‘Ẹ káàrọ̀ everyone. Welcome to this presentation on the Benin Robots.’
Ọlánrewájú took a big breath as she centred herself on the podium surveying the 2,000-strong crowd gathered at the Ẹdo Museum. The Robotics Engineer had been working towards this convention project throughout her final PhD year at Ilé-Ifẹ̀ University. Finally, the day had come to share her ideas and she was feeling a bit shaky. But she’d had a smart ànkàrá outfit made with a vibrant gèlè wrapped around her freshly braided hair, looking outwardly presentable to induce a confident delivery. She took a sip of water, looked into the sea of expectant faces, and continued:
‘The continent has come a long way since the Africa Union’s Agenda 10,104 strategic initiatives striving for ‘The Africa We Want’. And indeed, great milestones have been achieved over the 50 years of its implementation for the prosperity of our peoples. I’m glad the Ilẹ̀ Káàárọ̀-Oòjíire government has recognised even more can be done within Technology, Innovation and Sustainability.’
Ọlánrewájú was now in her stride. Remembering all her hours of prep, her autopilot kicked in as the words began flowing freely.
‘I’d now like to share my bid for the Agenda 10,104+ government funding: the Ẹ̀rọ Idẹ 10114. ’
‘This Ẹ̀rọ Idẹ model is named for Kọ́jọ́dá year 10,114 ten years from now, so you understand this will take us into the future.’
‘Over a millennium ago, we Yorùbá built the Sùǹgbọ́ Ẹrẹ́dò and Benin Wall embattlements for irrigation and protection, the largest engineering feat on Earth to this day. And we did that without robots…so think what we can do WITH robots!! With the Ẹ̀rọ Idẹ 10114, we can build effective infrastructure in line with our Betterment Agenda.’
Half the press core hastily jotted notes on their griot pads. Ọlánrewájú saw she’d got them with that one!
‘Note their use will align with Agenda 10,104+ regarding sustainability. The Ẹ̀rọ Idẹ 10114’s central purpose is conservation, not just of environment, but also of culture. Like their vertical lines, these Benin Robots will have our stories AND potential etched into them.’
Ọlánrewájú took the mic off the stand, left the podium, and ran her fingers over the machine’s surface.
‘These Robots will also fulfil the original mandate of the Benin Bronzes as solid libraries of consultation. Instead of recording written data, Benin artisans depicted data in sculptures to direct traditional ceremonies and dress. Indeed, this Ẹdo Museum venue was founded to display this cultural heritage. So yes, they will extract natural wealth from Yorùbá soils to build the future AND perpetuate cultural wealth of Yorùbá legacies fortifying us with our past, history in motion educating the coming generations, thus reinforcing our identity…and you know how we Yorùbá love education!’
The peppered smiles in the crowd spread wider across the focused faces. Ọlánrewájú had them now. Moving across the stage, she pointed at the jumbo screen.
‘HA! Now I KNOW you’re CRAZY for SURE!
WÈRÈ TI MU Ẹ OOO!’
The convention crowd whipped their collective heads to the left towards the disturbance. There stood Eromidọlá, a rival robotics engineer who’d been vexed about Ọlánrewájú’s Ẹ̀rọ Idẹ project beating hers to represent Ilé-Ifẹ̀ University for the Agenda 10,104+ government funding. Eromidọlá’s name meant ‘my thoughts become wealth’ and she was always determined to fulfil that mandate, but this heckling was next level!
‘Don’t waste your funding on this one. How can you rely on ideas from a broken mind? I’ve seen the psych reports, she’s DYSLEXIC! Her head is not correct. Odùduwà alphabet? Can anyone even read this script…and you expect to write computer code with it? Benin Robots?? This is a fever dream which will become a nightmare, an embarrassment for Ilẹ̀ Káàárọ̀-Oòjíire if you give funding for this Ẹ̀rọ Idẹ…whatever!’
