Wednesday, December 07, 2005

LISA Forum Cairo

Currently in Cairo for a conference organized by the Localization Industry Standards Association. I presented yeaterday and others who are part of the track on localization in African languages will present today. For more info, see

I have not gotten to catching up on previous posts here, but will hopefully be able to do that soon (watch the space below) as well as give more info on the current event. Anyone reading this blog who has followed previous posts (not that I expect there is anyone, but you never know) will be familiar with the refrain that I don't always find it so easy to add to this.

Friday, September 16, 2005

Back in Chengdu

Arrived back from Ireland (Shannon-Dublin-Paris-Beijing-Chengdu). Long trip and some very tight connections (lucky that my check-in arrived on the same day).

The LRC-X conference at the University of Limerick was good. More on that in the next. For the moment, here are some notes and reflection on languages in Dakar and Shannon/Limerick from my transition.

Mon. 12 Sept.: Thoughts on languages and signage from Shannon airport and the bus to Limerick

One thing I noticed in Dakar was that there were some billboards with messages in Wolof - exclusively. These were commercially produced, so you'd see the same "Halib laam mô nêkh" ad for Halib powdered milk and also something for a sauce mix called Linguere in many places. Occasionally you'd see Wolof on local signs such as one for "nekh soow" (along with a French "oeufs à vendre ici" - what is interesting in this is the different sensibilities translated: you don't see a sign in Wolof saying buy this or we're selling this, but that it's nice eggs). Not sure on the translation for the billboards, but what is interesting there is that commercial outfits are finding it worth their while to pay for these.

Here in Ireland, the airport in Shannon has the Irish Gaelic (or simply Irish as they call it now) name above the terminal in big letters: SIONAINN. All official signs are bilingual as far as I can see. Limerick is Luimneach.

Actually there are some signs in English only and a few signs (noted one big one in front of a building) and insignias or mottos (noted one in aging gold leaf in a house window) saying something only in Irish.

If one were to be here a long time, it would be fairly easy to use signs as a tool for learning the language - since, unlike Chinese, the script is a phonetic one. (Signs even in Chinese can be an education too in that some characters can be learned for their meaning even when one does not know the sound of the Chinese words represented.) One wonders about the potential of bilingual or multilingual signage in Africa as a way of favoring literacy (and language learning) - I did see an informal version of this using chalk some years ago in Kangaba, Mali.

Anyway, this western part of Ireland is one where the use of Irish as a first language survives. It's a relatively rural area, quite picturesque in places (just looking from the road), and as they say, very green...

Monday, September 12, 2005

In Limerick (Luimneach) / recap of Dakar trip

I guess that the "journal" or "diary" facet of blogging would lead people reading this blog about a trip to Dakar and Limerick to expect a bit of a travelogue. In fact, there is much and not much to say. Moreover not much time to say it...

Nevertheless, I'm in Limerick (Luimneach in Irish Gaelic) - with a fast broadband cable access at the University of Limerick - and will have more on Shannon (Sionainn) and Limerick later, but will first catch up on Dakar.

One was immersed in certain realities of the city of Dakar for several days - unusually heavy rains and urban flooding; rides in beat up taxis, immersed in the fumes of badly maintained motors; feeling the heat and humidity; relying on "cabines téléphoniques" for phone communication; trying to situate myself with regard to places that I got to know a little in several visits in the mid-1980s. What makes it all worthwhile is the people and the sense of doing and learning something as I go. Would have liked to have time to get out into the countryside, but not this time. On this trip to Dakar - my first in almost two decades - I lost the sense of a center to the city, though it is there, and found some parts that I knew before seem to have deteriorated. On the other hand there is new building in various places in town as the city - like cities all over - spreads.

Re the taxis, the drivers' lot is a hard one, if for no other reason than the breathing of exhaust fumes constantly. There was a story about France and Britain putting an excise tax on airfares to help the poor. Well leaving aside questions about the effects of transportation taxes generally, one could make a case for some sort of surcharge on somebody to pay for health problems from this urban vehicle pollution. And while we're at it some program to alleviate the hidden tax of broken roads, which all vehicle owners and operators pay daily (and they're not all rich). And so on. Transporation is not so far removed from communication as a concern, but it is a bit offtopic here except that in town it was fundamental to getting to see people and visit offices. But enough on this aside.

