We are happy to continue our ongoing series with people whose work is involved with Yorùbá culture worldwide. We met Adébáyọ̀ Ìbídapọ̀ Adégbémbọ̀, who is living and working in Lagos, Nigeria. He founded Genii Games, a Nigerian company that develops apps and cartoons under the brand name Àṣà (Yorùbá for “culture”) to promote and preserve native African languages and stories.
We had a talk about what it means to be Yorùbá in Nigeria, the relations with the global diaspora and the role of modern technology in cultural education. Báyọ̀ has a Bachelor’s degree in Surveying and Geo-Informatics Engineering from the University of Lagos, Nigeria. Growing up, he spent a lot of time with his paternal and maternal grandparents who held the Yorùbá Culture to a high degree.
Moussa: Genii Games has released twelve interactive mobile apps on Yorùbá, Igbo and Hausa language and cartoons to learn about African culture. How did you start?
Báyọ̀: The idea behind Genii Games started in 2011. I had become conscious of the trend where young families around me preferred to communicate with themselves in English rather than our local languages. This was a sharp contrast to what was prevalent when I was growing up as I’d been raised speaking Yorùbá. When my niece Tèmilolúwa was born in 2012, seeing that my brother and sister-in-law also spoke Yorùbá to themselves, I was motivated to start developing Yorùbá language-learning apps as a means of stimulating her interest as she grows. Watching my neighbours’ children, I saw how much love they had for cartoon TV programs, graphic novels and games. Thus, I decided to build culturally-themed content using same features. Given my love for computer programming and my growing fascination with mobile apps, I started out along that path.
In February 2012, I had a chance to share my idea and get more support for its development when I stumbled upon a competition tagged Tech-in-Education by a social innovation center called the CCHub, Co-Creation Hub. I pitched my idea as a solution to what I saw as a cultural miseducation and was shortlisted to the final round of competition. After two days of competing, we came second with our prototype Yorùbá app earning $2000 in prize money among other support that laid the foundation for much of what Genii Games is today.
Your educational apps are designed for kids, you also visit public schools and do workshops there. How does the majority of people think of the local indigenous languages in Nigeria? Is there a need for those high-tech language tools, aren’t the children being taught Yorùbá at school?
When it comes to perception of our local languages in Nigeria, it varies, but it’s difficult to tell what the majority thinks outside of cities like Lagos. However, judging by the declining interest even from the academic perspective where the languages are optional for learning, one can tell that there’s a sense that these languages have little or no use for national or career development. However, there is a section of enlightened people who see the connection between these cultural values like our languages and the holistic development of individuals and people as a collective. Simply put, that there’s really no development without a conscious knowledge of the self, which ties to cultural features like our languages.
As the country embraces the benefits and possibilities that Technology brings, these tools are becoming popular and thus, represent platforms with which to showcase these languages to people in creative ways. In fact, technology helps in stemming or arresting those misconceived notions by laying out related subjects using features that make people interested in them. With respect to government’s role, States like Lagos have shown interest in making Yorùbá grounded in its education curriculum at the Primary level in a bid to promote and preserve the language.
Let’s talk about one example of your apps: How does the Yorùbá101 app work?
Yorùbá101 works in three simple steps: Learn lessons, play games, unlock symbolic Yorùbá characters. It presents a user with the objective of becoming a legend. To achieve that legendary status, the user has to demonstrate his or her understanding of basic Yorùbá by playing the games and completing them flawlessly. Each game has a lesson with which the user can learn before testing out his skills. Finishing each game without missing one ends with an achievement where a character is unlocked. These unlocked characters include deities like Ṣàngó, Ọya, Ọ̀ṣun, Odùduwà etc. Once unlocked, the characters are stored in the gallery section where the user can read briefly about them. When all the characters have been unlocked, the user is crowned a Yorùbá101 Legend. The structure of the app is such that the user is stimulated to learn and play by which time, he or she would have learnt the basic topics which include the Yorùbá alphabet, tone marks, counting, body parts, days of the week, months, period of the day, greetings, sentence usage etc.
You participated in many conferences and fairs worldwide, like the Yale Conference on African languages and technical innovation. What are the current trends on the continent towards native languages?
One of the interesting insights I drew from the conference was the role that African youths are playing in shaping a new variation of local languages. For instance, there are now slangs across cities in Africa where the vocabulary is a mockup of various indigenous languages. The trend is being shaped by the growing size and impact of our entertainment industry. For example, I learnt how Nigeria’s Nollywood movies influence the use of certain local words in other African countries like Kenya. Music genres like Afrobeats and hip-hop also play major roles given their use of words drawn from local languages like Yorùbá. All of these contribute these forms of slang and language mixing which interestingly is being observed and documented by academics.
The term “Yorùbá” is relatively young and used for many different language dialects. People call themselves rather Ọ̀yọ́, Ẹ̀gbá, Èkìtì, Ìbàdàn etc., related to old kingdoms. Where are your roots, locally?
