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SAMUEL PROCTOR ORAL HISTORY PROGRAM at
the University of Florida
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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 .
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.
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.
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.