Anyway, as previously mentioned, having shifted gears while in Dakar to staying with friends and not at a moderately upscale hotel, opportunities to connect were rather catch-as-catch-can. Did note among other things, that the going rate for most cybercafés here seems to be 300FCFA/hour (a little more than half a dollar and less than half a euro). Used one in Point E for an hour on the 8th; noted in the same area (where there are several offices I visited) that a power outage in the middle of the day (9th) simply put them out of action (the ones I saw were smallish - 2 to about 20 computers). Connected briefly at WARC (see below) but the speed was slow, and also using the ADSL connection at Charles Becker's office. Noted that the Sofitel in town has a good wireless conection on its lobby level (had to wait for someone there). The Meridian Président (fancier than Novotel or Sofitel) had a decent wireless connection but you have to pay 2000FCFA per half hour or 3500 for an hour (decidedly a worse deal than Novotel or Sofitel where the wireless connection was free). My hosts Anne Dodge and Chuck Kennedy have very graciously let me get on line at their place (but I was not able to hook-up to their ADSL connection because there was apparently some additional software necessary to connect via USB cable).

I will recapiltulate the past days in reverse chronological order as best as I can now, and return to today later... [this is still a bit rough and I need to edit/add some more later]

Avec mes excuses aux francophones, je ne vais pas tout traduire en français, juste les parties concernant la réunion Unicode/IDN.

Sun. 11 Sept.: Last day in Dakar

Finding people on the weekend is never easy. For this day I got in touch with Ibra Sene, a grad student at Michigan State (history) who is doing his dissertation research. The timing worked out ideally for me to meet him and several of the Michigan State faculty. However, after walking down to the hotel (Ngor Jambe) I found that the location had been changed. So via taxi (again after negotiations and not reaching agreement with the first 2 drivers) to the Meridien Président. There, saw Dan Clay (director of the Institute of International Agriculture at MSU) and Anne Fergeson (among other things director of the Women and International Development program there, both of whom I knew previously) and Irv Widder (director of the Bean-Cowpea CRSP) and ? who I had not met previously.

In the afternoon visited the Baha'i Centre back down in Point E. Hadn't realized it was so close to two other locations I visited in previous days. Saw an old friend among others, Aboubacrine Ba. Spoke Pulaar a little with them. This trip has had a lot of opportunities to practice my rusty Fula language skills.

Sat. 10 Sept.: More visits

Visited Sonja Fagerberg at the ARED office. It rained again as I headed down to that part of town. Interesting discussion of their work on publishing materials in African languages (notably Pulaar). Sonja, who did her linguistics dissertation on the Pulaar of Fuuta Tooro (mainly in Senegal), authored some instruction books on the language that I found very useful in my learning of Fulfulde in Mali and Pular in Guinea.For a number of years she has been working with the NGO "ARED" (Associates for Research in Education for Development) in Senegal. Aside from publishing a lot in Pulaar and other languages of Senegal, ARED has an expertise in education in these languages and the dynamics of publication in them. In fact she and others have completed a series of books in French about publishing in African languages.

One of the ideas that occurred to me (and there are many, such as pushing forward work on the Pulaar <-> English translator,

From there went to have lunch with Charles Becker, a researcher, historian, and longtime resident of Dakar. He also edits the H-West-Africa list. Gaelle Loir, a student of law and African studies, and currently an intern at the French embassy in Dakar, was also there. So discussions ranged over a number of topics related to Senegal and Dakar.

I called Ibrahima Thioub of the History Department at UCAD (he is someone that David Robinson and Ibra Sene of MSU know well), but unfortunately he was out of town. Found a number for Ibrahima Bob of OneWorld but the people answering said I'd have to call back on Monday. Unfortunate that it turned out that way but on the whole I think I had a pretty good percentage. (see earlier days, below).

