Video by Ceci Gonzales, Karla Benitez and Ashika Sethi
Words by Grant Gordon
Photos by Ashika Sethi
The University of Texas at Austin’s 12th Yoruba Day celebration was held on April 21st, spreading awareness about a culture that is unknown to many but has become very important to a group of UT students.
Professor Omoniyi Afolabi’s Intermediate Yoruba class teaches students from various backgrounds the Yoruba culture and language, which is spoken by over 30 million people in the world, predominantly in Western Africa and Nigeria. At the Yoruba Day celebration, Afolabi’s class performed a 20-minute play speaking solely the Yoruba language in a performance that served as the class’s final exam.
“The best way to teach a language is to have opportunities to apply it,” Afolabi said. The class’s memorized performance in front of an audience of about 50 people supplied this opportunity.
“There is a lot that is lost when all you’re doing is grammar and homework and exercises,” Afolabi said. “But when students are in a situation where they actually have to apply the language, they feel freer. They feel… that the language is alive.”
The approximately 15 students in Afolabi’s class have a variety of different reasons for choosing to learn Yoruba. Christianah Ogunleye, a senior biochemistry major, was born in Nigeria, and while she has been exposed to the language from her family for her whole life, she lost the ability to speak it when she moved to America at two years old.
“I figured now that I’m in college this was the time,” Ogunleye said. “It was kind of a decision to come back to my roots and learn about myself as a person and be able to communicate with my family members that I hadn’t seen in years.”
Ogunleye said that the Yoruba Day celebration is a fun and exciting way to introduce the culture to people who have never experienced it before.
“My favorite part of the culture is the dancing and the singing,” she said. “I think that the artistic culture of dancing and singing is very deeply embedded in the culture, and I love it so much.”
Ogunleye has noticed a significant emergence of Yoruba culture in American pop culture in the past two years. Artists like Beyoncé and Drake have used aspects of the culture in their recent work.
“Globally, hip hop is becoming very influenced by African beats, and Nigeria as a whole is… for African music, it’s a big hub for it,” Ogunleye said.
Rebecca Williams, a freshman Radio Television and Film major taking the Intermediate Yoruba class, has also noticed Yoruba’s recent prevalence in pop culture. Because of her experience learning about the culture, she was able to explain to her friends that Beyoncé was depicting the Yoruba deity Oshun in her recent Grammy Awards performance.
Williams said that performances such as Beyoncé’s could lead to more young people digging deeper and learning about the Yoruba culture, spreading the culture to a wide audience across the world.
While Ogunleye took the Intermediate Yoruba course to get back to her roots, Williams made the decision to take the class with an eye toward the future. She said that she plans to learn other African languages in her time at UT to aid her potential career as a documentary film maker with an African focus.
“For my career, I plan to travel abroad,” Williams said. “I know the language already, so I can use that. It won’t be a language barrier.”
Whatever reason the students have for learning Yoruba, their actions have already helped increase awareness to the culture and draw more people to the UT Yoruba community.
Since he arrived in 2009, professor Afolabi said that he has seen the Yoruba Day celebration change a great deal. He said that it is now much more of a communal experience, with several elders from the Yoruba culture attending last month’s celebration.
“It’s a generational thing,” Afolabi said.
As his students use what they have learned about the culture to enhance their careers or develop their own spirituality, perhaps they will prove their professor right by returning to Yoruba Day celebrations decades down the road.