccownwork

22 July 2019

African cosmologies in the British Library’s collections

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It’s summer again, if briefly, and once more we have had the great pleasure of hosting the annual Africa Writes festival (5–7 July 2019) here at the British Library.

The Africa Writes festival
The Africa Writes festival

Among the gems of this year’s festival was an invitation to ‘Reimagine the gods’, in the company of writers Inua Ellams and Sitawa Namwalie, whose creative works have been inspired by deities and beliefs from Nigeria and Kenya, and academic Louisa Egbunike. I was both pleased and intrigued to be asked to open this panel with a short introduction to the British Library’s collections on African cosmologies. This is of course a huge subject, encompassing a very wide range of belief systems, and going far beyond what is classified as ‘religion’ in European terms. The holistic nature of African thought has meant that relationships between gods, spirits and people, and the dead and the living, were and are woven into everyday practices and a wide variety of rituals. 

So what does the British Library have on this subject? The answer, as ever, is ‘rather a lot’. To illustrate the kind of material we have, I’m focusing here on the theme of the Yoruba gods and other religious practices.

Illustration of Ifá divination from the memoir of a missionary. Charles Andrew Gollmer, Charles Andrew Gollmer, his life and missionary labours in West Africa (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1889). British Library, 4888.b.64.
Illustration of Ifá divination from the memoir of a missionary. Charles Andrew Gollmer, Charles Andrew Gollmer, his life and missionary labours in West Africa (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1889). British Library, 4888.b.64 Noc

The Yoruba deities of Nigeria and Benin belong to one of the most famous African religions. The gods (òrìṣàs) include among their number Òrúnmila, god of wisdom and divination; Ògún, god of war, iron, the hunt and the road; and Èṣù, the trickster-god. They were and are part of a wider set of beliefs and practices including the Gẹ̀lẹ̀dẹ́ masquerade, which ensured the fertility and well-being of the community by focusing on women, and a system of divination called Ifá.

Ifá divination cups. Published in Und Afrika sprach (The voice of Africa), an account of a 1910–12 expedition to Nigeria led by the German ethnographer and archaeologist Leo Frobenius. With numerous illustrations by Carl Arriens. Leo Frobenius, Und Afrika sprach, vol. 1 (Berlin, 1912, 13). British Library, 10094.pp.9.
Ifá divination cups. Published in Und Afrika sprach (The voice of Africa), an account of a 1910–12 expedition to Nigeria led by the German ethnographer and archaeologist Leo Frobenius. With numerous illustrations by Carl Arriens. Leo Frobenius, Und Afrika sprach, vol. 1 (Berlin, 1912, 13). British Library, 10094.pp.9. Noc

The British Library collections include, as you might expect, accounts of Yoruba rituals and beliefs, as well as images of items used in religious practice, made by Europeans in West Africa before and during the colonial period.

Carved Yoruba temple panels. Leo Frobenius, Und Afrika sprach, vol. 2 (Berlin, 1912, 13). British Library, 10094.pp.9.
Carved Yoruba temple panels. Leo Frobenius, Und Afrika sprach, vol. 2 (Berlin, 1912, 13). British Library, 10094.pp.9. Noc

The early writings of Europeans are of course often problematic and biased – missionaries in particular saw African religion as ‘heathenism’ – and the image of Africa and Africans they portray is often negative or inaccurate. Europeans also, generally speaking, benefited from unequal power relationships which facilitated their research and (in some cases) collecting. Nevertheless, when read with a critical eye, many of the works of such observers remain important, if always debateable, sources of knowledge on these subjects.

On the west coast of Africa, a Western-educated African elite flourished, and published books, from the mid-19th century. For example, the Rev. E.M. Lijadu (1862–1926), writing in the early 20th century, was a figure of major importance in recognising and promoting Yoruba religious beliefs and practices. We hold several of his titles in Yoruba.

5a Lijadu 884.g.22 5b Lijadu 884.g.22
Title page and dedication of E. Moses Lijadu, Ǫrûnmla! Nipa (Nottingham: S. Richards, 1908). British Library, 884.g.22  Noc

Oral texts were and are central to Yoruba religious practices, as in other African religions. The BL’s collections are very strong in this respect. Among other things, we hold recordings made by academics based at Nigerian universities in the 1960s and 1970s.

Peggy Harper specialised in dance, and a clip from her film (with Frank Speed) of a Gẹ̀lẹ̀dẹ́ ritual is online here. The recording below of a group of male priests (babalawo), led by Ayotunde Aworinde, was made by Robert Armstrong at the University of Ibadan in 1965, and transcribed and translated with Val Oyeyemi and other Nigerian colleagues.