Fri. 9 Sept.: Busy day

In the morning went down to Fann to see the West African Research Centre / Centre de Recherche Ouest Africain. I called Ousmane Sène and he was free so the timing worked out. We talked briefly about the WARC/CROA activities and future program. I also met Abdoulaye Niang who is the computer technician there. One of the things WARC is involved in is preparation of materials for the African Language Materials Archive (ALMA), of which I am on the board, so I took some time to discuss aspects of Unicode and WARC's hope to present ALMA documents in text format rather than only PDF.

After lunch tried again to get in contact with Ken Lohento of Panos-West Africa, but there was still a problem with the number - when I checked information (dial 12), which I should have done earlier, I found a slightly different number, but still no luck (it being Friday, they probably were off).

I had a meeting at IDRC/CRDI's Dakar office at 3, and discussed various aspects of their programs and also the PanAfrican Localisation project with A. Camara and Ramata Molo Thioune.

Following that tried to get in touch with Mme. Sylla, the director of the Digital Freedom Initiative in Senegal. Unfortunately she was already out, but I did get to talk briefly with her later on the phone. She was heading out of town on a trip, so no other possibilities of meeting.

I then got in touch with Tunde regarding meeting Ben Akoh. Ben had returned from a trip but was in a meeting on Gorée Island. Ben planned to come back later (Gorée is just a short ferry ride from downtown Dakar). In the meantime went out to the Sacré Coeur area to meet him and visit the West African Democracy Radio project headquarters. This is an interesting initiative financed by OSIWA to use radio for information and

Thurs. 8 Sept.: Heavy rain in Dakar; in town

It rained hard in Dakar in the morning of the 8th and for much of the day there was flooding on roads. Apparently there have been a few such heavy rains of late. In any event, the morning therefore provided an opportunity to catch up with some work. Also spoke with Mamady Doumbouya and Michael Everson re some aspects of the conference and their respective plans. Mamady plans to meet with some N'ko management groups in Guinea. Michael has some meetings of standards groups in Europe.

I had lunch with the Peace Corps country director, Malcolm Versel. I had corresponded briefly with him a couple of years earlier and he apparently worked with my former doctoral advisor, Jim Bingen, some years ago. Interesting opportunity to find out his perspectives on development in Senegal (he has been in and out of the country many times over the years) and learn about his approach to the PC program there.

Visited the OSIWA office in the part of town known as Point E (not far from the Universite Cheick Anta Diop, UCAD). Tunde Adegbola is working there on contract and introduced me to some of his colleagues including the director, Mme Tanko, and Mme Ly.

Wed. 7 Sept.: More on the Unicode/IDN meeting / plus sur la réunion Unicode/IDN

Some conversations and after the meeting 9/7 and at the dinner. Got to present aspects of the PanAfrican Localisation wiki to Adama Samassekou, in particular the language profiles. Spoke with him and others about aspects of localization.

Asked Anne-Rachel Inné about the situation in the north of Niger. She is from Niger, although based internationally. She had recently visited Niger and said there is some improvement but the price of millet is extremely high. Grain aid released on the market (which is often how it is done these days so as not to undercut local farmers who have produced grain) apparently assumed a high price very quickly (~30,000FCFA/bag) - higher even that rice, which is unusual. It is certainly tempting to say it is merchants who reap the advantage. On a broader subject, the importance of education for farmers and rural people generally (and the necessity of doing that in the farmers' first languages. This conversation brought in some other people too.

Sunday, September 11, 2005

Preparing to fly out of Dakar tonight - via Paris and Dublin to Shannon, the airport closest to Limerick.

Connections have been catch-as-catch-can, with different plusses and minuses, since leaving the Novotel. I've explained this and recapitulated the main points of the last several days in a draft that is on my laptop. For some reason couldn't post to the blog from the last place I connected (Hotel Meridian President, where I went to meet some Michigan State people who just arrived for a conference). And I'm now writing from a machine I can't transfer the file to. So I will try to post that finally in Ireland (as if there won't be enough else to do there).

More later.

