YALI: demonstrating possibilities when Africans connect
It’s been four weeks since the YALI 2017 Mandela Washington Fellowship ended yet there’s been a consistent and common line of feedback from fellows: a better understanding and appreciation of fellow Africans, their countries and peculiar contexts. In other words, for many, it was a demystification of certain stereotypes as much as it was a learning experience.
My 6 weeks fellowship was at Dartmouth College with 24 awesome fellows of diverse backgrounds representing 19 African countries — Angola, Botswana, Burundi, Cameroon, Cote d’Ivoire, Ethiopia, Ghana, Liberia, Lesotho, Mali, Mozambique, Namibia, Nigeria, Senegal, South Africa, Sudan, The Gambia, Zambia, and Zimbabwe.
One of the highlights of my firsthand experience living, working, learning and sharing with them was that it exposed how little Africans know about Africa beyond their home countries. Hence, in 6 weeks, I learnt more about 18 other countries than I had in my 17 years of Primary, Secondary & University schooling combined in Nigeria.
My first taste of what lay ahead occurred during our departure for the fellowship as cohorts flying in groups bumped into each other across Europe while on layover. One notable meeting was Cheryl Sembie, a fellow from Sierra Leone whom I ran into at the Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris. During our brief introduction where I mentioned my works with promoting indigenous African cultures vis-à-vis Genii Games, she shared insights on the relationship between the Yoruba people of Nigeria and the Oku/Aku people of Sierra Leone.
The experience in itself was ironic given we’d had to travel outside Africa to learn about our shared relationship despite being neighbouring countries. That realisation replayed itself throughout the fellowship program. In some ways, it questions the quality of our education curriculum but it’s also evident in related issues. There are cross-border barriers within the continent such that it’s difficult to travel around. Ciku Kimeria’s, “The trials, restrictions and costs of traveling in Africa if you’re an African” breaks down the issue from an experiential perspective. These issues have effects on knowledge transfer and collaborations that could otherwise serve our development.
Notwithstanding these temporary issues, one of my dreams is to travel across the African continent, immersing myself in its diverse cultures, gathering firsthand knowledge and sharing them in creative ways. While that dream is a long way off with just 4 countries under my belt, the YALI 2017 Mandela Washington Fellowship presented me with an opportunity to learn about these cultures.
Connecting the dots backwards, it suddenly made sense why I wanted to experience the Mandela Washington Fellowship. It explains why I persisted with applying for the fellowship despite two unsuccessful attempts. It made sense for my journey vis-à-vis Genii Games reflecting a blur line between my hobby, passion, obsession and business.
It is within that context that I worked with another fellow, Eyram Tawia, a game developer from Ghana to create the first version of the One Million Tongues project. The One Million Tongue project is an animated video and game where fellows expressed THANK YOU in different native African languages. It also comes with a game to test users on the knowledge. We developed it with the support of all 2017 Mandela Washington Fellows at Dartmouth College including Julie Mariuki and launched it during the closing summit. After the fellowship, the Voice Of America (VOA) broadcasted it to its audience during a live interview with me on its Africa 54 program.
Simple as it seems, the One Million Tongues video reflects some deeper significance beyond our language diversity as follows.
It demonstrates our ability to rise above subtle shades of unhealthy competitiveness among countries to work together. If all 25 of us fellows could work on a tangible project then we could also pull off major projects with far-reaching impact tomorrow.
It reflected the possibility of cross border collaboration by tapping shared resources. Diverse skills were exchanged to bring the project to life. Eyram Tawia (Ghana) and his Leti Arts team developed the graphics and game, Yembe Nfor (Cameroon) developed the website, Phil Chard (Zimbabwe) helped with the sounds while other fellows were more than happy to sit down for the recordings.
It demonstrates the essence of institutional support given the development tools and space provided by Dartmouth’s Jones Media Center. Hence, the project didn’t cost a dime!
During my interviews with fellows, I learnt more about their cultures than we needed for the project. These extended interviews brought up insights on different cultures including commonalities that reinforced my works with Genii Games.
Those very lessons in the process were the rewards. A reward to my personal dreams, reward for humanity in what’s possible where firsthand experience undermine negative stereotypes.
In the end, the One Million Tongues project made possible by YALI’s Mandela Washington Fellowship isn’t isolated. It’s akin to Coke Studio Africa where artistes from different African countries collaborate, the African cup of nations, among other events that bring Africans together.
With more of the foregoing, we can further draw our continent closer and foster our collective development.