Digital Africana

I wrote this piece in 2014, alerting humanities scholars in Nigeria and in other parts of Africa to embrace the digital humanities more actively. Much has changed since I first posted this essay on several blogs as a way of mobilizing new media scholars in Nigeria to build digital infrastructure and commit to digital pedagogies and praxis. In Nigeria, the University of Lagos has held a summer school in the digital humanities, partnering with colleagues from Europe and North America. Many more DH projects have sprung up in South Africa, including the Programme in African Digital Humanities, 2018–2023 from the universities of Cape Town, Pretoria, Stellenbosch, Western Cape and the Witwatersrand. The programme aims to examine the current forms and practices of reading and digital publishing in order to encourage and support self-directed, digital literary enquiries in the South African humanities environments. We need many of such Africa-based scholarly interventions in the humanities, an idea expressed in my post below.

From my archive:

Let me start with a story. One early morning in 2013, one of my professors at the Institute of African Studies, Sola Olorunyomi, who was director of the University of Ibadan media centre, called me to his office to show me an antique map of Africa which he wanted to be digitized at the Kenneth Dike Library in Ibadan. Together with Dr. Olorunyomi, who himself had done much work as a scholar of media and cultural studies to set up the Digital Africana project at the Institute, I walked to the library where we got the map digitized and archived in the special collections of the library. I have always wondered what became of both that map and the fine work the team at Digital African was doing I recall this particular event because humanities scholars in Nigeria appear, until the recent experimentations with DH research and conferences at the University of Lagos, to be uninterested in the digital humanities. 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 troubling sociopolitical and economic failures in the country.

Imagine for a moment that there was an online database of the initial manuscripts of works by Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka, together with handwritten letters, earliest versions and drafts of critical essays on his oeuvre. Surely, we can do more with a project that gives more visibility to the scientific epistemologies of the Yoruba divination system, the Ifa corpus. Scholars such as Wande Abimbola and Olu Longe have undertaken some foundational cultural and computational analyses respectively. It is time to deepen the conversations they started. Or think of a digital scholarly edition of the Ifa corpus itself and what that could mean for learning and modernizing an encyclopedia of indigenous knowledge. The Ifa literary corpus in open access will be a worthy contribution to the global digital record.

With more accessibility to researchers, more can be done by a lot more people interested in Ifa as a system of religious thought. To leave all of these within the sphere of the imagination, or to wait for the West to mobilize its resources for these urgent tasks is to leave the Africa postcolony in a grip of perpetual technological stasis. We need to invest in the infrastructural environment for these kinds of research to become visible.

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 civilized 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; to disseminate indigenous language literature, and to put the work in conversation with other similar titles outside Africa. And it may be that some have already begun work on these engagements, but it is apparent that there is no online visibility for such digital projects. I understand that digital humanities projects take much time and collaboration. How about the Nigerian blogging space 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 offers a degree in the digital humanities, a problem we need to address, as we look beyond the gains of Nollywood and its 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 and refashioned on Facebook, Nairaland, and YouTube, and we need to harvest the data on these platforms.

Alan Liu’s caution that the digital humanities be not impervious to the necessity of cultural criticism may well be an entry point into the field for Nigerian scholars of culture, literature, and technology. Think of the way Teju Cole uses twitter narratives to reconstruct contemporary Lagos, or how YouTube has emerged 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 is remediating cultural aesthetics and calibrate new theoretical environments for traditional hermeneutical interpretations in the African academe. To be clear, the task of the digital humanist transcends the unexplored excitement about the nonlinear or multisequential nature 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 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 still far behind in digital humanities scholarship. What is simply at work is an unwitting refusal to ass to the digital cultural record by decentering Euro-American academies as the locus of activities in the digital humanities and decolonize the digital, as Roopika Risam bids us to, in order for us to 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 methodologies and seek to connect their work to an intersection of praxis and pedagogy. 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. This is an area in which more interventions from Africanist spaces might be beneficial More scholars of new media in Africa need to rise to the explosion of data which is being currently generated in new media environments on the continent. Aside from studies in information science departments and many other such as this from South Africa, which is a collaboration with scholars outside Africa; there is a paucity of perspectives from the digital humanities in the African academe.

Social media, for instance, enables a repossession of agency for netizens in Africa who have to deal with a daily stockpile of anxieties about defective democracies. 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 — contexts in which even print has remained persistent.

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 theorize 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 cultural records. 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 and technologies, for their art, knowing that we have the technical expertise. With Nigeria’s Andel and other start-up tech companies in Nigeria, sub-Saharan African can participate productively in the global DH communities. With this, the work of the digital humanist at home is sure.

If software is increasingly emerging as the medium of the message (a la Lev Manovich), it is time African writers collaborated with experts at home and outside of the continent 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 (as available in the special collections of the University of Kansas library), or digital artworks about life in Ibadan, there are many ways our signifying practices could be further taken beyond the limits of print and oral performances. If we refuse to take advantage of this digital cultural moment 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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