Saturday, September 10, 2005

Been a busy couple of days. Connect times have been haphazard. Will add more later.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

Meeting summary / Résumé de la réunion

It was a long day yesterday, but it covered a lot of ground. IDN seems like a narrow subject for a major project, but as I understand it, it is a way of focusing questions. Addressing issues of IDNs implies having arrived at solutions for a number of other issues relating to transcription and how it is handled in the international system (which means Unicode/ISC-10646).

C'était une longue journée hier, mais on a beaucoup fait. IDN semble être un sujet étroit pour un projet important, mais autant que je le comprends, c'est une manière de focaliser les questions. Aborder des questions d'IDN implique l'arrivée aux solutions pour un certain nombre d'autres questions concernant la transcription et comment elle est manipulée en TIC (qui veut dire Unicode/ISO-10646).

The agenda was modified somewhat from the original. Here is the way it went (according to my notes):
L'ordre du jour a été modifié légèrement de l'original. Voici la manière qu'il a disparue (selon mes notes) :

  • Opening/Ouverture - Mouhamet Diop (Next SA; organizer of project/organisateur du projet)
  • Presentation of project / Présentation du projet "Unicode & IDN" - Pierre Dandjinou (UNDP)
  • Presentation of the Afrilang network / Présentation du Réseau AFRILANG - Pierre Ouédraogo (Agence Intergouvernementale de la Francophonie)
  • Presentation of experience / Présentation des expériences - Michael Everson (Evertype)
  • Presentation of the linguists' network / Présentation du Réseaux des linguistes - Maxime Somé (Université de Nantere, Paris X)
  • Project finance / Financement des projets « UNICODE-IDN en Afrique » - Mouhamet Diop (Next SA)
  • Roundtable on IDN / Table ronde sur IDN - Alex Corenthin (Administrator of .sn domain), Edmond Chung by phone link (Afilias), Don Osborn (Bisharat), Michael Everson (Evertype)
  • Roundtable on linguistic aspects / Table ronde sur les aspects linguistes
  • Presentation on N'ko / Présentation sur le N'ko - Mamady Doumbouya (N'ko Institute)
  • Roundtable on experience in Africa / Table ronde sur les expériences en Afrique - Don Osborn (Bisharat), Michael Everson (Evertype)
  • Ethiopic and IDN / Éthiopique et IDN - Daniel Yacob by phone link (consultant)
  • Presentation of ACALAN / Présentation de ACALAN (Académie africain des langues) -
    Adama Samassekou (ACALAN)
  • More on the project / Davantage sur le projet - Pierre Dandjinou (UNDP)

I will try to add more observations later. In the meantime I would like to add that another positive of this meeting was to be able to see a couple of people I've met before - Tunde Adegbola and Michael Everson - and to meet others, many of whom I have either corresponded with or know by reputation, or both (Adama Samassekou, Pierre Dandjinou, Pierre Ouédraogo, Mamady Doumbouya, Anne-Rachel Inné, Yéro Sylla, Chérif Mbodj, Ken Lohento, Alex Corenthin, Mouhamet Diop of course, and others... ).

J'essayerai d'ajouter plus d'observations plus tard. Entretemps je voudrais ajouter qu'un autre positif de cette réunion était de pouvoir voir deux personnes que j'avais rencontré avant - Tunde Adegbola et Michael Everson - et de rencontrer d'autres, dont certaines avec lesquelles j'ai correspondu, ou qui je connaissais par réputation, ou tous les deux (Adama Samassekou, Pierre Dandjinou, Pierre Ouédraogo, Mamady Doumbouya, Anne-Rachel Inné, Yéro Sylla, Chérif Mbodj, Ken Lohento, Alex Corenthin, Mouhamet Diop bien sûr, et d'autres...).

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Unicode / IDN in Africa (en Afrique), Dakar, 2005/9/7

I will attempt to blog from this one-day meeting in Dakar on "Unicode and IDN in Africa." The pages on the meeting, which is about to start, are at

Je tenterai de faire le blogging de cette réunion d'une journée à Dakar sur "Unicode et IDN en Afrique." Les pages sur la réunion, qui est au point de commencer, se trouvent à

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Three more items before the IDN/Unicode conference: Connections en route; education in African languages; African studies in China

Here are 3 unrelated items, the first was written mostly on the last leg of the trip yesterday, the second is part of a letter about education policy written earlier that I've been intending to post (relevant to this blog and in a way to the context of discussion of things like IDNs and localization), and the third to a link between where I just came from and where I am.

