Title: Olabiyi B. Yai
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Interviewee: Olabiyi Babalola Joseph Yai

Interviewer: Jessica Smith

Date: April 4, 1994


S:This morning I will be interviewing Dr. Olabiyi Yai. He is the

department chair of the African and Asian Languages and

Literature Department in Grinter Hall. His office is

located in 471 Grinter Hall. Dr. Yai, could you please

state your full name?

Y:My name is Olabiyi Babalola Yai. My middle [name], as you

recall here, is not a middle [name]. It is also a first

name. It is Babalola.

S:Okay. When and where were you born?

Y:I was born on twelfth of March of the year 1939 after Jesus

Christ in Shabe, which is in Yorubaland, the capital city of

the Shabe Kingdom. The Shabe Kingdom happens to be divided

now between Nigeria and Benin but it is still one kingdom.

The capital city of Shabe, IleShabe, happens to be on the

French side of the French and British divide.

S:What is the name of your father and his occupation, or what did

he do?

Y:The name of my father is Ashipa, which if translated would be

"pioneer," "he who opened the way," something like that. He

also was baptized as Aquilas, a Christian name, but his

African name is Ashipa. Alao is his oriki, his second name

or middle name, Ashipa Alao. He was a farmer. That is the

main occupation of many people in my area. [He was also] a

trader. He used to go from Shabe to Lagos to Abbeokuta. In

those days, a bike was like a truck in the twenties and

thirties of this century. So he was mainly a farmer.

Everyone, even if you were anything else, [was] a farmer.

You did not buy your food, particularly as a prince, [which]

he was. And in addition to that he was also a trader. He

used to trade in cloth and gun powder between Nigeria and

Dahomey at the time. He also used to trade in bikes and

bike parts between Nigeria and the Benin Republic.

S:How long did he do that? How long was he a trader as well as a


Y:He did that until the early fifties. I was already big enough.

I saw it. I saw it myself. He did that until maybe 1954

or thereabout. And then he passed it to one of his nephews

and did not do it anymore. I would have done it also if I

had not gone to school. But as you know, I went to school.

S:Okay. Can you tell me a little bit about your mother--her

name, what she did, and what type of family she was from?

Y:My mother is Ilesamin, her African name. Ada is her Christian

name. [It is] her Old Testament name because she was

baptized. By profession she is like many Yoruba women.

[She was] a trader. In other words, those things her

husband brought from the long distance between Shabe and

Lagos, or Ibadan, or Abbeokuta, she would kind of distribute

it, sell it in the local market. In addition to being a

homemaker, as you say here, she was also a petty trader.

She used to sell clothes, cotton, woolen clothes in the

traditional Yoruba aso, as we call it. [She sold] imported

print clothes as well and things like plates, china, spoons.

All those things my father would bring also from Nigeria at the

time and she would resell it on the market. She is the

daughter of a very famous diviner. My family and my

grandfather and great-grandfather in that line were

diviners, babalawo diviners. She is the first to be a

Christian in the family. At least three of my granduncles

were also diviners. So divination is a trait in the family.

S:Do you know when she became a Christian?

Y:I really do not know. She must have been converted to

Christianity, maybe in the middle of the twenties or in the

early thirties. [She was converted] definitely before I was


S:Do you have any siblings?

Y:In the strict American sense of it I do not, since I was the

only child of both my father and mother. I must say though

that my father had a son fifteen years before I was born by

another woman who befriended him. He was not married at the

time, but the son died long before I was born. So I had a

half-brother whom I did not know. But I know his name was

Oladogun. I know because if you have a brother in your

family you must know. Or a sister. But apart from that, I

have, of course, many siblings in the sense of those in my

family whom I would call brother and sister. But in terms

of family terminology, [they would be called] nephews [or

nieces]. I did not have blood sisters or brothers in the

strict sense of it, but I did have a lot of them in the

definition that we apply in my culture.

S:So I guess what we would consider cousins, you would consider


Y:Oh, yes, definitely yes.

S:Did you all go to school together?

