How a new Nigerian museum in Winnipeg is strengthening a community.


Asa Day museum founder Joel Oyatoye stands in front of a statue of the Yoruba god of thunder Sango on Jan. 19. He says opening the museum last November was ‘a dream come true.’ 

Inside a small blue house on a residential street in Winnipeg’s St. Vital area are rooms filled with leather-bound African drums, shekere — a wooden West African percussion instrument — and irukere, which translates to “horsetails.” In the centre of one room stands a statue of Sango, the Yoruba god of thunder, wearing a red tunic and holding a double bladed battle axe.

Despite its location, this is not a regular home — this house is Asa Day, a new museum dedicated to Nigerian culture. Founded by Joel Olaniyi Oyatoye late last year, it’s unique to the city. 

In the Yoruba language, “‘Asa’ … is culture, ‘day’ is a general meaning of day-to-day activities,” Oyatoye told guest host Marjorie Dowhos in a January interview on CBC’s Up To Speed

“So when people say ‘what is the meaning of Asa?’ then we can say, ‘it’s about culture, it’s about our identity, it’s about what we do day by day.”

Oyatoye came to Canada in 2012. By 2018, he knew he wanted to open the museum.

As Winnipeg’s Nigerian community continued to grow, he worried they would lose the connection to their heritage that he feels is essential for building an identity and community.

He was particularly concerned for the younger generation, many of whom had never been to the West African nation.

At the heart of it, Oyatoye feared that without a genuine connection to their heritage, his community would crumble. 

‘People call me Baba Asa’

Oyatoye’s passion for culture began long before he founded the museum, located at 617 St. Mary’s Rd., which specializes in Yoruba history and culture. 

“People call me Baba Asa, which is like a cultural ambassador,” he told CBC.   

Oyatoye spent years finding artifacts for the museum’s collection. ‘To open a museum in Canada — especially for a culture that is not from this part of the world — is very challenging,’ he says. 

Growing up in the small northern Nigerian town of  Iludun-Oro, Oyatoye’s father was a high chief — the protector of culture. 

People of all ages would visit his dad looking for cultural guidance. 

It was his father’s responsibility to ensure that the community’s cultural connection wasn’t lost over time.

Now, several years later, Oyatoye is committed to the same work he watched his father do on the other side of the world — though it hasn’t been easy.

“To open a museum in Canada — especially for a culture that is not from this part of the world — is very challenging, because of the logistics and financial aspect,” he said.

In Canada he was able to get some financial support from the provincial and federal governments, through a non-profit he founded — under the same name as the museum — but it wasn’t enough.

Although people in Nigeria were willing to donate, the country’s poor economic state often meant they couldn’t, he says.

Two years ago, Oyatoye returned to Nigeria to gather materials for the museum’s collection — something he did frequently in the years leading up to Asa Day’s opening last November.

He stayed in Nigeria for a year on that trip and ended up selling his Nigerian property to get the remaining money he needed to open the museum.

But the sacrifice was worth it, he says.

“With determination and passion we are able to achieve this.”

New beginnings 

As an immigrant to Canada himself, Oyatoye understands the challenges newcomers often face.

“Immigrants believe they’re going to another country that is a little far from home. So when they are coming, they don’t have the idea of what they’re going to meet in the foreign land,” he explained. 

“All they have, they left it behind. They only come with their knowledge.”

According to statistics from the government of Canada, last year more than 430,000 newcomers came to the country — a record-breaking amount.

Asa Day, which opened in November, aims to educate Winnipeggers about Nigerian history, culture and heritage. ‘The museum is a beautiful thing that tells our story and tells us where we are coming from,’ says Wilson Akinwale, the president of the Nigerian Association of Manitoba. 

The increase in immigration signals a cultural shift, but as the Canada research chair in migration futures explains, change is slow. 

“The process is a little bit different now, but the outcomes and the experience tend to be the same,” said Lori Wilkinson, who is also a sociology professor at the University of Manitoba.

Canadian immigration policy focuses on integration rather than assimilation, she said.

But integration is a process, and there is still a pressure to conform from those that “don’t like different, that don’t celebrate our loveliness as human beings in terms of our culture, religion, practices and beliefs,” said Wilkinson. 

The experience of marginalization that underscores immigration for many newcomers makes the experience bittersweet, Wilkinson said.

“When they’re coming to a place like Canada, they think it’s a better place and life will be better. I can’t imagine how disappointing and sad and depressing and scary that might be for some people.”

Joel Olaniyi Oyatoye, who moved to Winnipeg from Nigeria in 2012, has opened the Asa Day museum to help preserve and promote Nigerian culture in the city.

The president of the Nigerian Association of Manitoba says the key to navigating this feeling has been creating connections with others in his community. 

Wilson Akinwale moved to Canada from Nigeria a decade ago with his family, to chase what he calls “greener pastures.” Before relocating, Akinwale was an avid traveller — even living in London briefly. 

The beauty of Canada is that it brings so many of the different cultures he encountered while travelling to one place, he says. 

Visiting Asa Day museum in November brought him joy.

“The museum is a beautiful thing that tells our story and tells us where we are coming from,”  Akinwale told CBC on Thursday. 

“Our stories of survival, this survival of our culture, the survival of our language, our identity, who we are, our ways of life, our tradition.”

For the community, the museum is an indication that Canadians want to know more about Nigerian heritage, said Akinwale.

Guest host Marjorie Dowhos spoke to Joel Olaniyi Oyatoye about Asa Day Museum, and how he is connecting community members to their culture.

Oyatoye wants his museum to bring Nigerian culture “[to] our doorstep,” and says while it currently focuses primarily on Yoruba culture, he hopes to one day include items from other Nigerian cultures as well.

For Akinwale, it’s a place where friends from outside the community, the younger generation, and homesick individuals can go to feel closer to the African nation.

Asa Day museum represents hope, he said.

“It’s our pride and it’s our voice.”

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