In Search of the Nigerian Digital Humanist


Let me start with a story. One early morning in 2013, one of my professors at the Institute of African Studies, Professor Sola Olorunyomi called me to his office to show me an antique map of Africa which he wanted digitized at the Kenneth Dike Library in Ibadan. Together with Professor Olorunyomi, who himself had done much work as a scholar of media and cultural studies to set up the Digital Africana unit at the Institute, I walked to the library where we got the map digitized and archived in the special collections of the library. As a student who is still learning the ropes myself, I honestly hope that map is still there. I recall this particular event because humanities scholars in Nigeria appear to want us to believe that the digital humanities do not constitute an integral disciplinary formation in the continent’s struggles for agency. And this is not about funding! Among other equally important possibilities, a more pragmatic scholarship on the convergence of culture and technology in Nigeria may constitute a fundamental way to rescue meaning from the present farragoes of sociopolitical and economic failures in the country.

Imagine for a moment that there was an online database of all the works of Nobel laureate, Wole Soyinka, with exclusive interviews, handwritten letters, manuscripts of earliest works and critical essays on his oeuvre in an archive that is open to the public. How about nuancing the scientific epistemologies of the Yoruba divination system, the Ifa corpus in more empirical and computational platforms in which the brilliant documentations of scholars like Wande Abimbola and Olu Longe can be further explicated. Or think of a digital scholarly edition of the Ifa corpus itself and what that could mean for learning and modernising an encyclopedia of indigenous knowledges.  To leave all of these within the sphere of the imagination, or to wait for the West to mobilise its resources for these urgent tasks is to leave the Africa postcolony in its own grips of perpetual stasis.

It is a good thing, then, to continue to force out more thematic contents out of Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, but isn’t it time we thought about our own online archive of a literary text, which has garnered justifiable fame for its excellent literary depiction of pre-colonial Africa as a cultural geography of civilised and prosperous people? To think nobody needs an online database to the canonical works of African literature is not to understand the democratization of knowledge and its production in an increasingly digimodernist world. Think of the works of Daniel Fagunwa in their original Yoruba in a web-based archival environment and what that could do to preserve the writer and his works. And it may be that some have already begun work on these engagements. I understand that digital humanities projects take much time and collaboration. If not, then we need to. Urgently. How about Nigerian blogging and the various sites of scholarly opportunities begging for theoretical explications and linkages to the country’s own internal contradictions? For obvious reasons, there is currently no academic programme in Nigeria which subscribes to the visions of the digital humanities, and this is one of the problems we need to address, as we look beyond the gains of Nollywood and its video-film, and recently digital, successes to document our stories. We certainly need to look at online audio-visual narratives about the African condition on Facebook, Youtube and other digital media if we are to find greater currency within the larger space of global mediascape.  Postcolonial African writing is being reshaped on Facebook and Nairaland, but, sadly, we look away.

Alan Liu’s caution that the digital humanities be not impervious to the exigent demands of cultural criticism may well be an entry point into the centers of the digital humanities for Nigerian scholars of literature and new media. Think of the way Teju Cole uses Tweet-sized narratives to reconstruct contemporary Lagos, or how YouTube is emerging as a textual space for writers/artists to nuance cultural aesthetics, and we are probably up to a fascinating embrace of insightful studies in the digital humanities (DH). The point is, we can do more in Nigeria to engage with the way technology can mediate cultural aesthetics and calibrate new theoretical environments for hermeneutics. To be clear, the task of the digital humanist transcends the unexplored excitement about the nonlinear or multisequential affordances of the hypertext, which certain departments of English in Nigeria have in their new media and literature syllabi. It is not also only an uncritical fascination with how new media poetics gestures towards an inventive remediation of thought and print culture, and this might be a point to buttress, seeing that a lack of scholarly engagement with tools (and the texts they make possible), not necessarily a dearth of technological expertise, has remained a major reason we are not yet hugely plugged into the machine of digital humanities scholarship. What is simply at work is an unwitting refusal to decenter Euro-American academies as the locus of activities in the digital humanities and decolonize the digital in order for us, to a large extent, regain control of our own narratives.

Among other things, digital humanists develop tools, data, critical archives, and metadata; they also develop critical positions and theories on the nature of these tools and other resources. In addition to building tools and information platforms, DH scholars develop digital methods to for editing texts and critical editions. They are interested in the way digital technologies influence the nature and architectures of knowledge and writing, but rarely, as Liu notes, do they extend the engagements of the fields to the lived registers and conditions of society, economics, politics, or culture. Might a cultural criticism of digital behaviour in Nigeria come to the rescue? Maybe. More scholars of new media in Africa need to rise to the challenge of deracializing (yes a very large part of the data in the field is unAfrican) digital culture scholarship by transcending the strictures and fissures of technoiliteracy and engage the explosion of data which is being currently generated in new media environments on the continent. Apart from studies in information science departments and this from South Africa, which is a collaboration with scholars outside Africa; there is a paucity of perspectives from the humanities in the African academe.

Social media, for instance, enables a the regaining of agency for Nigerian users who have to deal with a daily stockpile of the anxieties of a failing nation-state. How is the Nigerian scholar of letters responding to the myriad of visual and linguistic interactions taking place on Twitter and Facebook? I am aware that there may be some who see in social media narrativizations all which must replace traditional engagements with the canons of printed texts. This might be hasty naivety, as they forget that judging the book to be also dead in Africa is defining print culture by the parameters of the West where the form of the book mutates and is retained in digital environments. Think of the way kindle editions of published works aspire to the conditions of print.

Consider this website, for instance, on which the Korean writer, Y0ung-Hae Chang employs digital media to tell various stories about life in North Korea and see how the many in the West and elsewhere look beyond social media. We can look to social media for spaces of creative expressions, but online literary blogs and magazines appear to be the farthest path of experimentation emerging African writers are willing to travel for now. Professor Shola Adenekan has done some exciting studies on how new writers from Kenya and Nigeria are taking advantage of these online literary forms. We need more. It is a good thing to note that e-book editions of printed texts that are available for purchase/download online do not necessarily equal born-digital texts. Beyond Social media, there is a large volume of digital literary works out there in the West; maybe not (yet) in Africa, and a number of scholars there are doing excellent work to theorise these and their implications for reading, meaning, agency, etc.

You may also read this very short poem by Jim Andrew and see another instance of a reconstitution of the book which perhaps is a more fascinating possibility than a social media representation of thought and art. There are also many digital texts written in hypertext, a form, which used to be a buzzword among scholars of digital studies some decades ago. African writers can still appropriate that, and even recent tools, for their art, knowing that we have the technical expertise. With this, the work of the digital humanist at home is sure. If software is increasingly emerging as the medium of the message, to invoke Lev Manovich, it is time African writers collaborated with experts at home to engage with a new form that is appropriate to the age.  Whether it is a project  that uses a digital map of Abuja to analyze social and cultural identities, or digital reconstructions of the popular Onitsha market literature, or digital artworks about life in Ibadan, there are many ways our signifying practices could be further taken beyond the limits of dying technologies. If we refuse to plug in to these digital affordances as cultural producers and/or scholars, it is only logical that Africa keeps itself relegated in the negotiation of contemporary global history. That might be something to regret.



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