Y:No, because of my generation. I think I am the only one who

went to school. You must understand that those were the

thirties. There still was resistance, mostly cultural

resistance, to colonialism. School was seen with suspicion

because you went, almost invariably, to a Christian mission

school which meant you were obliged to convert to

Christianity [and] abandon your own religion. And the last

thing someone from the royal family would do is abandon his

traditions. Those who were four or five years older than me

in the family did [not] go to school. [My grandfather] did

not want them to go to school because he did not want them

to become Christians or anti-traditional. I, reluctantly,

was the one who was sent to school reluctantly by my

grandfather. But he made sure I was well groomed at home

before I went to school. Many of my siblings, in the

African sense of it, went to school five or six years after

me. But I was the only one to really go to school in that

area. Before that, I was like some kind of experiment.

S:To what type of school did you go?

Y:I first went to a missionary school, a Methodist school, run by

a Methodist mission. In that area they were patterned on

Nigerian schools. In other words, you have to learn your

language, which in my case was Yoruba, for two to three

years, before you went to study an official language which

in my case was French. My father tried to send me to the

official French school, but I was too short and therefore

was thought to be too young. I was sent back. Indeed, when

I did enter school the local district officer caught cut my

age three years. I was nine years old at the time, [but] he

[wrote down that I was] six.

I was officially born in 1942 instead of being born in 1939. I

did not know because my mother and father were illiterate.

When I was born, they knew that I was born in 1939. Because

I was not born in a hospital or official maternity, the

white administrator did not want me to be as old as I was.

He arbitrarily gave me an age. So I went to that missionary

school. I learned Yoruba and to write first on the floor,

then on the boards. [I learned] how to write and to read

Yoruba. Then, at the age of nine or ten, I went to the

French official school. I proceeded to high school in the

capital, the territory there which was Porto Novo.

S:What was the name of the first school that you went to, your

primary school?

Y:The primary school was the Protestant Methodist School of

Shabbe. You can spend two or three years there, then you

went to only French elementary or primary education school.

I went there. It was called the Regional School because it

catered to the whole region, not just for Shabbe City. It

was a regional school, the elementary school, [and] it went

from first to sixth grade. I graduated from there with what

would then have been a certificate for graduation from

primary school. It is called in French "Certifique de Tut

Primier." I got it in 1953. Yes, I remember that. Well, I

was proud to be the first in the whole region who graduated.

We were ranked, not just graduated. In the whole region,

and the region was big, I [was ranked number one]. I was

the first.

S:How many students were there? Were there hundreds of students

or just [a few]?

Y:In the region?

S:Yes, in your school from which you graduated.

Y:Okay. In the school I graduated from, there were 200

[students] from the first year to the sixth year. [There

were] 200 to a few hundred at most. Now in the whole region

there were at least four or six more towns with the same

status with the regional school. These schools were graded,

and maybe there were 500 to 1,000 candidates, at least at

the examination and certificate. [The certificate was

called] the Certificate of End of Primary Studies. That

gave you the right to proceed on to high school. That

certificate certified that you completed those studies. But

you still have to go through another examination to get into

the classical high school. It is typical. Classical high

school is very much a typical, lycee, French lycee.

S:Okay. So in order to get out of primary school, you had to

take an exam first?


S:Then you received your certificate, and then you had to take

another exam to get into high school?

Y:Yes. In the same year, yes.


Y:It was not just an exam, it was competitive. It was not that

you must have a certain average. In the whole territory,

the whole colony, [there were] only 120 vacancies. If you

were 121, even if your average was a B-plus, you would not

enter the school. They had only one such classical high

school for men and one for girls in the colony of Dahomey.

That was a different examination. It was not an exam in the

sense that [in] the French session we would call it conque,

not exam. An exam gave you a certificate, but that one

gave you access to the classical lyc6e or high school. But

on the basis of being very competitive you are selected. It

is very, very, very, elitist to say the truth. I can see it

even more now.

S:So it was an entrance test in order . .

Y:It was an entrance test, but there was a limited number of

people who could enter the lyc6e at that time.

S:So you entered high school in 1953?

