Magazine article New African

Nigerian Precursor of Google

Magazine article New African

Nigerian Precursor of Google

Article excerpt

All societies have developed systems of divination to find answers to issues that trouble them. In this there are parallels to draw between the Nigerian Yoruba binary system, and the modern day oracle, Google.

When the Europeans first arrived in southern Africa and saw the Great Stone Walls of Zimbabwe, they immediately attributed their construction to a 'white' civilisation that had previously lived there. They couldn't imagine that the ancestors of the Shona people, living in the ruins, had built a high-level civilisation.

The Shona themselves seemed to have very little memory of the earlier civilisation, or why it decayed. Like modern-day Egyptians trying to decipher hieroglyphics, they simply lived amidst the ruins of their previous monuments and knowledge systems.

How is it possible to lose such memory of previous knowledge? A recent art exhibition by the Nigerian Arts Society demonstrated that knowledge that had dominated people's lives less than a hundred years ago was now irretrievably lost.

Two young people of Yoruba descent, looking at a painting of a diviner casting shells by Ade Ogundimu wondered why it had been called Before Big Data. What does the divination board of the Babalowo or Yoruba priest have to do with the world of computation?

If memory had survived and knowledge had been effectively transferred, they would have realised immediately the connection through the use of computing binary language in divination by Babalawos.

The Yoruba Ifa divination is based on a system of knowledge production that seeks to provide answers to the most profound questions confronting the seeker. It is in a way a method to understand and manifest the divine will.

The system is essentially based on the events that took place in the first days when Olodumare, the creator, made the world and then sent the Orishas to create humans and fashion culture. The story of creation is captured in different chapters and verses which are collected in the Odu Ifa.

Like other ancient models, the system assumes there is nothing new under the sun. Issues in the present are merely repetitions of events that took place in the first days, now contained in the verses of the Odu Ifa.

People seeking an answer to their problems consult the Babalowa who will cast the Cowrie shells and depending on whether they fall face up or down, mark the binary results as an algorithm on the floor. …

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