III. Management and sustainability of African language media

Reimagining the future of indigenous language press in the Digital Era


Over the past couple of decades, indigenous language newspapers have emerged as occupying a unique position in the Nigerian media space (Oyesomi, Salawu, and Olorunyomi 2017; Oyesomi et al. 2014; Oyero et al. 2018). The early indigenous newspapers, in particular, played a pivotal role in the struggle to liberate the country from the colonialists, providing a rallying point for nationalist expressions and defence of the indigenous people’s rights (Folarin and Mohammed 1996; Olunlade 2006). In recent years, indigenous language newspapers have become the locus of the revival of the rapidly disappearing mother tongues and a counterpublic sphere. However, from inception, local language newspapers have faced existential crises leading to epileptic operations and, in many instances, early closure (Salawu 2013). In the age of digital technology, when journalism is increasingly migrating online, the struggle for survival is bound to intensify. What are the implications of the shift to digital media for the future of indigenous language newspapers in Nigeria? This chapter examines how the growing gravitation to digital media implicates the survival of indigenous language newspapers and identifies opportunities for sustaining them.

The term ‘indigenous language newspaper’ usually refers to a newspaper that delivers its content in a native language as opposed to a colonial or second language, such as English, French or Portuguese. Although indigenous language newspapers are distinct from other newspaper types in that they do not rely on mother tongues in the construction and sharing of meaning, they still have the trappings of a conventional newspaper, as alluded to by' Otto Groth - they have a defined publication frequency of at least ‘once a week’; they are accessible to everyone, providing timely content that appeals to ‘large, diverse segments of the society’; and they have a continuous and organised structure (cited in Bittner 1989, 22).

Indigenous language newspapers are often confined to a specific geographic and linguistic area and are known for their unfettered exhibition of local talents and culture and the unapologetic accommodation of oral tradition and cultural motifs in their reportage. There exist scores of indigenous language newspapers across Nigeria, especially in the Southwest area that has been the locus of a number of indigenous language publications. The local language press has made and continues to make significant contributions to the socio-economic, political and cultural life of the nation, particularly the development of journalism. For instance, the first indigenous language newspaper in Africa, Iwe Irohin fun Awon Ara Egba ati Yoruba (The newspaper for the Egbas and Yorubas), which was established in 1859, was the forerunner of newspapering in Nigeria (Salawu 2006). Omu (1974) ascribes the birth of journalism and printing in Nigeria to the early newspapers sponsored by the church, particularly the Anglican Church Missionary Society (CMS). Sobowale (1985) holds that the history' of the Nigerian press is intricately ‘interwoven with the history of the Christian religion’ (27). The emergence of indigenous language newspapers helped not only' to capacitate locals in the printing business but also to birth a crop of journalists and entrepreneurs who went on to affect the society positively.

The evolution of indigenous language newspapers: the nexus of religion and language

The history and evolution of the indigenous language press have been documented by several scholars (Akinfeleye 1985; Coker 1968; Daramola 2013; Duyile, 1987; Folarin and Mohammed 1996; Omoloso and Abdulrauf-Salau 2014; Salawu 2006, 2012). Many accounts trace the evolution of indigenous publications to early' European Christian missionaries. As part of their evangelistic and civilisation campaigns, the various missionary' societies that thronged the country in the eighteenth century' - including the United Presbyterian Church of Scotland, the Wesleyan Methodist Missionary Society, the Anglican CMS, the Catholic Society' of African Missions and the Southern Baptist Convention of the United States -embarked on aggressive educational programmes ostensibly to educate their new African converts (Okpalike and Nwadialor 2015).

The campaign was intensive, especially in the Yoruba-speaking region of the country, such that as of 1842 there were already many people literate in the Yoruba language. The Yoruba language had evolved from being the exclusive medium of delivering sermons to become a prime pedagogical tool in mission-sponsored educational institutions (Adegoju 2008). In this era, indigenous language writing had begun to take root such that church bulletins, gospel tracts and educational materials were printed in the Yoruba language. By 1841, Samuel Ajayi Crowther, one of the earliest Yoruba Christian converts, had assembled an array of publications in the Yoruba language. It was no surprise that the first newspaper, Iwe Irohin, would be published by a clergyman, Reverend Henry Townsend, who already' owned a printing press.

Interestingly, the first vernacular Bible in the Yoruba language was printed in Townsend’s press in 1862. Townsend’s Iwe Irohin, which was promoted by the CMS, was aimed not only at advancing the evangelism mission of spreading Christianity to unbelievers but also to get the converted to read ‘and to beget the habit of seeking information by reading’ (Daramola 2013). Although Iwe Irohin was published in English and Yoruba, its target was the large pool of Yoruba elite who were Christians and who had developed considerable fluency in both English and Yoruba. Initially, the content of Iwe Irohin, which consisted mainly of church bulletins and related news, was tailored for Christian adherents.

However, in subsequent years, the paper began to publish data about agricultural products like cocoa and cotton, as well as advertisements from government and local businesses (Daramola 2013). The success of Iwe Irohin gave impetus to the establishment of indigenous language newspapers across the country (Omoloso and Abdulrauf-Salau 2014). From the southern axis emerged the Efik language newspapers, Unwana Efik and Obukpon Efik, that operated between 1885 and 1892. It was during this period that Iwe Irohin Eko flourished in the Lagos colony. Another Eko-based Yoruba language newspaper, Eko Akete, was launched in 1922 and published intermittently until its final demise in 1937 (Salawu 2006). Many indigenous language newspapers have continued to spring up across the landscape.

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