Sunday, January 18, 2004

Balɗe noogay* e joyi faa mi egga (yaltina kaaki e suudu); cappantati e jeegon faa mi dillan ley laana pirooha.

Another weekend too busy to do as much packing as planned. Among other things, correspondence with various folks re Tifinagh, N'ko, Yoruba, and Akposso. One letter is worth sharing (most of) - it concerns whether or not a local language version of a tourist pamplet &/or web material should be done - I respond to someone who says that it hadn't been thought of:

In projects such as this, a lot of the focus is outward, which is not bad as far as that goes, but eclipses inward dimensions. And the inward dimensions, if you will are only partly covered by the official language, better in Togo than in Niger, but not complete. Which is to say that potential Togolese visitors, as you suggest, could make do fine with the French version, but there are things that that version can not do.

First, the French version cannot give the same message about the value of the cultural heritage of the area. Having a brochure and/or web content in Akposso (&/or Ewe?) alongside those in European languages has a significant symbolism - to yovo visitors as well as to local people.

Second, beyond symbolism the local language content will have some impact. Putting the material in the local language opens another dimension to the project and the resource in question. So much of the discourse in this region relegates certain things to the vernacular (local "indigenous knowledge," customs, home life) and others to the official language (scientific knowledge, laws, interaction with the outside). To a degree this is functional, but it is also artificial. Putting something onto people's first language(s) that they aren't used to seeing that way breaks that boundary at least a little, perhaps raising new possibilities of thinking. This may sound terribly abstract, but new ways of thinking is part of development, and new ways of thinking may involve the maternal languages.

Third is the link or bridge between local "indigenous knowledge" and environmental education (EE) - a more focused possibility of the second point. I understand now that the PCVs are concerned mainly with the economic aspects of tourism development. I don't know the current program in Togo well enough to know if there is something like EE, but translating a brochure and/or web material about the environment into the vernacular is a beginning to talk about the environment in a different way. Can new concepts about environment be incorporated into the same medium used to discuss local knowledge (i.e., the local language(s))? Here in Niger if there is new PCV work (e.g., website) on the "Park W" the suggestion of including material in the two principal local/national languages has been raised.

Fourth, there's the angle of how validating the use of the printed local language might help encourage people to write things down (this is also related to the second point above). An example: My cook and her husband here in Niamey are Akebu from Togo. The husband, has some interesting stories - for instance he and one of his brothers in Togo who have long wanted to publish the Akebu calendar (similar to the Akposso calendar you may have seen in Togo, which is still published annually there and I put on the web last year). He also told of his father, who apparently had a wealth of information on local species and medicines such that the sons wanted to record it somehow, but their father passed away and the opportunity was lost (one of the proverbial "libraries burning" of Amadou Hampaté Ba). How many opportunities like this are lost? My point here is not that a brochure or webpage in Akebu (in this case) would have saved such knowledge, but that it might be an important encouragement to people who could.

The main thing for your project is, I think, can local language content be added with little additional monetary cost - I think it can - and if so whether one is missing an opportunity by not making as much of an effort as possible in this direction.* Look at it this way - an unavoidable side aspect of the project is whether it reinforces the usual pattern (i.e., anything printed or technical being only in French & foreign languages) or opens some new possibilities (with printed &/or web material in the vernacular about an important local resource).

A lot of my thinking on this comes from my years in the region, and also from reading and thinking about rural development in other areas of the world. There is a lot of thinking and material out there about the importance of the maternal languages and linguistic diversity - which is not to say our role has to be to save every language, but neither should it be to overlook possibilities to work with them and their speakers in novel ways. (One organization linking language and biodiversity for instance is Terralingua, at .)

Let me close by returning to the symbolism issue with a story from PC/Niger - even though some of the realities here are different from Togo I think it is illustrative of the possibilities of doing more, even on a small scale, with local languages. We have the experience of printing up Peace Corps brochures in Hausa and Zarma as well as in French, in part at my suggestion over 2 years ago. One American staff at the time actually argued against it, since "people who can read, can read French anyway" (in actuality there is a small number literate in their first language but not French), but in the end we went ahead with it mainly with the thoughts that 1) the local language versions could also be read aloud if need be, and 2) the symbolic message was a natural in a program where volunteers often speak better local language than French. So now, when we have our nice color brochures available say for invitees at swearing in ceremonies, many of them take more than one version, and really look at the local language ones. And when PCVs facilitate literacy work, they can actually bring out the appropriate local language version when folks are advanced enough. And they're nice to present to people.

It was impossible to know what exactly would become of the Hausa and Zarma versions when we tried this, but it has turned out to be an easy, positive way to reach more people, be seen in a new way by people we deal with already, and perhaps open new possibilities. And I'm happy to say we're revising all 3 versions currently to reprint. My hunch is that if the project you are collaborating on finds a way to do something significant in one or more local language, it will get you a lot of positive attention locally and internationally.

* This same sort of "more bang for the buck" reasoning was behind including "same language subtitling" (SLS) as an element in a Hausa & Zarma AIDS education video proposal here (SLS being a literacy tool).

That's all for this sitting.....

* Ley Mali e Gine 20="noogay" ; ley Niizer, "leeso" ; ley Senegal, "noogas." Fulfulde/Pulaar ko ni.

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