I will also quickly mention three other items that have just come up today relating to the upcoming conference: (1) I just received a note from Daniel Yacob with a powerpoint on IDNs in Ethiopic (script used for several languages of Ethiopia and Eritrea). It is of course with the non-Latin scripts that a lot of the most interesting problems for IDNs are encountered; (2) there is a series of articles on the IDN/Unicode conference and African language computing generally in a special issue of Les Echos here in Dakar (see the files section of Unicode-Afrique for the PDF of this); and (3) I just met Mamady Doumbouya of the N'ko Institute who is also here for the conference. We had a good talk about aspects of localization, African languages, and the N'ko movement. N'ko is a script devised less than 50 years ago, but is increasingly used in the Mandephone parts of West Africa (and it is in the process of being approved for addition to Unicode).

The three items I mentioned are as follows.

Connections en route: airport to airport

The travel day, and it is a long day traveling with the sun across Eurasia and then south to Africa, is not so hard as it is one that demands patience, then at points some frantic rushing and then more patience. Time to fill with some work and thinking. There is not much rest, but some adrenaline.

On this trip I had more opportunity to look at the various connection possibilities in airports. I was impressed that Chengdu airport now has a nice cyberlounge where you can link via cable (broadband) or use one of their computers. This is new, as far as I've noticed. Connection was broadband by cable.

Beijing has the same reliable but rather expensive business lounge (these are not the "business class" & first class lounges of the airlines). The cable hookup did not work for me even when trying to reconfigure my settings. The China Unicom wireless signal was not clear this time, though I didn't waste much time looking for it since you had to have a cellphone account with them to use it.

I was not able to link up on Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport for-pay wireless this time - not enought time in layover.. I did try in the plane as it was still loading, but the signal did not carry outside. This airport also has (or at least did as recently as last June) little for-pay internet kiosks.

No attempt to connect in Dakar airport on arrival, but I am pleased that the Novotel where we are staying has wireless in the ground floor (lobby, restaurant, bar).

Substantively some of what I'm doing is to keep thinking through all the things I want to cover with various people in Dakar in the conference and in diverse other meetings. Over the years so many issues and questions seem to have some connection with someone or some organization in Dakar. Part of what malkes this trip worth making the time is the potential to (re)connect with so many people.

Of course the IDN (internet domain names) & Unicode conference is the main event, and will bring together a number of people. Je tenterai d'ecrire un peu sur les participants et l'activite meme prochainement. From the description of the project of which this event is a part, it seems the issue is bigger than IDNs only. More soon - hopefully they'll put this document on the web.

Education in national languages of Ghana

The following is an excerpt (slightly edited to read better) from a letter I wrote to Paa Kwesi Imbeah on the subject of the apparently pretty exclusive focus on English as language of instruction that one sees in Ghana these days. I think it is useful to bring up the educational angle again as we prepare in Dakar for this Unicode/IDN meeting. (Paa Kwesi, by the way, will be presenting a paper on the Akan online dictionary at the Unicode conference IUC28 in Orlando, Florida, which also begins tomorrow):

English is the "language of the belly" or "language of the stomach," as they say. Some people see it as their ticket to eating enough. Others see it as their ticket to eating a lot. There is some truth to that but it hides other realities. One is that neglecting or, as a colleague once put it, taking for granted the indigenous languages leads to some significant losses and costs that aren't imediately apparent.

One you hint at in your letter is limited or impaired bilingualism or worse, semilingualism. This has been touched on in some entries on this blog and also in the Multilingual_Literacy group (link in the left hand column ; you can search the terms on the group's page).

Ghana's government is not alone in focusing on English. In the current global economic situation, the enhanced prospects of outsourcing industries, outside investments, etc. (already a part of the scene in the country) mean dollar and cedi signs to planners. But the global climate could change drastically in the future with English being less central (hard to see now but who can say?). So if Ghana sells its linguistic heritage for a middling average national competence in what is still essentially a foreign/international language, where would it be then?