I’d say I’m Yorùbá as opposed to any of the sub-groups under the old Yorùbá kingdom. For one, I was born and bred in Lagos and have only ever known to speak and write the standard Yorùbá which is taught across schools in Nigeria. My paternal grandparents though Yorùbá spoke the dialects associated with their roots – Ondó and Ìjẹ̀bú. Having grown up spending so much time around them, communication was always the standard Yorùbá which all of us understood. I recently wrote an article about that on my blog. Outside of Yorùbá, I learnt a bit of Hausa when I was in Abuja for two years. During that period, I explored cities like Keffi, Kaduna, Lokoja and Minna learning more about the diversity of the Northern region. I picked up a bit of Igbo while working on the Igbo101 app.
What does the modern global Yorùbá identity mean to you?
In my opinion, Yorùbá as of today means two things – religion especially to practitioners of the Òrìṣà religion outside Nigeria and culture to those of us here in Nigeria. For the Yorùbá people here, Yorùbá is an embodiment of the way of life especially from a language, geographic and fashion perspective. I’ve met very few Nigerians here who associate Yorùbá with its religion.
The app "Ṣàngó and his wives“ tells a popular folktale about the king, the wives Òbà, Ọ̀ṣun and Ọya are also well-known in the diaspora. In my experience many people in Nigeria do not want to get in touch with traditional religion. Haven’t you been concerned about dropping sales?
The most important thing is telling these stories. That was my primary motivation for developing the app based on the Ṣàngó character present in the Yoruba101 app. Unfortunately, the traditional religion has a lot of negative perceptions and stereotype around it here in Nigeria for different reasons. There’s a general fear and association of these religion to evil and backwardness so much that people are apprehensive of content relating to them. In my view, however, it’s really about telling stories and these stories embrace these characters in creative ways. The app itself doesn’t have any explicit religious connotation to it. Rather, it’s a simple story with coloring pages for children. My goal is to continue to explore interesting ways to include these symbolic characters into our narratives because they are as important to the Yorùbá culture as the language itself. Also, my approach to the subject is not from a purely Nigerian perspective given the larger interest of the Yorùbá diaspora.
On your interesting blog there's an article you wrote about the Òrìṣà Ọ̀ṣun Òṣogbo Festival 2015, with awesome photos by Ife Martins. Obviously you are fascinated by the beauty of Yorùbá traditions. Could you call it cultural tourism and folklore, or does it affect you also spiritually?
Personally, it was a sort of conscious awareness and appreciation of my roots. It had to come as a firsthand experience to counter long-held misconception and lack of knowledge about them. Growing up in Lagos outside traditional places like Òṣogbo and being constantly bombarded with negative stereotypes about these traditional beliefs, the Ọ̀ṣun festival was remarkable in helping me shed my preconceived ignorance. Witnessing it, meeting with and speaking to adherents took it to a new level for me in a way that made me proud of my association via my roots. It gave a new meaning to what it means to be Yorùbá especially when one explores it from a historical context long before slavery and colonization. The result is a more open mind and support and support for the sustenance of these traditions especially as it remains a way of life for millions worldwide.
You have also travelled to Brazil and your Yorùbá apps are available in Portuguese and Spanish language. How was this experience for you, visiting the Yorùbá diaspora? Did you get into contact with Olórìṣà or any remains of your native culture on the other side of the Atlantic?
It was an amazing experience and one that continues to shape my perception of my Genii Games journey today. It’s one thing to read, watch and hear of these things as I’d done prior to visiting Brazil. Then it’s a completely new level to experience firsthand as I did in June 2016. It was a level higher than the Ọ̀ṣun Òṣogbo festival. The time spent in São Paulo was very reflective for me more than I’d ever been in my life regarding the subject of my roots. The experience gave a new meaning to this journey for me in terms of questioning what I thought I knew, reflecting on what colonialism and slavery meant in its overlooked yet grave psychological effect on us as a people especially in Africa. I couldn’t help the contrasting perception of the religion between Nigerians and Afro-Brazilians. That made me resolve to tell more of our stories and today, my ideas for subsequent products are shaped by that experience from an audience perspective.
I met Òrìṣà practitioners but the language barrier obviously affected my communication and engagement even though there was a lot I wanted to know. To that end, I look forward to a return and this time to the famed city of Bahia. I met the creative artist Moises Patricio and learnt about his promotion of Candomblé with his works. Interestingly, I met adherents of the Candomblé faith. On one of such occasion, I met these Jongo performers from Campinas and was introduced as Yorùbá (and not Nigerian) to which we quickly connected. Later, I watched them reel praises to Ṣàngó, Ọya and other Yorùbá deities. Outside of those, I visited the Afro-Brazilian Museum which was also very reflective for me. I got to see how deep a connection we share as most of the items had a lot of connection to Yorùbá culture.
Thank you for this interview!
Thank you to photographer Ife Martins, who accompanied Adébáyọ̀ Ìbídapọ̀ Adégbémbọ̀ to the Ọ̀ṣun Òṣogbo Festival in 2015. We shared three of his photos here with Báyọ̀'s permission, you can see many more at Báyọ̀'s blog, follow the link below to the Genii Games website, including the blog.
Genii Games http://www.geniigames.com