On the first evening I spent in Ile-Ife, Nigeria, I barraged my hosts with questions about proper conduct before elders, the best way to eat amala, and the meaning of each host-siblings’ Yoruba name. Noticing my interest in Yoruba culture and probably a bit tired of answering my many questions, my new brothers and sister invited me to join them in the parlor to watch their favorite Yoruba movie, Tunde Kelani’s Saworoide (1999). It dawned on me that my siblings had selected a video that they believed conveyed a message about Yoruba culture and about themselves to an inquiring outsider. The experience inspired me to seek out Kelani’s films, and the more I learned about his work, the more it resonated with my personal, academic, and professional passion for stories so compelling they change the way we think of ourselves and our communities.
Kelani is storyteller, narrating Yoruba tales to people who crave a reminder of their roots and who draw inspiration from their own customs. My own family’s story begins with our farm. During my childhood, my mother would lead me on walks through my grandparent’s farm, pointing out the hay-shed and cattle corral that my grandfather built and reminding me of my own family’s roots. In 2003, I left the farm to attend the University of Saint Thomas and found myself living across the Mississippi River from the 11,000 Somali residents of Minneapolis’s West Bank neighborhood. The 10th Avenue bridge lead from my front door to the African eateries, cafes, and mosques on the West Bank, literally bridging my world to theirs. I was determined to better understand my new African friends and neighbors through the stories their cultures tell.
This led me to my graduate work in African literature and film at Michigan State University where I was awarded a FLAS fellowship in 2009 to study Yoruba. Then in 2010, I spent two months studying Yoruba at Obafemi Awolowo University – Ile-Ife with the Fulbright-Hays Yoruba Group Project Abroad. Ever since, Yoruba language has transformed the ways I think about and express myself, and has allowed me to form deeper, more empathetic relationships with my Nigerian friends. For example, the phrase ti oluwa ba fe (God willing) became a humorous phrase for me and my closest friend, Abiola. When we spoke about the most mundane or the truly intimate alike, and ended with, “ti oluwa ba fe,” it expressed our faith, anxiety, and hope for the future. My everyday interactions with other young friends were peppered with simple slang – So wa pa? O fine. J’a ko mole. Siyo, o l’enu paa! – which made our personal connections more personal and playful.
I had the good fortune of returning to Nigeria in 2011. This time, my mission was to meet Kelani and learn more about this storyteller at the forefront of Nigeria’s booming video film industry. Kelani was immensely welcoming, insisting I not call him oga for respect, but rather T.K. for short.While in Lagos, I also dedicated a month to developing a start-up website for the Pan-African University’s Nollywood Studies Center (NSC). In conducting my survey of Nollywood for the NSC, I noticed that media attention highlights the enticing trends in the industry, like the high-budget, cinema-based “New Nollywood” movement. But this belies the tremendous popular appetite of folks like my host-family in Ile-Ife, who are engrossed by low-budget, Yoruba-language videos. These videos may seem trivial but their impact is monumental.
In fact, there is more to the story of the video I watched on my first night in Nigeria. Upon returning home to Rochester, Minnesota that summer, I visited a new Yoruba-owned grocery with my mother and discovered Nigerian videos lining the store’s back wall. My mother and I sat down that night to watch one of the English-language movies. We enjoyed the movie’s story, but I was more fascinated by the new story it told me about my own hometown. Thanks to the Yoruba families who call Rochester home too, our town is now linked to the immense global success of Nollywood, a realization that changes my view of both Nollywood and my own community.