Y:Yes, I entered high school in October 1953, and that was six,

seven years of high school. I was in the boarding house for

seven good years at the Lyche Victor Colonne. Victor

Colonne was the first French governor of that colony, and

the high school was named after him. And I graduated from

the high school with what the French called baccalaureat.

It still exists today. In June 1960, just before

Independence, [I graduated from high school]. Those were

the years [when] you had French teachers. All our programs

depended on Bordeaux Academy in France. Our textbooks,

exams, timetable, came from the academy of Paris or

Bordeaux. In other words, at the same time people in France

were studying biology, we were studying biology in the

colony. As you would expect, the French were very, very

much standardized. [They had] the same textbooks, same

program, [and] of course, the same exams from France to the


S:What subjects did you study?

Y:Well, there were two branches, what they called modern and what

they called the classics. I was in the classics. In other

words, you studied mostly humanities. Of course, French is

a must, French language and literature. [I also studied]

Latin, Spanish, and then geography, history and biology,

mathematics, of course, all the time but they are not as

stressed. They did not carry the weight they carried in the

so-called modern branches. There is a classics and

humanities branch and then there is the scientific branch.

In the scientific branch, deeper mathematics and physics

carried more weight. But for us, you not afford less than a

C-plus in French or else you would never graduate in the

classic arm track. So I followed that one. Therefore, [I

studied] Latin, French and languages, English included, of


S:Did you choose that or were you tracked into the classical or

modern branch because of test scores?

Y:Well, I think if you have a higher test score in the classics,

of course, you would be encouraged to be in the classics.

But we did have a choice. If you did not do well in the

score, if [out of] 120, you were 110 or 111, your teachers

at the time would be reluctant to take you into classes

because they believed that if you are not bright you cannot

do Latin. That was their belief. I believe they were

wrong. Whether I am right or not, that is what they

believed, and therefore they would orient you toward the

classics if you were among the first, etcetera. I wanted to

do Latin. I want to do Latin and languages.




Y:Well, out of curiosity and also I believe maybe because I

always had wanted to go to a school where you learned to how

to be a great poet, to write. But there was no such school

in the French system. My background in the home of my

grandfather was training in traditional world view and oral

poetry, etcetera. So I [became] interested in the

humanities. I was not necessarily interested in

mathematics. I was not good in mathematics, but I did not

cultivate it either. I wanted to learn more about

languages, literature.

Also, I was conscious of the fact that part of our people were

in Nigeria and that some of my cousins learned English. I

wanted to learn the language of the whites who colonized my

cousins on the other side. So it is no accident at all.

Since my father went to Ibadan, [he would] come back with

Yoruba books with some things in English I could not read.

I did not understand. I wanted to know that language, that

bizarre language that is English. Those were my reasons to

go into rather literary matters, the literature and

humanities track of the secondary high school education at

the time. And this I did until 1960 when I completed my

baccalaur6at there.

S:After you finished your baccalaur6at what did you do?

Y:Well, at that time I was encouraged by my professors to go to

France to a highly specialized school called the

(PLEASE IDENTIFY) which molded you to become a teacher and

later on, a professor. But I did not want that. At that

time I already was revolting against French colonialism. I

knew that at a school you were conditioned to be very highly

qualified but stay a very establishment kind of scholar

which was exactly what I did not want to be. I was very

interested in political science, but the French would not

give me a scholarship for it. They wanted me to do

humanities, languages--Spanish or French and English. Then

I decided to do Spanish. But not through the channel of the

where you were conditioned and you would go and

pair with the agr6gation. I knew that if you did it, you

could not be a patriot as I was at the time. I was for

independence, therefore against French colonialism. You

cannot hold those ideas and at the same time go to those

schools. It is contradictory. They will fail you all the


I decided to go to a normal, classical university and do

humanities and particularly languages, philosophy and

Spanish. Anyone who wants to move freely and communicate in

this world must know English, but I did not want that to be

my specialty. I wanted another language, that is why I

chose Spanish and Latin American studies. Then I went to

Dakar for my first university. I registered for many

things, particularly humanities, philosophy, English, and

Spanish. I was attending some lectures in the school of

economics. But I abandoned that after one semester because

they were not teaching me the what I expected so that I

could understand the economic situation of Africa at the

time. I concentrated on humanities and languages.

