Born to Igbo parents in California, United States of America, Ijemma Onwuzulike is a software engineer who has used her software building skills to create ‘Nkọwa okwu’, a dictionary application that provides English definitions of Igbo words and their dialect equivalents – the very first of its kind. She spoke with KOLA MUHAMMED via video chat on her motivation for contributing to the Igbo linguistic landscape, growing up in America and possible plans to return to Nigeria, among other issues. Excerpts:
You have the distinguished honour of being the creator of Nkọwa okwu, the first Igbo-English dictionary which also allows for community contribution. What was the inspiration behind this laudable achievement?
I was born in the United States and I have lived here all my life. My parents are Igbo; my dad from Imo State and my mom from Enugu State. Despite having Igbo parents, my older sisters and I grew up primarily speaking English. When I was very young, I initially thought it was only my family that defaulted to speaking English in our home. But as I met other Igbo kids in primary and secondary school and even college, I learned I wasn’t alone. A lot of Igbo kids grew up not speaking the language. It wasn’t until I graduated from college with the skills to build software thatI got the idea to help solve this problem.
What does ‘Nkọwa okwu’ mean and how has the journey been?
‘Nkọwaokwu’ roughly translates to ‘dictionary’. I studied Computer Science at Dartmouth College. Soon after graduating in 2019, I started work as a software engineer in New York City. When quarantine started for COVID-19 in the States, I decided to quarantine with my family back in California. Being stuck in the house and having a lot more time on my hands, I started working on Nkọwa okwu in September 2020 after months of wanting to create a meaningful project. My profession as a software engineer gave me an edge in laying out the technical foundations for the project. After months of programming, I decided to start bringing people onto the project. That was December. Since I don’t really understand the Igbo language, I needed to bring on board professionals like translators, linguists and people who understand the nuance of the Igbo language. So I turned to Twitter, which was particularly helpful with finding quality people. I’ve connected with most people via Twitter. I quickly learned that if you’re on Twitter, then there’s a high chance that you have a digital presence that makes it really easy for people to see other’s work. Though a lot of progress has been made so far, it’s been challenging. I’ve had to adapt to support the project. This means that I’ve had to move from just engineering new features to more formally product designing those features, marketing the project online, and recruiting volunteers. Convincing others to join a project is really not my thing, but it’s something that I’ve had to get more comfortable with to see this project succeed.
How did your parents react to developing an app in a language that they didn’t speak to you growing up?
They absolutely loved it. I was shy about presenting it to them at first, but I’m glad I did. My parents tell my sisters and me how they wished they spoke Igbo to us growing up. Now with my younger siblings who are just starting primary school, my parents aren’t taking second chances and teaching them Igbo. So when they saw this project they instantly became my biggest supporters, they tell me every day that this project is “going places,” which has been reassuring hearing from them. They’ve been a huge help with translating and verifying words and example sentences. They have been really supportive. In fact, my mom came up with the name, ‘Nkọwa okwu’.
Have you ever been to Nigeria?
Yes, once. I was in Nigeria in 2017 to see my paternal grandma in the village. That was also the first time I got to see Lagos.
Even though you have lived practically all your life in the United States, do you see yourself returning to Nigeria at some point in the future?
Sure, I have thought about it. I long to be back in Nigeria and it’s possible that I retire there. For now, though, Nigeria isn’t in the plans yet. I finished college in 2019 and just started my career last year. I still have a long way to go. But I have it at the back of my mind to return one day.
A lot has been documented about the Igbo ethnic group, supposed marginalisation, civil war, its effects, regular talks of secession and ambitions for presidency come 2023. Are you in any way motivated by activism and the need to also do your part?
I would not really say activism. I can only claim Igbo pride and the desire to preserve the culture. The quality of living for Igbos in Nigeria can be a lot better than it currently is. My parents brought my family to America to gain skills to make a name for ourselves. From my perspective, all I am doing is simply supporting the tribe.
Do you have any female role model(s) you look up to?
Normally, one usually mentions names like Michelle Obama and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. And I truly admire their work ethic and their outlooks on life. However, the one person who truly inspires me, someone that I literally want to emulate in every way possible is my mom. She is my role model 1,000 per cent. She is the reason why I love computers and software engineering, she is the reason why I have an ounce of patience, and she is the reason why I can see whatever I start all the way through. She is the blueprint.
Do you have people that you mentor?
To me, ‘mentor’ is a strong word that suggests that you look after people on a full-time or part-time basis. Instead, I see myself as an available resource that anyone can reach out to via my social media, I’m easy to reach. I have two women with whom I have exchanged correspondence longer than expected, which makes me so happy to see them committed to learning. If I see an African woman in particular who reaches out with questions, they instantly become my priority by getting them resources, references, and advice.
After Nkọwa okwu, is there any other way you are looking to give back to the Nigerian society?
I want to help the educational landscape in Nigeria, especially for Igbos. I wish to redefine the way we reference the Igbo language and history. I feel that more can be done for the Igbo language. I also want to add that I’m no more special than the next Igbo woman, I’ve been privileged to gain so many resources that have led me to this point. Just think about what the Igbo people could achieve if the entire community had access to proper infrastructure and support. Nonetheless, I’m very optimistic about the future of the Igbo people.
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