Creative writing news had a chat with bestselling author Yvonne Chioma Mbanefo. She had so many interesting things to say.
CWN: Congratulations of the success of your dictionary. How did you feel when you learned that Okowaokwu Igbo Umuaka : Igbo Dictionary for Children had become a number bestseller of foreign dictionaries and thesauruses?
Yvonne Chioma Mbanefo: Thank you very much. The book had only become available to the public 24 hours earlier and I was busy reading comments on facebook. Someone had shared a direct amazon link to my book on their wall. Something just made me click the link and it took me to the exact sales page of the dictionary on Amazon USA . I was about to leave the page when I saw the orange number 1 bestseller tag next to the image of the book. I thought it was a mistake, refreshed the page and it was still there. I was the only one in my study – went hot and cold and refreshed the page again. Then I quickly did a screenshot just in case it disappeared. When the impact hit me, I started yelling. Becoming a bestselling author in 24 hours after releasing your first book is not common occurrence, it is a fluke. I am so grateful to everyone that has bought the book and told their friends and family to do the same. It has fired me up to create more materials.
CWN: Are you a lexicologist? And is this the first dictionary you have ever worked on?
Yvonne Chioma Mbanefo: I am not a lexicologist at all. I come from an IT / digital media / academic / information design background. This is not the first dictionary I’ve worked on. The first dictionary I have worked on and am still working on is a project I started in 2011 to update the Igbo dictionary and create a comprehensive dictionary. Then I was lecturing in internet entrepreneurship and social media at a University here in London. It just struck me that Facebook was the only place online that had the highest number of Igbo people, so I took advantage of the groups feature of facebook, opened a group and made it a crowdsourcing project. Writing a children’s dictionary is very different though. It presents a different set of challenges.
CWN:Did you know that it would become popular when you embarked on the project?
Yvonne Chioma Mbanefo: I knew that it was needed, but I never dreamt it would be this popular and take off like a house on fire. My focus for this book was on children living in the diaspora, but adults and children both outside and inside Igboland seem to want it. A record amount of adults have contacted me to tell me that they either bought an extra copy for themselves to learn with, are now using it as gifts for children of Igbo descent, or are gifting it to their local libraries and cultural groups.
CWN: Why did you decide to write a children’s Igbo dictionary?
Yvonne Chioma Mbanefo: Like most parents outside Igbo land, I was concerned that my children were not fluent in speaking Igbo. Although Igbo wasn’t my first language, I was lucky that my parents relocated back to Nigeria where i had the environmental advantage of being immersed in the language. Because of the extreme steps my parents took to make sure I spoke Igbo, I became very good at speaking, reading and writing Igbo over the years.
My first daughter, started secondary school and within one year, she became very fluent in Italian and french and was winning prizes in Italian. Now she is on the same level as native speakers in Italian for speaking, reading and writing in the language . I asked her why couldn’t she speak Igbo fluently and she said I hadn’t given her any materials. She has access to every material imaginable in Italian and because she has a natural affinity for languages, she took to it like a duck to water. She would watch Italian only movies on YouTube, listen to Italian commentary and immerse herself in Italian books. She also complained that the only Igbo only movies she could find on YouTube had very narrow themes like fighting, shallow comedy, juju and nothing concrete. She fairly understands Igbo but speaking it fluently is a problem because the materials are not available for her to practice on her own. About the Igbo books we bought in Nigeria , she says ‘No comment’.I discovered that the Igbo books I bought on a trip to Nigeria were designed for those who already knew how to speak Igbo, but not for people learning Igbo as a second language. I just felt that books and materials designed with millennium children in mind would be very helpful.
CWN: How long did it take you to complete this project?
Yvonne Chioma Mbanefo: I quit my job as a university lecturer in Sept 2014, and started sorting out the images to use for the children’s dictionary by Dec 2014. I started writing the dictionary proper in Jan 2015. I am the director of a busy IT firm here in London, a mum to 3 growing children and a wife , so this was very much a part time project. I completed the dictionary in December 2015.
CWN:What challenges did you encounter and how did you overcome them?
Yvonne Chioma Mbanefo: My main challenge was time. Time to focus and write. I initially had a huge challenge with finding the right images and permission to use the images. Once that was resolved it was easy to get the writing underway. I also had some challenges with Igbo grammar and concatenation which is hotly debated topic on some Igbo words. Because I knew exactly the kind of dictionary I wanted, all I needed to do was to learn the desktop publishing skills I needed to finish the dictionary. I had a main focus group that helped me along the way – My children. They told me when the images were good or not, when the sample sentence was too long … and so on. Kids tend to tell you as it is, so it was brilliant feedback whenever I needed it. Because I am not formally trained in linguistics, I also did a lot of research just to make sure that the words I added were accurate.
CWN: Are you working on making it available to Africans, especially Nigerians?