S:What were they focusing on in the economics department? Was it

more the economics of the colonial powers?

Y:Yes, we were told of how capitalist economics worked. But what

I wanted was some instrument, some knowledge, which would

help me understand the African economic system, pre-colonial

and colonial as well. After a very short survey of the

economic system, they would present you with one hour with

what the socialist economy was supposed to be. Everything

there is concentrated on modern enterprenuerialship,

etcetera, which you do not find in the colonies anyway. It

did not help me understand how the colonialist economic

system functions and definitely less how the pre-colonialist

system worked and how both are articulated. I thought I

could not learn from that and really understand unless I

study other things by myself. I could not do that through a

degree, and it was too much work to add to the humanities,

which was my main focus. So I abandoned that after the

first semester.

S:Were most of the professors that you had Dakar as well as in

your high school Africans or French?

Y:About 90 percent of them were Europeans, of course. As far as

I remember, I think I had only four professors in high

school [who were African]. Two of them were not even

permanent, they just came to replace other people. They

were not faculty. They came to help. Most of them, of

course, were French people.

S:What did they expect you to do even though you had gone through

the same system as Europeans and had acquired the same

knowledge? What did they make available for you to do if

Europeans were keeping all of the educational positions for


Y:Do not forget that those were years when the French never

thought that African countries would become independent one

day anyway. So they expected us to be excellent, good

citizens of France. We were kind of overseas French people,

French citizens. They expected us to become good French

Africans. Indeed, many of them groomed us and wanted to

send us to France to prove to the counterparts in France

that we they could raise Africans as good as any French

person. We would also believe that of course, we believed

that we could. Since we were going through the same exams,

we were doing really as good, if not better than French

people in France. The expectation of the French until the

last year of 1960, when it became clear that independence

was inevitable, was that we would be French-educated

citizens. That was what [we were] bombarded with everyday,

"you must be a good French citizen." Ancestry was supposed

to be the goal of the French. We were taught like any

French citizen from Paris, or from Lille, or from

(PLEASE IDENTIFY) or from Marseilles, or any village in

France for that matter. At that time if you were good

French citizen, [you could be] a French diplomat who could

work in Africa as well as anywhere in France if you were

really good. It was clear to me already in my fourth or

fifth year in high school seeing where we were with the

movement, the Algerian War, the war in Indochina, and the

French empire being threatened and contested everywhere, I

was sure Africa could not become just another French Africa.

I knew this. Those were the expectations of the French.

But most of us had a different expectation. Some believed

in these also, I must confess. Some of us believed that we

could become [good French citizens]. Everything, the

uniforms, everything we were taught, conditioned us to

become good black French people. I must say that in a way

that was very efficient because today if you see from my

generation even though they do not have a French passport,

they are not leaving France, type of consumption is French,

this type of life is French. We have kept this allegiance

to the French system. So in a way, this assimilation was

successful to a certain extent. Instead let me tell that

the current president of France, Francois Mitterrand, came

to my high school once. He was then minister of colonies

and talked to us in (PLEASE IDENTIFY). Good

French admired him at the time. His manner then was very,

very, very stylish. And we admired that. He wanted to know

the percentage of students who were not children of

functionaries, or people who were from peasant families and

were not men at the time. After he talked to us, he asked

who [of us] were of peasant background or famine background.

Well, I am not sure how many of us were, maybe we were

seventy-five or eighty. But the objective of the colony was

to extend France in Africa, which included making the men

and women good French people.

S:Did most of the people who came through with you end up being

the elite in Nigeria?

Y:Yes, yes, definitely yes. Of course, as I told you, I became

an undergraduate the very year we became independent, and

that was in 1960. Therefore, my generation, my set, were

the very first [elites]. Those who came after us already

spent most of their school years in continuing independence

in an independent state. I was in Dakar first, and then in

France on a scholarship from the French government. We were

the very first set who were independent. Those who

graduated after four or five years, 1964 or 1965, went back.