The crowd’s murmuring got louder and louder as they glanced back and forth between Eromidọlá’s smug face and Ọlánrewájú’s perplexed one.
The PhD researcher was visibly rattled, shifting from foot to foot, both hands gripping the mic. As she looked down trying to gather a response, her eyes caught her new ànkàrá outfit and her fresh braids brushed her cheek. Ọlánrewájú had made it all the way to the Ẹdo Museum stage, and she was determined to reach her goal. She looked up, went to the podium, took a deep breath, and spoke:
‘Government officials, press members, convention attendees, this impromptu revelation is true. I am indeed dyslexic. But my right-brain-hemisphere dominance is a strength, NOT a weakness. Did you know over a tenth of Yorùbá people are dyslexic, one of the highest proportions in the world? Yet we still boast genius level intelligence and unsurpassed diligence. Like other dyslexic innovators; Aderin-Pocock, Greider, Einstein and more, I see the world differently. And THAT’S why my plan WILL work.’
Ọlánrewájú slowed her hurried voice.
‘These Benin Robots are designed to accommodate our neurotypical AND neurodiverse workforce. When my machines encounter metal ores during excavation, they vocalise their findings.’
Ọlánrewájú walked to the robot, lifted its lined-hand and placed her bracelet on its palm. The Ẹ̀rọ Idẹ 10114’s eyes instantly flashed as the vertical lines shimmered before its entire surface changed from brown to gold. Its stoic face became animated and said, ‘WÚRÀ’, drawing more astonished gasps from the audience.
Someone called out, ‘Ah, they will be the life of our Ówàmbẹ̀ parties with this custom-made, stylish aṣọ ẹ̀bí ooo!’
The crowd laughed and Ọlánrewájú knew she had won them back.
‘More importantly, this multi-sensory differentiation appeals to different brain types, accounting for accessibility and inclusivity for our workforce, wouldn’t you agree Eromidọlá?’
Ọlánrewájú’s eyes shifted to her heckler who could only stand in stunned silence. Eromidọlá and everyone at Ilé-Ifẹ̀ University hadn’t seen the colour changing feature as Ọlánrewájú had kept it secret.
‘Okay, that’s all very well and good, but I have a concern’ said a voice from the crowd. A man in Babalaláwo attire stood up. ‘I’m an Ifá priest and many of our Benin Bronzes depict venerated Òrìṣà like this Olókun example. Could people start worshipping the robots if they look like our deities?’
‘It’s a valid concern,’ said Ọlánrewájú. ‘But I assure you this won’t happen. We don't worship the robots, the robots serve us, we have dominion over them.’
‘This new programming is very advanced,’ said another audience member, ‘what fail safes are in place so they don’t become sentient and try to control US?’
‘These Robots do not have inner spiritual orí, only we do,’ replied Ọlánrewájú. ‘We can use our orí, spirit and intelligence, in designing their encoding so they can help us. Like Yorùbá culture, the base coding of the Benin Robots is respect. These machines will recognise our respect for the role they play and will always work with us to move Ilẹ̀ Káàárọ̀-Oòjíire forward.’
The crowd erupted into raucous applause, all except Eromidọlá who gave Ọlánrewájú side-eye, miffed her plan to destabilise the whole funding bid had backfired, perhaps even strengthening it. Still, the convention presentations weren’t over yet.
Ọlánrewájú thanked the audience, saying ‘Ẹ ṣé púpọ’.
She left the podium and her Benin Robot followed her offstage. As the applause finally subsided, she sat front row with the other candidates waiting to see if their funding bids would be successful. Exhaling slowly, Ọlánrewájú thought of her name’s meaning: ‘my wealth is in the future/advancing’. With a life mandate infused with innovation and forward seeing, perhaps she had managed to help others see her particular Agenda 10,104+ future too.
This short story was published for in the July 2023 edition of Writers Space Africa magazine:
Here's a review by Bohlokoa Lephoi, Lesotho