But the worst of it is that it isn't an "either-or" question but a "both-and" issue. Good bilingual education can give you the best of both worlds (a lot of research worldwide shows this): Ghanaian languages and English. Unfortunately, the way it goes, they don't take advantage of the "both-and" approach and so somehow end up with a "neither-nor" result for a lot of the population.

I would add that there was a conference last month in Windhoek, Namibia on bilingual education in Africa. See an article and the conference document (the latter in PDF format and rather large).

African studies in China

I finally caught up with Prof. Li Anshan's article that was published a few months ago: "African Studies in China in the Twentieth Century: A Historiographical Survey" in the African Studies Review, 48(1): 59-87. Part of what interests me about China-Africa connections is that they are getting increasingly important. In and of itself, and as part of broader evolution of so-called South-South relations, the relationship between China (the world's most populous country with a rapidly growing economy) and Africa (the second largest continent with a rapidly growing population) will become ever greater in the development picture for Africa. It will be interesting also to see the evolution of studies and understanding of Africa in China and vice-versa. Anyway, an abstract from Johns Hopkins' Project Muse follows. I would add to it only that Prof. Li mentions that the only two African languages taught in China are Swahili and Hausa.

This article surveys African studies in China during the twentieth century. It is divided into five parts: "Sensing Africa" (1900–1949), "Supporting Africa" (1949–65), "Understanding Africa" (1966–76), and "Studying Africa" (1977–2000). From a Chinese perspective, the author tells how, when, and why Chinese scholars have conducted their research on Africa according to paradigms that evolved during the last century. In conclusion, the author points out the achievements as well as the problems in African studies in China today.

Cet article propose un aperçu des études africaines menées en Chine au cours du vingtième siècle. Il est divisé en cinq parties: «Approcher l'Afrique» (1900-1949), «Soutenir l'Afrique» (1949-65), «Comprendre l'Afrique» (1966-76) et «Étudier l'Afrique» (1977-2000). A partir d'une perspective chinoise, l'auteur examine comment, quand, et pourquoi les chercheurs chinois ont mené leur recherche sur l'Afrique, selon des paradigmes qui ont évolué au cours du siècle. En conclusion, l'auteur souligne les succès et les difficultés rencontrés par les études africaines en Chine aujourd'hui.

Monday, September 05, 2005

Remembering Rita Herkel

I have just arrived in Dakar, Senegal after the long trip west and then south from China. Before the work here begins in earnest, I wanted to first take a moment to remember someone who died suddenly and unexpectedly last week. (This is something I wrote earlier in the trip but was unable to post before now).

In a time when so many innocents are dying - victims of disaster (and sometimes inadequate help) such as in northern Niger and New Orleans, victims of a freak accident such as the Shiite pilgrims in Baghdad recently, victims of genocidal actions and policies, people blown up by others, other people caught in the crossfire of wars and conflicts, and so on, it may seem inappropriate to dwell on the passing of one person somewhere else. But every life is precious and this is one that I had the chance to cross paths with for a brief period.

Last week, on 27 August, one of the people who had served as a volunteer in the group I was responsible for in Niger, Jenny Paulk, forwarded a really nice letter by another former Niger volunteer who was in Malawi helping to build schools - Rita Herkel. Rita had written it on 24 August to some friends, telling with enthusiasm how the work with the communities was going and expressing her feeling of being so lucky at that time.

Four days later (31 Aug.) another e-mail from another former volunteer, Barney Smith, (it's considerate of them to keep me on some mailing lists) said that the Peace Corps office in Niger had decided to name the resource center at the office in her honor since she had died in a bush taxi accident a few days earlier.

There is so much that could be said, and others closer to her or more eloquent might say it much better, but once past the shock, I couldn't help but think that if she had to go so soon, this was the way to do it. She was doing something that made her feel lucky and indeed was helping others. She went out on top, as the expression goes, something we might all hope for when our time inevitably comes.