C85s/1-3 Babalawo recording by Robert Armstrong
British Library, Robert Armstrong Collection. C85/1–3

With the independence of Nigeria in 1960, and the rise of a strong university sector, academics and others increasingly published on aspects of Nigerian culture, including religion.

Wande Abimbọla (ed.), Yoruba oral tradition (Ile-Ife: Department of African Languages and Literature, University of Ife, 1975) YA.1989.a.1808. [Copyright: the authors]
Wande Abimbọla (ed.), Yoruba oral tradition (Ile-Ife: Department of African Languages and Literature, University of Ife, 1975) YA.1989.a.1808. [Copyright: the authors]

Generally speaking, we hold many relevant works produced by the academic sector, in Nigeria, the UK, the West, and many other places, as well as works by scholars and commentators from beyond the academy. Anthropologists were particularly important in recording religious practices. Most of these texts are in English and other European languages, but there is also a significant number in Yoruba. We also hold books, articles and journals about the migration of Yoruba religion to the Americas, where it was re-established by enslaved people in systems such as Candomblé in Brazil.

7Pierre Verger, Orixas: 38 desenhos dé Carybée, ill. Carybé (Bahia: Livraria Progresso Editora, 1955) 10 W20/5527. Temas de Candomblé, ill. Carybé (Bahia: Livraria Progresso Editora, 1955) 9 W20/5525. [Copyright: the authors and illustrator]
Pamphlets showing aspects of Candomblé in Brazil.
Pierre Verger, Orixas: 38 desenhos dé Carybée, ill. Carybé (Bahia: Livraria Progresso Editora, 1955) 10 W20/5527.
Temas de Candomblé, ill. Carybé (Bahia: Livraria Progresso Editora, 1955) 9 W20/5525. 
[Copyright: the authors and illustrator]

Artistic interventions have been a popular way of engaging with ideas about the gods. Wole Soyinka’s poem Idanre, which takes inspiration from the god Ògún, was commissioned for the Commonwealth Arts Festival of 1965, of which we hold the papers. These include Soyinka’s typescript, together with his autograph revisions, drawings and musical directions. The manuscript is unusual in that we do not hold many original documents by African writers. We do, however, have a very extensive collection of published works of fiction, drama and poetry, as well as books illustrating and analysing responses in the visual arts.

Book of poems in Spanish, published in Cuba, on the theme of the Yoruba gods and Ifá divination.Frank Upierre Casellas, Tablero de Ifá (Ciudad Habana: Ediciones Extramuros, 1994) RF.2015.a.1611
Book of poems in Spanish, published in Cuba, on the theme of the Yoruba gods and Ifá divination.
Frank Upierre Casellas, Tablero de Ifá (Ciudad Habana: Ediciones Extramuros, 1994) RF.2015.a.16
[Copyright: the author and illustrator]

The Yoruba material is only one example of our very rich collections relevant to this subject, published across the world, and crossing many disciplines. Scholarship on Yoruba belief systems is particularly extensive, but for most subjects it’s likely that the researcher will find information.

It is also worth remembering that there are many, very different, forms of religious belief in Africa. If investigating, for example, the beliefs and rituals of the Khoe and San people of Namibia, Botswana and South Africa, researchers would want to look at older and new material – the new often in dialogue with the old – and think about the ways in which archaeology, rock art studies, history and anthropology come together. Trance rituals, for example, are represented in rock art. Our sound collections in this field are rich – see for example the Emmanuelle Olivier collection. Researchers could also look at publications from organisations representing Khoesan people, as well as engagements through literature and the visual arts.

Finally, to research our collections:
• For published material see our main catalogue. To view material in our Reading Rooms, you will need a reader pass.
• For audio-visual collections, see also the specialist sound and moving image catalogue and this guide to accessing the collections.
• For general guidance, the Africa subject page is a good place to start. For more research advice see also this blog.
• For West Africa, see the West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song web pages.

References

Robert Armstrong, Iyere Ifá: the deep chants of Ifá (Ibadan: Institute of African Studies, University of Ibadan, 1978)

Insa Nolte, ‘Spirit: Histories of Religion and the Word’, West Africa, Word, Symbol, Song (London: British Library, 2015–16)

Jacob K. Olupona, ‘The study of Yoruba religious tradition in historical perspective’, Numen, 40, 3 (1993), 240–73

J. David Lewis-Williams and Sam Challis, Deciphering ancient minds: the mystery of San bushman rock art (London: Thames & Hudson, 2011)

Marion Wallace, Lead Curator, Africa Ccownwork