Kole Odutola lives in Gainesville but is also a citizen of virtual Nigeria. It’s not just that he was born in Lagos and lived there until about 15 years ago; it’s not just that he is still working to understand the processes he discusses in his book Diaspora and Imagined Nationality: USA-Africa Dialogue and Cyberframing Nigerian Nationhood. It’s also because, teaching Yoruba at UF, he needs to keep abreast of the growth and change of the language, and virtual Nigeria may be a better place to do that than Nigeria itself (where it is one of a half-dozen major African languages spoken).
Kole grew up bilingual; Yoruba was spoken at home, but English is the official language of Nigeria and was spoken in school. He developed an intellectual vocabulary in Yoruba by participating in the Yoruba literary and debating society in high school, and later was involved in a TV series on health in Yoruba, working with doctors and scientists to find vocabulary for new concepts and to translate, sometimes on the fly. He was not however primarily interested in languages when he was younger; he majored in Botany at the University of Benin, and was a budding poet and photographer. During and after college, though he did teach high school biology for a year, he became involved in media projects, particularly with regard to the environment. This in turn led, in the 90s, to work with organizations studying and promoting environmental protection, when he researched and wrote reports, brochures, and workbooks integrating international ideas with local needs, policies, and methods of conservation.
In the late 1990s, Kole’s work with German environmentalists led to their asking him to study German, and he studied in Bremen as well as travelling in Germany. Almost immediately, though, an opportunity came up for graduate work at the University of Reading in the U.K., in a program which seemed a perfect fit: using television and video in developing countries. This led to a documentary called Listening for Real in which street children in Nairobi participated in recording their lives. It also led Kole himself to continue his education in the U.S., with a second M.A. in communications, from Ithaca College. Whereas much of his work up to this point had had to do with public education, this time he was working on instructional design. In 2001, he entered the Ph.D. program in Media Studies at Rutgers. His research made him “a hunter and gatherer of texts” online, and his 2010 thesis became his book on Nigerian internet communities.
It was at Rutgers that Kole began teaching the Yoruba language. The Africa National Resource Center at University of Wisconsin, Madison provided training—first, through a visit to Rutgers by Antonia Folarin Schleicher—author of Yoruba textbooks—and later in a two-week summer course in Madison. Despite the variety of African languages and the diversity of problems (phonetic, typographic) involved in instruction, this program offered not only principles and practices for the classroom but also collegiality among what might otherwise be isolated teachers of the least commonly taught languages in the U.S. He met several of his current UF colleagues during the summer program.
Kole’s interest in teaching Yoruba developed rapidly, building on his Ithaca College work on instructional design. He worked for three years with Professor Akintoye Ojo of the University of Georgia to develop a strongly culturally-inflected multimedia introduction to the Yoruba language, AKOYE, which is available as a CD or online. . In 2006, he accepted a position as lecturer in Yoruba at UF, and in 2012 he was promoted to senior lecturer.
In teaching language, Kole draws on his own experience as an adult learner of German. He not only teaches language and culture, but also discusses with his students the process of learning a foreign language. He uses songs (set to familiar tunes) and other experiences to stimulate students’ interest and memory, and give them confidence in handling Yoruba’s phonetics. He is constantly working on new materials, whether audio recordings or the DVD and workbook Ẹ wá kó Yorùbá, which he developed five years ago. Yoruba classes are often an interesting mix of students with an interest in West Africa or in Western Hemisphere languages related to Yoruba, and UF athletes (Kole has acquired all too much experience in working with football and basketball schedules). A different mix of students comes to UF in the summers to learn Yoruba in the African Languages Initiative (AFLI), and this intensive program can include field trips and experiences cooking and eating Yoruba meals.
I asked him whether, given his experience on AKOYE, he and his UF colleague Professor Akinyemi would consider developing an online course in Yoruba, but he shook his head: over the technical issues. Yoruba is a tonal language, and its diacritics are complicated; simply to read a text requires a special font (often a specific copyrighted one), and typing it is a greater challenge. But Kole tells me that progress is being made: even Facebook is working on developing a keypad with the needed letters, and programmers are working on texting apps. So perhaps at the next stage of “virtual Nigeria”’s development Kole will be teaching distant students.