Thursday, April 24, 2008

Remembering Sonja Fagerberg-Diallo

I was surprised and saddened to learn of the passing of Dr. Sonja Fagerberg-Diallo last month. (Un article en français ici.) Her quietly remarkable career was cut short last month at age 58 by a sudden critical illness. She is particularly known as a linguist specialized in Pulaar (a dialect of the Fula language) and for her long-time work on literacy and publication in Pulaar and other Senegalese languages through ARED (Associates in Research and Education for Development), a small non-governmental organization she headed in Dakar.

Others will be able to write more thorough tributes to Sonja's work and contributions than I can. Among past descriptions of ARED include a description on the UNESCO Institute for Lifelong Learning and a 2004 paper by John Hutchison. All I can do is say that Sonja's work was important to me as a language learner, and later one of the inspirations for much of what I've been trying to do with Bisharat (which although quite different in its mission and approach from ARED, shares a fundamentally similar vision). Nevertheless, I thought I could also offer a few snapshots from my personal perspective. Although I did not know her well, I did have the opportunity to meet her and members of her immediate family over the years, to benefit from her learning materials and example, and to visit the ARED offices.

I first met Sonja in 1984 at the Peace Corps/Mali office in Bamako at about the time that Peace Corps bought into a run of her instruction books (lessons and glossary/grammar) for Fulfulde Maasinankoore, another dialect of Fula. Previously there had been no such learning material for volunteers, so this was a great help to many of us. Then in 1985 when I was in an orientation to Guinea for the first group of volunteers to go there since 1967, it turned out that Sonja's husband Boubacar, was the one running it.

During the time I was in Guinea I had to transit through Dakar several times and had occasion to visit them twice, first on Gorée island and then in Fann. Sonja very kindly shared with Peace Corps/Guinea (which by then was only me) a prepublication version of her instruction manual for the Pular of Fuuta Jalon. (By odd coincidence, one of the villages I worked in - Timbi Madina - was where Boubacar's mother lived, and I occasionally would stop in to say hello - just as a matter of courtesy.)

One thing I really appreciated in Sonja's learning materials for diverse varieties of Fula was the perspective of the language as a whole (as opposed to treating each dialect as an isolate). This was helpful in my negotiating some differences between Maasinankoore and Pular, as well as later research, travel and study.

When I began graduate studies at Michigan State University, I found that Sonja was known for her work among linguists there, such as Prof. David Dwyer, who made possible my work on a
Fulfulde lexicon, and was good friends with noted historian of Senegal and West Africa, Prof. David Robinson. I had occasional direct communication with her notably concerning the lexicon, which was compiled from extant sources including her extensive glossary for her Maasinankoore (mentioned above). Some years later, one of the communications involved the possibility of developing a larger on-line Fula dictionary and we agreed that a good framework for this would be Christiane Seydou's notable dictionary of Fula roots (the language is based on nomino-verbal roots and it is logical to organize a lexicon by them).

While in Niger I made the connection with Prof. Martha O'Kennon concerning machine translation online for Fula, and in that process also connected her with Sonja, who in turn helped Martha with some points (we focused mainly on Pulaar and to a lesser degree on Maasinankoore).

In 2005 I had the chance to visit Sonja at the ARED office in Dakar (as mentioned in the 2005-9-12 posting on this blog). It was at this time that I got a fuller impression of the extend of ARED's publication efforts over the years. Sonja also related some anecdotes about how a few of the people who became literate in Pulaar went on to write and publish in the language. All of this being a testimony to the work of Sonja and the ARED staff - and indeed of the vision that motivated them.

Finally I crossed paths with Sonja last year at the ACAL/ALTA conference in Gainesville, Florida (which was mentioned in the 2007-9-21 posting on this blog). I had the chance to sit down and talk with her about some technical aspects of ARED's work, but most notable was her address to the conference in plenary on March 23, "Publishing as the Documentation of a Language: The Role of Literacy and Publishing in both the Standardization and the Development of the Pulaar Language" (I hope the paper will be included in the proceedings). This was a really nice introduction to the vision and work of ARED.

Sonja's vision as I understand it might be stated this way:
Literacy and education are key to development in its fullest sense, those must include and begin with first languages in order to be most effective, and programs that work at the grassroots are a key element to successfully accomplishing all of the above.

These are just a few personal recollections that in no way do justice to Sonja's career. One hopes in any event that the results of her efforts, which although cut short were still considerable, will inspire others to keep ARED and similar initiatives going and growing.

Saturday, April 05, 2008

Farming words: Agricultural development still mute on languages?

