“I feel like you can never fully understand people if you don’t speak their language, not the language they understand but ‘their’ language — their mother tongue,” Gbemisola Isimi tells What We Seee. “I want my children to feel a connection to Nigeria and for that to happen they need to have an understanding of the culture, the people, and the language. I don’t want them to be a stranger in a country that I will always refer to as my first home.” This need to share her mother tongue, Yoruba, led Isimi to set up CultureTree — a Yoruba learning platform. What started as a YouTube Channel of rhymes and songs aimed at teaching children Yoruba, has grown into a thriving group of online classes, a permanent centre in Peckham, and they will soon be starting classes near Kensal Rise, in northwest London.
While part of CultureTree’s success is down to Isimi’s enthusiasm and her keen eye for how to engage children through videos and rhymes, she also quickly discovered a gap in the market. Many parents wanted to be able to pass Yoruba down to their children, but found that there were no resources available — and some of them had never learned the language themselves. Isimi has found a way to fill that gap in the market and reinvigorate a passion for Yoruba across London — and around the world.
A Skipped Generation
For Isimi, passing on Yoruba to her daughters was a straightforward decision. “I was in a position where I lived with my grandma in Nigeria until I was 10, so I spoke it fluently,” she explains. “My husband and I are both Nigerian, so we made the decision to teach our children from a young age. But a lot of second-generation Nigerians in the UK never learned to speak the language. Sometimes their parents only spoke English to them, but even if their parents spoke Yoruba to them, they grew up responding in English. We’re all adults now and we want to pass on this missing link of our heritage to our children — but people can’t pass on something they don’t know themselves.”
Because of this, CultureTree has found an audience, not just in London, but worldwide — including in Nigeria itself. “The saddest thing is that even in Nigeria there are people who don’t speak Yoruba to their children, they speak in English — they think Yoruba is inferior to English,” she explains. There was a time where, no matter where you lived, some people were told that the best thing they could do for their children’s future was to only teach them English. Though, luckily, the tide has turned and more people are taught to embrace their multicultural roots, that skipped generation — whether in Nigeria, the UK, or anywhere else— have to educate themselves in order to educate their children. CultureTree specializes in classes for adults and children alike, creating a safe space to try to learn the new language, without feeling intimidated. “It never is too late to start,” Isimi says.
Ideally, CultureTree aims to reach a larger audience by providing some of their classes free for those who can’t afford them — and producing more free online content. They are currently actively seeking out partners and sponsorship to this end. “All of our projects are currently self-funded but we know there might be individuals or organisations out there who might be interested in supporting our work,” Isimi explains. “This can be through individuals spreading the word or brands and organisations partnering with us to sponsor our events and projects.”
Practice What You Preach
One heartening shift for Isimi is seeing how more young people today are proud of their Nigerian heritage. Compared to when Isimi was just moving to the UK, there’s been a huge increase in appreciation for Nigerian culture. “It’s so cool to be Nigerian right now. It was not fashionable to have a Nigerian name when I was in school. I used to want to be called Sharon,” she laughs. “But now I see it — I gave my daughters Nigerian names. Names are really important in Nigerian culture and now you see kids in our classes standing up proud, telling us telling us their Nigerian names and the meaning behind their names. The culture has changed a lot — Afrobeats is really big right now and the kids see celebrities, they see Wizkid. It makes a huge difference.”
And though celebrity and pop culture can definitely make an impactful difference — especially for school children looking to be accepted among their peers — there’s also something infectious about seeing parents embrace, rather than suppress, their Nigerian heritage and mother tongue. “My advice would be to practice what you preach. Children take their cues from their parents and if they see that you are actively seeking to bond with your heritage and are proud of it then they would also definitely follow suit,” she says. “It’ll come naturally if the passion from you is authentic and not something you’re doing because it’s a nice to have.”
Starting A Fire
With classes for adults and children, a popular Youtube channel, and online courses, CultureTree is becoming a powerhouse — but one that never loses sight of its roots. More than anything, Isimi is driven by her love and passion for her culture — and a desire to share it. “There’s an African proverb that says ‘a river that forgets its source will eventually run dry’,” she explains. “This means that if we do not pass on our culture, our language to our children they will forget it and it will eventually become extinct. Native languages die every day when the native speakers die. In a typical Nigerian household, the grandparents may understand and speak their language but they don’t speak it to their children or grandchildren.”
Ideally, Isimi doesn’t want CultureTree to be the only home of Yoruba teaching in London — it’s about reigniting an enthusiasm and appreciation and letting that spread. “My aim is to start the fire and let other people help with fanning the flames. Ultimately the onus is on each individual to play their part in their homes but I want to be remembered as one of the people who played their part for the advancement and preservation of the language that I hold so dear.”