At the time, we had very few peers. We were first to

occupy those important positions left by the colonialists.

In other words, whether I liked it or not, I was part of the

elite. They occupied the state university positions. But I

chose to be in a different function by learning and

teaching. I resisted the natural temptation of politics.

Many, many became politicians and became ministers in such

and such important positions even though their specialty did

not prepare them for that. If you are a member of the

elite, you could be anything. You could hold any position

of power. A medical doctor could be, for instance, a

minister for education and not for health or head of

economics or whatever. If you have a university degree, you

could do anything, that could predispose you to any kind of


S:How did going to Dakar, with [Nigeria] becoming independent at

the same time, affect your education?

Y:Well, the University of Dakar, at the time I was there, was a

French university with French teachers. You remember Dakar

became independent that very year. The university was

established by the French as a college of the University of

Paris and Bordeaux. It was very much part of the academic

system of France. They did not depend at all on Senegal.

It is only in the mid 1960s, indeed, it started in 1963,

and we fought against it. Senegal wanted to make it Senegal

University. At the time I was there, Senegal did not have

the economic means to have a university of itself. It was a

French university.

Yet being at Dakar opened my eyes to things from Africa. I must

say already that even the high school I was in, their was a

system by the French unexpectedly in the same territory

where there had been also not only Dahomean, but people who

came from any part of West Africa. I had also people from

Niger, people from the Ivory Coast, because they had the

East-West African-French Federation at the time. Dakar was

the capital of all the West African colonies; therefore,

that is why the university was located there. Being there

where so many West Africans converge, not only West African,

even people from as far as Uganda and Tanzania which made

the environment more West African than we knew. We were

forced, therefore (PLEASE IDENTIFY) the idea of

being an African. And we also had an association of African

students. We were not subdivided into only colonies, like a

Dahomean student as opposed to an Ugandian student. We did

have that as subunits of the whole West African Student

Union. I was very much involved in student politics. I was

even the vice-president of the faculty arts branch of our


And it is as a result of demonstrations that I was sent out of

the country. I had to go to France. That demonstration was

against the president of my country wanting to force us to

become a branch of the party he created. Those were the

years when some presidents in Africa thought that in order

to have national unity, they had to force everyone to be in

one and the same party. We as students opposed that and

thought that individuals should be free to adhere or not to

the parties created by the establishment or those

governments. And we needed to be free to create opposition

parties. We debate and it is multi-partisan. We were doing

that and asking that people should be free to create their

parties and not be forced into official parties. And the

government did not accept that.

We had a demonstration while the president of my country was

officially visiting the synagogue in Dakar. I was

apprehended [and] jailed for one and one-half months. I was

jailed in my life not because I was a criminal, but because

I was defending freedom. [I was] jailed for one and one-

half months. I came out of jail [and] was sentenced to one

and one-half months in prison. I was already in prison. My

country also asked for the synagogue to extradite me. They

wanted to punish me in my country, not in Senegal. They

wanted to re-punish me. It seems we had our people in the

police, where we knew someone so extradition probably the

request for extradition and later written in reply, granting

it to my government.

That is why, in anticipation that I was [going to be extradited],

I went underground with four of my colleagues. We ended up

in France. So I went to France as a kind of freedom-

fighter, if I may say so. [Laughter] France was forced to

give us scholarships because [we] were a good students.

They did not want to appear in the eyes of our government as

people who encouraged students who were anti-government, but

at the same time they did not want to appear as people who

were against freedom and who were kind of repressing good

students. And we were good students. I worked for some

time. I did not have a scholarship. The French

reestablished me by giving me a scholarship again. That is

why I became a French scholar in France.

S:When was this and where did you study?

Y:I studied at the Sorbonne in Paris. That was in 1963. I was

to have graduated in 1963 but I lost that year because of

those incidents. I could not take my exam in Dakar. When I

arrived in Paris, it was too late to register for any of the

courses I was taking in Dakar. I was there studying by

myself, going to the libraries, and I lost a whole year.