I knew Rita only as her Associate Peace Corps Director (APCD) - every volunteer is in effect assigned to a sector headed by an APCD - for the two plus years (2001-03) she served in the village of Holla Bella in the Balleyara district northeast of Niamey. I've always had a lot of respect for all volunteers, but as in any walk of life, some seem to shine especially. Rita as I knew her from being her APCD was one of them. In her work, in her integration in the local community (she had a very high level in Zarma language), and her relations with other volunteers she was exemplary. It was fitting that she be remembered back in Niamey

I did not know that after her planned travel following her close of service in Niger she went on to work in Malawi. But it didn't surprise me. As a volunteer and in other development work she took the risks that we all do - local modes of transportation are sometimes quite unsafe whether because of mechanical issues, road conditions, the fault of drivers, or some combination. I don't know what it was the last day Rita took a bush taxi some short time after writing such a bright letter about her work, but she was among 6 people who died in that accident that day. Such accidents happen frequently without world notice, and at a rate certainly much higher than what we know in the West.

There are so many senseless deaths, and with each we all lose something precious, intangible, and from that point on, forever unknown. Separation and distance from the ones we knew are never easy, but the sense of a lost future is hardest of all to take.

This, then, is to remember Rita, her work, dedication, and spirit, and by her the many others who have left us too early. May their souls progress serenely and their memory inspire rather than sadden.

Sunday, September 04, 2005

Traveling west (Sept. 5)

Travelling today to Dakar for a meeting on Unicode and IDN in Africa. Will also meet with various people and visit some organizations in Dakar. From there will go to Limerick, Ireland for the localization conference, LRC-X. More to come, hopefully.

It's a very significant pair of meetings, and I appreciate my wife and son's parting with me for two weeks at this busy time.

I also want to express my thanks to the organizers of the 28th Unicode and Internationalization Conference (IUC28 in Orlando, Florida, US for understanding in my coming to Dakar rather than being there to present my paper (it is still possible it may be presented by someone else).

Friday, September 02, 2005

International Blogging for Disaster Relief Day

I don't have much more to add concerning the situation in northern Niger. The basic two issues for me are that:

  1. Thirty years after the great drought in the Sahel of the early 1970s, and 20 years after a major Sahelian drought in 1984, with all the systems and networks in place to anticipate such a problem, this shouldn't have happened, and
  2. Even without anything high tech, a simple look into the granaries in the region last November would tell you a problem was coming.

Some problems are sudden and catastrophic like the Indian Ocean tsunami last December. Others are forseeable as probable eventualities, like a direct or near direct hit by a huge hurricane in New Orleans today or earthquakes in various regions. No excuse for not having contingencies and basic preparations.

Other slow-developing but obvious situations like that in Niger are a simple matter of response, planning, allocation of resources, and delivery. With ample time to discuss each phase to boot. Seemingly the easiest disaster to respond to, but still fumbled.

"Can't win for losing" in the Sahel takes on new meaning in this context. There is plenty of analysis floating around of varying quality, I'm sure, but the bottom line is that all of us in a position to understand and address the situation bear responsibility for an avoidable tragedy.

With the tremendous disaster in the wake of Katrina in the US Gulf Coast (& especially N.O.), the loss of life and long term impacts of the famine on families, cultures, and local economy in northern Niger will disappear from the world press. So will we let history repeat itself yet again in the Sahel when (not if) there's another crop failure?

Friday, August 05, 2005

Perspectives sur la situation au Niger

Voici un mot d'un ami et ancien collegue qui est basé à Maradi:

En réalité, la crise alimentaire est localisée dans quelques zones pastorales et agropastorales du Nord Maradi, Tillabéry, Zinder et de quelques département de la région de Tahoua. Elle a surtout été causée par la rareté des dernières pluies de l'année passée et, par des dégâts importants des criquets sur la culture et le pâturage, entraînant ainsi la hausse des prix des céréales et les crises chroniques de malnutrition des enfants. Dans ces zones de taux élevé de sous-alimentation, évidement le niveau de mortalité infantile est très élevé. Voilà en un mot la situation. Mais elle n'est pas générale dans tout le pays. Ce sont les médias qui font d'une situation localisée, en situation nationale.

