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‘We need to be more intentional, consistent in passing on our languages, culture to the next generation’

By Tobi Awodipe
23 May 2020   |   4:22 am
My passion comes from wanting to pass on my language to my children. Seven years ago, when I had my first child, I discovered that there were very few resources/avenues available to teach children Yoruba and so...


Gbemisola Isimi is the Founder of CultureTree with over 12 years experience as an educator in creating and broadcasting online educational and culturally relevant content for children of African heritage. She is also a creative entrepreneur and has written many songs and scripts for online and mainstream media, including television. Gbemi has a passion for preserving her heritage and believes children should be proud of and excited about their culture.

Buki Obayiuwana is an entrepreneur, management consultant and chartered accountant with over 18 years experience guiding organisations through strategic and tactical changes, which shape them for the future. She runs her own management consultancy business, mentors senior business leaders and sits on the board of two non-profit organisations. As a culture conservationist, Buki believes that in order to conserve our culture, customs, language, music, books, art, history, and ideas, we must first appreciate them.

In this interview, the duo tell us about their efforts at preserving Nigerian languages and culture, the gradual erosion of many Nigerian languages, factors responsible for this, how Nigerians and the government can stem this development as well as their upcoming webinar series focused on Raising Rooted Children.

You are at the forefront of preserving Nigerian languages and cultures, from where does this passion and desire stem?
Gbemisola: My passion comes from wanting to pass on my language to my children. Seven years ago, when I had my first child, I discovered that there were very few resources/avenues available to teach children Yoruba and so, I decided to create them myself. What started as a YouTube channel of rhymes and songs aimed at teaching children Yoruba has now grown into a thriving community and a range of products, which include physical classes, online classes, and cultural events.

Buki: About 10 years ago, I was having a conversation with a Greek friend who was born and bred in the UK. Although he had never lived in Greece, he was as Greek as all my other friends who had. When I asked him how this was possible, he mentioned that in addition to speaking Greek at home, all throughout his childhood, he attended Greek school every weekend. It made me wonder why we did not have something similar for Nigerians. I started researching this issue and I was pained by my discovery. I pulled a business case together, with the noblest of intentions, but I was sent abroad to work for a short while, and life took over. Many years later, another friend introduced me to Gbemi and I did not need to be convinced, we had a shared vision and the rest as they say is history.

Tell us about CultureTree, what does it seek to achieve?
Gbemisola: CultureTree was set up five years ago with a mission to preserve and promote African languages and culture in the hearts and minds of children and adults across the world. We want everyone of Nigerian and African origin to feel proud to embrace and express their culture in a personal and authentic way, regardless of where they live. We started off with a focus on Yoruba and have now begun to explore other languages. When CultureTree started, it was just me running it. I am pleased to say that with my business partner, Buki, we are growing the CultureTree team and our capabilities. We also have experienced advisors who bring a wide range of expertise.

How do you go about fulfilling your mission?
Buki: A key objective for us is making learning fun, so we have designed our core products with this in mind. We currently have CultureTree TV, CultureTree Academy and CultureTree Events. Through the TV, we aim to deliver fun and exciting educational videos to familiarise children with languages. The Academy is our learning platform through which we offer language classes for children and adults whilst the events is the platform via which we engage with our wider community on a range of topics, such as the webinar series we are kicking off next Friday, the 29th of May. So far, the TV and Academy have focused on just Yoruba, but we are now beginning to recruit a team to work with us to begin a gradual roll-out of our curriculum in other Nigerian languages.

Tell us about the webinar series kicking off next week, what is it about?
Buki: We are running a three part webinar series called “Raising Rooted Children”. It explores the benefits and challenges of raising children who live in a multi-cultural environment, yet, can retain a clear sense of their cultural identity. We have an exciting line-up of panellists who will be sharing their insight and personal experiences. The first part of the series seeks to answer the questions on “who am I?” “Where do I belong?” and “why should I bother embracing my culture?” The second part of the series will then draw on lessons and parallels from other cultures that have managed this successfully.