But it was a rewarding year in terms of struggle and the

self. I read freely, but I could not take any exams. That

is why I graduated in 1964. When I registered officially in

October of 1963, and received my bachelor of arts degree in


S:Where did you get your higher degrees? In what did you get

your master of arts degree?

Y:It was in Ibadan. After the first degree I was interested in

African languages, particularly Yoruba. In those years,

very few African languages were taught at that level in any

European university, and definitely I believe also, American

universities. Because Yoruba was not French, [they] did not

colonize the biggest part of Yorubaland. They did not

develop any study of Yoruba in their universities. So I

could not do them. I wanted to do Yoruba. My professors

were not interested in that. They wanted me to go back to

Africa and study African French, the kind of creole African

French which we wanted to contrast with real French so as to

improve the French of Africans. You want to know the kind

of mistakes young African people make in schools so as to

correct them. But I was not interested in that, I wanted to

be interested in African languages for my own sake. That is

why I had to go to the University of Ibadan which was, at

the time, one of the highest, if not the highest [and] best

department for the study of African languages.

S:What languages were taught in the department?

Y:At the time, they gave lectures on African linguistics in

general [and] on the history of African languages. There

were bachelor of arts degrees in Yoruba, Ibo, and Hausa.

Yoruba was more developed, although there were also courses

in the Hausa and Ibo languages. Ibo could not develop as

fast because those were the years of civil war in Nigeria

and many had left. Many who were lecturers and professors

had left. But Yoruba was highly legal at the time. So I

had to take courses. I was already in France in

correspondence with my Nigerian professors on the business

of speaking the same languages. They were very schooled in

English, of course. So when I went there I was given a

scholarship by the West African Linguist Society to study


S:So when did you seek your doctorate?

Y:I never received a doctorate. Never. I started my doctorate

at the Sorbonne in France, which I never finished precisely

because of what I told you. I was interested Yoruba in Cuba

and Brazil. So after my qualifying exam, I asked the

French, who gave me the scholarship to study, to send me for

research [and] fieldwork to Brazil and Cuba since I did

Spanish and Latin American studies. But the French

government refused to send me because that was 1964, 1965,

and they thought that sending an African to Cuba [would turn

him into] a revolutionary. Remember, those were the years

of Castro and Che Guevarra. And given my background as

someone who was expelled from the synagogue for political

activities, which I continued in France--I was vice-

president of cultural affairs for the Federation of African

Students in France--they thought it was risky to send me to

Cuba because I may not come back. They also thought that if

I did come back I would be even more anti-French. I would

bring the seeds of the Cuban Revolution back.

They said, "You can write a doctorate on the basis of documents

you have in Paris." Of course, I did not want the doctorate

just as a title. I refused. They gave me a teaching

assistantship to go to the University of Ibadan to do

precisely what I told you--study errors made by African

people when they speak in French so as to correct those

errors. Since I was not interested in that, I went to the

University of Ibadan instead. After my qualifying exam, I

did another master of arts degree in (PLEASE

IDENTIFY), Yoruba, and linguistics. And by the time I did

that, my professor thought I had some publication, and I did

not need to write a doctorate degree. You could do that in

the British system. Here, with publication, I am a full

professor without a doctorate.

S:What brought you here?

Y:Well, I came here because I learned they had a position in

Yoruba here, and I saw Florida as a kind of window opened to

the Yoruba world in the Caribbean and Brazil. Florida was

kind of midway between Africa and Brazil. And I thought an

American university could play the role of an intermediary

midway between Africa and African diaspora in the Caribbean

and Brazil. The position description also asked for someone

who was interested in Yoruba in the western hemisphere which

always has been my interest since my student days.

I must say that when I was a professor at Ife I spent a year in

Brazil of course, doing research and teaching. So I

applied. I was at the University of Birmingham in England

when I got notice that I was to come here for an interview.

And I came. That was in 1987, yes, 1987. I came here for

the interview. Frankly, they thought I was able to have

this job and they gave it to me. So after two years at

Ibadan and thirteen at Ife, one in Brazil, one in

Birmingham, that I landed here as my last .