Yvonne Chioma Mbanefo: The demand for this children’s dictionary from Igbo people living in Igbo land, rest of Nigeria and other countries like South Africa, Mozambique and so on is very surprising to me . I am working with a Nigerian publisher at the moment who is about to commence production and start distribution for the book. I am also looking for a way to create a mail order type solution for other countries in Africa.
CWN: Where can we buy Okowaokwu Igbo Umuaka : Igbo Dictionary for Children?
Yvonne Chioma Mbanefo:
Okowaokwu Igbo Umuaka : Igbo Dictionary for Children is currently available on the website www.igbodictionaryforchildren.com
. The book is also available on all the Amazon websites around the world, in both paperback and ebook (Kindle) versions.
CWN: Do you write other kinds of creative works: prose, poetry, essays etc?
Yvonne Chioma Mbanefo: I do write creative prose like short stories and non-verbal creative communication. I also use my digital media and information design skills to create material that are loosely based on social marketing and stealth learning. I make use of stories which humans relate to, and try and insert learning into it so that the consumer learns without noticing that they are learning. I have done extensive research on it and when I combine it with my creativity, I create things like story based materials and visual information assets.
Part of my BSc Digital Media training was in animation, so I am starting to revive my animation skills and write afrocentric materials for the animated big screen.
CWN: Are you working on a new book? Do give us a glimpse.
Yvonne Chioma Mbanefo: Yes, I am working on many different things. I am still working on the main comprehensive dictionary with my core team in the Main Igbo dictionary project I mentioned earlier : Our KwadoIgbo Dictionary team is made up of myself, Chika Unigwe, Una Kelechi Isiodu, Chinyere Eze Nliam, Bob Oji, Chiazor Unamka Omeni, Clive Obianyor, and Obinwa Aghazu Ugbana.
This is a massive project that we have undertaken and we are working towards producing a dictionary that has unique features which will help anyone round the world (whether Igbo or not) follow and understand the entries in the dictionary.
Its taking such a long time because we want it to be the same quality with other dictionaries of the world.
We collected the raw words and suggestions from the facebook group ( The crowdsourcing project ), and we have chosen the words that will make it into the dictionary. We are typing up the manuscript and, adding things like definitions and sample sentences. We are doing this with the help of lexicologists like those that have worked on the Oxford dictionaries as well as some Igbo linguists.
Because the Igbo vocabulary hasn’t been updated in a long time, there are so many words, phrases, and senses that do not yet have a modern equivalent in Igbo. Because of this, there is an unusual heavy leaning towards bastardized versions of these words. People rely so much on the Igbo-English fusion (Ingiligbo) that they are oblivious to how it is stifling the core Igbo language.
Oxford dictionary updates the English vocabulary ever so often, and the Igbo language curators or owners of the Igbo language should do the same too. More people know how to speak Igbo than to read and write it, and we are hoping that this will also help bridge that gap. We hope to bring out an initial edition by the end of this year.
On a personal level, I am working on a lot of interesting projects. I am about to finish uploading the video version of this children’s dictionary, so that anyone reading the dictionary will have an audio-visual back up if they are stuck on pronunciation. This is especially important because Igbo is a tonal language. I will also release the workbook version of the children’s dictionary in a couple of weeks.
I am also working on an idea for a series of dual language storybooks (Igbo-English), as well as some emergent reader books. I have an audiovisual Igbo language course that I will finish up and relaunch before the end of this summer. Another one is a book on Igbo culture and Igbo people. There is a lack of knowledge about Igbo trailblazers and I want my kids to learn about their people as much as possible.
My focus is to design modern and relevant materials for anyone to learn the Igbo language, even if they do not have the environmental advantage of being in an Igbo speaking place. So self study is a huge factor in all the materials I design.
I am moving slower than I would have liked with completing all these projects, because of my other commitments.
I wish that more people will see what I see, and start creating Igbo learning materials to satisfy the sheer demand for them. With self publishing tools that are available to literally everyone, anyone can knock out an educational video or audio file with their cell phone, type up things in word and have them self published by print on demand companies , and so on.
Culture and language are inextricably linked. A culture and language will definitely survive and thrive when it is known and practiced widely.
About Yvonne Chioma Mbanefo
Yvonne Chioma Mbanefo is a Digital Strategist, with a passion for how technology intersects with education and business.She co-founded and currently runs an IT Firm based in London, Abuja and Lagos.
Yvonne is a Fellow of the Higher Education Academy, United Kingdom. For over 5 years, she taught as a lecturer of Information Technology & Digital Media at a London University. She initiated Kwadoigbo, a group currently updating the Igbo Dictionary.
Yvonne owns Learn Igbo Now (www.LearnIgboNow.com
), which creates modern Igbo learning materials. She has won numerous awards for her contributions to Igbo Language and Culture.Yvonne is one of the conveners of the annual Igbo conference at SOAS, Uni of London.