What can attendees look forward to hearing and taking away from it all at the end?
Gbemi: When designing the webinar, we were keen to strike a balance between the data, facts and real life experiences. As such we have a mixture of academics and cultural custodians on our panels. Our starting panel for next week comprises Tunde Kelani (TK), Ukamaka Olisakwe, and Professor Zhu Hua. Kelani and Olisakwe are well known to most of us. Tunde Kelani is a leading Nigerian filmmaker, storyteller, director, photographer, cinematographer, producer, and cultural custodian while Ukamaka Olisakwe is an inspiring Nigerian novelist, short story writer and screenwriter and is one of Sub-Saharan Africa’s most promising writers under 40. Professor Zhu is the Chair of Educational Linguistics and Director of MOSAIC centre for research in Multilingualism at the University of Birmingham.


Here in Nigeria, a lot of children these days are unable to speak their mother tongue, what do you make of this trend?
Buki: It is of great concern to us. Some of our languages are already extinct or on the way to becoming extinct. We are not doing enough to preserve shared values and history or to communicate expectations and as such, our history is vanishing. The workmanship involved in creating a lot of our artworks is being lost. Our sense of self-worth is being eroded; children are facing an identity crisis where they do not feel they belong at home or abroad. Another area of concern is the subtle self-deprecating references that negatively shape our desire to embrace our culture and languages. For example, when a guy approaches a lady, and he does not sound “foreign”, or worse, that he speaks Yoruba to her, we use words like “razz” or “local”, to describe him. We do not see our languages as “cool.” Some people are not hired by some companies because they do not have an “imported accent”. These are real issues.

Gbemi: I grew up in Lagos and back then we were punished if we spoke our mother tongue at school. I believe this still happens today. This practice causes a lot of people to see their own language as inferior and local. It is not helpful that we refer to our mother tongues as “vernacular”. Speaking English is seen as a sign of good education. Therefore, people erroneously think you have to choose between English or your mother tongue, when it is actually possible to speak both very well. In Western countries, young people are actively encouraged to be bilingual. They learn their mother tongue alongside, if not before, any other language. I think this trend in Nigeria needs to be reversed, and thankfully more and more parents are starting to realise this. If we do not take steps now, we will lose our cultural identity, and our languages will become extinct. It will also have wide-reaching repercussions for our society, our economy, our mental health, the future of our children and their ability to feel accepted in a global world. We believe there is a correlation between the erosion of our culture and languages, and the restlessness and loss of identity in our society today. People feel displaced and restless when they do not know who they are, and where they belong.

What would you say is responsible for this anomaly?
Buki: There are many reasons. Some might be inclined to blame colonialism, however, I believe this is a cop out, as technically, we are now free. I think that, we as a country and continent seem to have an unhealthy obsession with everything Western and American, shunning our own culture and racial identity. We all need to explore what it is in us, that drives this. The next thing that happens is, if as parents, we do not see the value in our culture; we will not invest sufficient time in exposing our children to them. Appreciation of language and culture begins at home. Third, we do not have the systems in place to check this trend. Yes, some schools teach our languages, but we do not have enough language teachers. In those schools that do teach, children are sometimes punished for speaking the language outside the classroom. From recent conversations, this still happens, in some schools across the country. We also need the will of the educational establishments and the Government to address this in our schools and communities.

We live in a global world and exposure to English and other languages is essential to our economic and global competitiveness. However, we must be careful to retain the old whilst embracing the new. We cannot afford to “throw the baby out with the bath water.” If the Europeans did what we are doing, they would not have any of the historical sites a lot of Nigerians love to visit, and they would lose trillions in annual tourism revenue.

This sounds genuinely concerning; how do we turn things around?
Buki: I believe that firstly, there must be a will to change. This must start with us as individuals, parents and children alike. We then need to follow through in our homes, in public, in our schools and in Government. Next is awareness. Part of what we are doing at CultureTree is raising awareness. Our aim is to raise awareness of the risks and benefits. Most people will not do anything unless they know what is in it for them. Finally, communication and enablement. Television and media have a large role to play in this, as they have access to our living rooms and to every phone and computer. We need effective role modelling via our actors and musicians and television stations. We then need to make resources available for people to learn where those resources do not exist. This could be by investing in teachers, online programmes, changing the school curriculum, creating alternative learning forums and so on.