A friend and former colleague, Jonathon Landeck, once remarked that "it's hard to build food security on the backs of illiterate farmers." I think again of this in light of a recent UN press release (seen on H-West-Africa) about a call for "greater investments in agriculture and rural development to boost economic growth and reduce poverty in Africa" by Kanayo Nwanze, Vice-President of IFAD. This call seems to be at the confluence of two recent trends - increasing attention to African agriculture and various appeals for more funds for African development generally. It's really not that new a trend (see for instance this call from FAO in 2004) and indeed there have been funds pledged for this kind of thing (such as by the Gates and Rockefeller foundations in 2006). So it is all the more important to take a look again at what is missing in these calls and announcements.

Educated farmers - key to development or threat to stability?

It is deliberately provocative to put the question in this way, but the issue of "empowering" rural people and communities - a concept central to the development discourse - involves learning and action. This is not an abstract or tangential issue to fundamentals like enough food. I once asked a former professor about what he thought was the key problem (if one had to name one) to improving agriculture in Africa. His response? Education of farmers.

This is not to downplay the importance of structural economic and policy issues, various fundamental resource issues, the role of research and extension, or the utility of "greater investments." But it points to something that runs obliquely to the general emphasis in agricultural development on technical issues and on farmers as needing outside knowledge, guidance and resources. "Education" is more than just telling people what we think they need to know or do.

When I was a Peace Corps volunteer many years ago I recall hearing in the extension services that the "paysans sont les ignorants" - farmers and rural people don't know anything.
The notion of "éduquer les paysans" (educating the farmers) was really about telling them to do certain things and not to do others. Or convincing them that some new thing was really better for them. (Or in some cases obliging them to do something.) I think that mindset has been ameliorated somewhat over the years, but the idea of rural people as recipients and potential beneficiaries is still pretty much fundamental.

Farmers are no fools, however, and at the very least can calculate risks and potential benefits based on a lot of experience and local knowledge. The "ignorant" farmers were sometimes smart enough to seem dumb.

Education as I think my professor meant it, and as I use it here, is more about capacities, ways of understanding, and new knowledge in context. How to help farmers figure things out, get the information they need, and integrate new and indigenous knowledge - in short, how to enhance the abilities of farmers to make decisions that work for them and their communities.

A question, though, arises, and that is whether rural people so "empowered" is what governments and donors really want, or whether farmers who can ably make use of technical packages provided by extension services and development projects is preferred.

Farmers work in the vernacular - can development work with that?

In southeastern Mali, cotton farmers in the 1990s used literacy skills in the most widely spoken language, Bambara, to organize a major union - SYCOV (since French is the country's official language, SYCOV apparently keeps all documents in Bambara and French). In 2006, a "farmers' jury" on genetically modified Bt cotton was organized in Sikasso, Mali by IIED - and its main working language was Bambara (the report reflects this; Dr. Michel Pimbert of IIED kindly made that explicit in response to a question I asked in 2006 before seeing the report).

Farmers' first languages and local lingua francas are undeniably important if not central to education and sustainable agricultural development, but is enabling rural people to more effectively use them seen as dangerous by governments and troublesome by development donors? After all, what did farmers do in southeastern Mali with their literacy skills? - unionize and vote against GM crops. When I was in Niger, a colleague suggested that the downgrading or abandonment of local literacy programs by the Nigerien government some years before was exactly because of concern that farmers might get too active.

Indeed, local extension agencies themselves may not like the idea of farmers knowing too much, regardless of what language is used: Peter Easton and Guy Belloncle mentioned in a 2000 report (p. 4) a local research program that was quashed because the extension service "judged it inadmissible to try out with local farmers types of experimentation its own extension agents had not mastered."

And it is common to hear foreign development experts dismiss local languages as too many or too costly to try to do any concerted work in. Questionnaires may be useful, translations as needed by people in the field may be necessary, but much beyond that doesn't usually get attention.

There are so many rationales for not investing in use of African languages in agriculture and rural development, but if we accept that education and "empowerment" of farmers are key factors, is it possible to keep putting it off as if it were unimportant, while pouring new money into old approaches?

Structural issue: Language in the discourse on agricultural development

I mentioned on this blog last year having made (extensive) comments on a report about science and technology for African development. I looked not long ago at the final version of the report - revised after input from readers like me - and from what I could tell there was only one additional mention of the factor of language in one of the chapters. And that mention was in the context of challenges, not proposed approaches. A large part of the issue I think is disciplinary - language is for linguists; agriculture for a range of technical disciplines, economics, and perhaps other social sciences.

How then can the attention of donors, governments, extension agencies, and development organizations who are concerned with enhancing agriculture and investing in development in Africa, be drawn to the importance of doing much more in and with the first languages and local lingua francas of rural Africans? How can we at least research and develop approaches that convey information and promote ways of working in the languages that farmers and their communities speak among themselves?

There are some complex questions in this - one is under no illusion that it's a simple matter of adding "language" to project proposals and paying some translators here and there. But a policy on the part of major agricultural research and rural development actors to explicitly treat farmers' languages seriously in agricultural development in Africa would be a good start, and then some resources to determine optimal ways of using those languages in education, extension and new programs could have a significant impact.