S:Hopefully. [Laughter]

Y:Yes. So I see this University as having the potential to unite

the Caribbean, Brazil, and Africa in terms of African

traditions and languages in the New World. You must realize

that there are very few instances that you find American

universities or Brazilian or Caribbean universities having

direct links with African universities. Given the

importance of Yoruba in the New World now, clearly through

Cuba and Miami and New York, I thought the University of

Florida would be a good link between Africa and the New


S:Has it been thus far?

Y:Well, thus far we have tried [to set up a link to Africa]. We

tried. We had a conference on Yoruba in the New World in

1989. It was well attended. Last year we had also a

conference in (PLEASE IDENTIFY), as you know.

Definitely since I came here the Africanness of so-called

Latin America has come a bit more to the forefront because

it was almost completely ignored, not recognized. At least

I have tried with others to achieve it. It is coming. It

will take some time.

S:When you came here, were you given the job as chairperson?

Y:No, no. I came here as a full professor in the department, and

three years later the position of chair was open. I did not

want it. Actually, my strategy was to encourage other

Africans to apply for it so that [there would be] many

Africans here. And they did apply. But somehow, they were

defeated on the basis that they did not have administrative

experience in the United States. When other Africans who

did have experience in the United States applied and also

were interviewed, they were not found [to be] eligible. My

colleagues in the department suggested that I be interim

chairman. I reluctantly accepted with the expectation that

in a while they would find someone. That was in 1991. In

1992, and beginning of 1993, the dean thought that I, on the

basis of what my colleagues think of me and

(PLEASE IDENTIFY) that they did not need to go outside for

another because I was administering the department very

well. That is how I became chairman.

S:Okay, I am going to play devil's advocate now.

Y:Yes, please.

S:Do you think maybe because you are an African and you were

already here that they felt it would be easier to bring you

into that position, versus actually bringing more Africans

into the department? They could have you serving two

functions as an African scholar as well as department chair

instead of having two Africans here--one as a scholar and

one as a department chair.

Y:To be fair to administrators, I must say that what happened was

not their intention. If there was any intention and if

there is anyone to blame, then it is my colleagues in the

department, not the dean's office, not the chairman. We

interviewed people including at least one African. I,

personally, would have preferred to have another colleague,

another brother here because I must tell you, among those

who applied, I could have applied also to the position that

was open. It was open, but I did not. Most of those who

applied, I knew, because they were my colleagues back home.

And indeed they were very able academically.

As scholars there was nobody who could beat them. That is why

you have nobody from Asia because this department, you have

to remember, is the department of African and Asian

[studies]. In Niger, particularly, at the top because they

are very good scholars, no doubt. So this criterion of not

having administrative experience in America, I believe, to

be sincere, was brought up as an ultimate thing to kind of

discard them. I believe that if you have never had an

administrative experience in America . no one is born

with it. You have to be there to start having it. Do you

understand what I mean?


Y:So it was intended, I believe, to discard Africans. They were

discarded. I am here. I could not be discarded. So I was,

against my will, pushed into [this position]. If things

were done normally, without any prejudice, I am sure that I

could have had an African chairman from Africa here. And I

do not believe they would have done badly because some of

them, at least two of them, were already deans. Oh yes, the

colleagues I knew were deans. I have never been interested

in that position. Those [deans] are not only good scholars,

but also they had administrative experience there. The

reasoning here is that unless you have academic experience

in America, you would not qualify. I believe that is wrong.

But that is my belief, not the establishment's.

S:So have you seen many changes since you have been here and

since you have been department chair? Has it become more

acceptable for Africans?

Y:I would think so. I think that being here has given Africans

more confidence to approach this department and to approach

me. I am more comfortable, definitely. In terms of

changes, well, I did not change anything radical, but I

definitely created an internal dialogue in

(PLEASE IDENTIFY) departments. I believe I am very

accessible to my colleagues. I create an orientation of

responsibility and research. I want my colleagues not only

to teach and be good teachers, but also to demonstrate that

they are here to do research. For instance, I started a

seminar series and it has been successful so far.