Living outside the country, away from familiarity, how do you ensure your language and culture is not eroded?
Gbemi: For me, it is about being intentional and consistent in your approach. If you are fortunate enough to speak your language, then one or both parents need to make a conscious decision to only speak that language to the children and to encourage the children to respond. This should be spoken both at home and outside the home, so that children learn to recognise that there is nothing bad about speaking their language. You also need to make it real and fun. Do not force them to learn the language, make it as natural as breathing. Do not laugh at them when they do not get the pronunciation right; that would only serve to discourage them. Find places where they can go and experience the culture, engagements and naming ceremonies are a starting point. Also avail yourself of the many online resources available, free and paid. The free ones are a good starting point, but they are often, not well structured. CultureTree has just rolled out a new and structured language curriculum for children aged 4-6 and 7+. Our new cohorts are growing in leaps and bounds. We have learners from across the world including Nigeria, Ghana, USA and the UK.

What would you say to the children themselves?
Buki: Embrace all of who you are. You do not have to choose one culture over the other. You can be both. Just be proud of who you are and express it. You also have a duty to educate everyone you meet about the beauty and the value of your culture. Even something as seemingly simple as your name, can tell a beautiful story, embrace it. I often use the meaning of my name or something about my culture as a conversation starter in meetings. You would be surprised how much people don’t know about you, and how much more they’d like to know.

Apart from this upcoming webinar series, what are some other related things you have done in the past?
Gbemi: Two years ago, we launched our community-based hub CultureTree Centre in South-East London. We have held regular cultural events and activities aimed at raising awareness and creating diverse opportunities to learn and experience African arts, languages, and culture. This has included book readings, black history month events, Christmas markets, family fun day events, drumming workshops and language classes. We even invited the cartoon character Turtle Taido for Christmas last year.

How do you think the government can step in to help positive causes like this?
Gbemi: Well, as I said earlier, in some countries, families are actively encouraged to teach their children their mother tongue while they also learn English or the official language of that country. I think our government also needs to take the same approach. Also, there are a lot of entrepreneurs actively creating services and products that are aimed at learning our languages. The government can create funding and grants for such ventures. But as Buki said earlier, we must also start with us as individuals, and then follow through in our homes, in public and in our schools.

What are some key life lessons you have learnt over time and would like to share?
Gbemi: Nothing ventured, nothing gained. I could have sat on my hands and bemoaned the lack of resources or opportunities but I chose to do something about it. This has led to where we are today with CultureTree. We have built a community of people who share the same values. We have also collaborated with several high profile organisations such as the Mayor of London, The British Library, University of Westminster, Westminster City Council and Southwark Council. We hope to collaborate with more organisations in the African continent.

Buki: Yes, we have found favour and have had remarkable success especially with the collaborations. One life lesson for me is authenticity, be true to the you that God created. I love the Yoruba proverb which says “a gbodo fi ago alago sise” which translated means, do not let others set your pace. I believe that God created us all for a purpose, and we all have a responsibility to discover and fulfil that purpose. This is applicable to the fulfilment of the CultureTree vision. I believe this has been placed in our hearts, we are custodians, and we have a duty to build a legacy for those that follow behind us.

If you could change something for Nigerian women, what is the first thing you will do?
Gbemi: I would not use the word “change” but rather I’d say something that I would like to see more of is us uniting and working together for common causes. When we advocate for each other, encourage each other, invest in each other, and mentor each other, we make things happen. Together we are stronger and can change the world we live in.

Buki: I would say, instil a sense of purpose in them from a young age. I was fortunate that through the role models I had at home, in school and in church, I learned that I was created for a greater purpose and it was important not to simply limit myself based on my gender. I believe that God created us all for a purpose, and we all have a responsibility to help every woman in our life discover and fulfil her purpose. For some, it is to be the mother to wonderful children, but for others it may be something else. It does not matter, as long as we are living that purpose and we find fulfilment in it.

QUOTE: Some of our languages are already extinct or on the way to becoming extinct. We are not doing enough to preserve shared values and history or to communicate expectations and as such, our history is vanishing