I am sure when and if we have a graduate degree here--we are not

yet a degree-granting department--we will have people

writing and calling and wanting to be graduate students in

the department from within the United States, from all

universities from west to east as well as from home, from

African universities who want to come here to do graduate

work in African languages and African literature. What I do

now is to encourage them to be positioned in a different

department like in English, anthropology, or whatever and

then have a joint supervision with someone who has expertise

in this department. But definitely, there is more interest

in the department since I came here, and I must confess,

from both Africans and non-Africans alike.

S:Has it been harder to get funding for this department than some

of the others?

Y:Yes, well, it is tough to say because, as you know, these are

very hard times financially for the whole state university

system. But the dean understands this. When I argue with

the dean I try to convince him of the necessities to do

something. He tries his best. I cannot say [that he does

not]. In terms of funding, we do not have much, but I

believe that the dean takes me very seriously and has been

very accessible so far.



S:What changes do you see [yourself] making in the future? What

direction would you like to see the department go in within

the next few years?

Y:For me, coming here is kind of a demotion, I will tell you,

because the kind of work we were doing at Ife was promoting

the highest level of academic discourse and production. And

the kinds of things we wrote, the publications we made at

the University of Ife now are all over the world. I am

saying that not as a vain discourse or boast. I am not

boasting. It is real. I am not the only one to say it. I

received a letter from someone who is now at UNESCO (United

Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization),

a white professor of philosophy, a white American, who was

complaining that unfortunately most of us have left Ife for

an American university. You can never find concentrated in

the same area and the same place that number of scholars

interested in promoting African culture who are involved and

are good researchers. They are not just people who do

research just for dollars, but who also have their roots in

African cultures and who are well trained as scholars in the

African cultures we have in Euro-American scholarship. So

coming here, therefore for me, was kind of a passion for

research and culture here. And I would like that to exist

here. My objective since I became chairman was to elevate

this department to a level of a research department. I hope

we will have better days when we will be getting more money

and then we can attract more students. You do not have a

good graduate department when you do not have good graduate

students, when you do not have more of them. And also, very

critical to this department is linkages with universities in

Asia and Africa. So I am starting that relationship now,

creating linkages with Africa. When the ambassador of

Mozambique came here, we talked about it. I want to have

linkages with the University of Mozambique and

(PLEASE IDENTIFY) University in Maputo. Already, I

negotiated a linkage with the University of Bahia in Brazil,

where I taught for seven years. I see myself as a

(PLEASE IDENTIFY), bringing together people who

think, wherever they are, the intent of African studies, of

African cultures in Africa and elsewhere. I am also doing

the same for Asia, because I am also (PLEASE

IDENTIFY). I am starting a relationship between this

institution and other universities elsewhere. That is my

objective for the short and midterm. If I can do something

toward it, I will, until someone else comes in. I hope to

push it forward.

S:I wanted to know a little bit about your wife and family, her


Y:Her name is Antoinette. I think you have met her.

S:Yes. [Laughter]

Y:She is trained as a professor of French, although she is not

teaching right now. She is more interested in fashion

design right now, and that is what she is doing. It is not

bringing in much money. And she (PLEASE

IDENTIFY) of Yoruba. Her great-great-great grandparents

were people from my area who were taken as slaves to Brazil.

They returned and came back. But when they came back, they

stayed in Yoruba, and then her grandfather was a translator

(PLEASE IDENTIFY). He spoke Brazilian Portuguese

as well as French as well as English, of course. Then he

moved to what is now Dahomey at the time because he married

someone from that area. (PLEASE IDENTIFY) split,

that is why she became (PLEASE IDENTIFY) although

she has many cousins still in Lagos and Abeokuta. So I have

family back there now. I know her cousin in Brazil because

he has the same name, same family. She has not been there

yet, but I do know him.

S:How many children do you have?

Y:Oh yes, we have four children--three girls and one boy. They

are from twenty-three to fourteen.

S:Thank you so much.

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