The New York Times has an article that, without clarifying this aspect, does attempt to look at different dimensions of the crisis, including chronic risk of famine, Niger's Anguish Is Reflected in Its Dying Children.

Among other things, the topic of poor agricultural technniques / tools / use of inputs was mentioned. This is true, but the solutions tried before haven't had much impact. One of the main avenues to improving agriculture is not more research or money, as important as these are, but more education of farmers. In fact there are a lot of issues intertwined in perpetuating rural poverty, and in the Sahel where rain is uncertain, turning that into annual risk of food shortfall or worse. But if there is to be a hope for any fundamental and long-term changes, it will require a concerted effort for education. And that should necessarily be done to the maximum extent possible in the farmers' first languages - which does not mean to exclude French or English, but if you are going to talk with farmers about farming etc., and expect them to discuss among themselves, best to use their languages from the start.

In the case of Niger, the language issue is one that is actually in its favor. Hausa, spoken by about half the population (not to mention millions south of the border in Nigeria), is a major language with a literary tradition. It would be easy to discuss all aspects of agriculture (and related aspects of rural economy) on any level of complexity in this tongue. Zarma, spoken by a quarter of the population and closely related to Sonrai spoken in eastern Mali, cannot lack adequate vocabulary either. Similarly, Fulfulde and Tamajak in Niger are dialects of major regional languages spoken by pastoralists, who have been surviving in this environment for ages. Why not put some resources into working in these languages for education and rural renaissance?

Sunday, July 31, 2005

"Can't win for losing..."

The crisis in Niger is suddenly all over the press. An interesting analysis of how this situation was allowed to get so bad is in today's New York Times: A New Face of Hunger, Without the Old Excuses. "For decades famine was seen largely as a consequence of bad political leadership. ... Far from ignoring or playing down its troubles, Niger's government, in cooperation with international aid agencies, sounded the alarm back in November. It provided subsidized grain and other aid from its own stocks, and has apparently made every effort to avert disaster. The world simply failed to respond, leaving the government unable to mount a sufficient aid campaign." In effect, Niger's government did what it should have with its limited means but still the country is facing a serious problem.

Meanwhile, south of the border, BBC reports that Birds devastate crops in Nigeria. "Farmers in northern Nigeria beat drums to stop a plague of hungry quela quela birds eating their crops. ..." Different situation and context but a similar story - the farmers work hard and then what? Stay tuned.

At some later point I'd like to explore how ICT, localized in African languages, might be an "appropriate technology" for agricultural development in these areas.

Saturday, July 30, 2005

Famine in Niger

I've written previously that although this blog bears the name of Niger's capital, where I lived nearly 4 years, this blog is not primarily about the country but about larger issues of localization around the continent. However since the blog does bear the name of Niamey, and there is no more important matter on earth than life, I want to mention the drastic circumstances that have befallen large parts of Niger (esp. the agro-pastoral zones towards the north). Would that mention here could save a life or make a positive difference somehow in the world response to the unfolding tragedy.

Niger is already practically the poorest place on earth even in a good year. As I used to explain to new Peace Corps volunteers when I was an Associate Director there, life for rural Nigeriens is like a stacked gamble: when it rains enough you survive to try again next year; when it doesn't rain, maybe you die. This grim assessment, something that I gained a little familiarity with when in neighboring Mali in 1984 (year of a huge drought regionwide), has been borne out this year with a vengeance. But this time it's not just an issue of rain but one of locusts - something that is favored by a lot of rain in preceding years.

In 2000, when I first arrived in Niger, the country was facing a shortfall in grain. Or actually, the previous year's crop was not going to stretch through the "hungry season" which is the period beginning more or less about the time you plant the new year's crops but the granaries from last year are running low. Obviously the less full the granaries are then the bigger problem you face the next. That is in effect what is happening now. What is a bit confusing hearing about this longdistance is how the state of affairs now couldn't have been better anticipated considering the les than full granaries last year. Indeed there was some early warning back in November, but apparently not all those on the ground agreed on how bad it would be (perhaps because it was mostly in areas away from the capital and administrative centers?).

Back in 2000, the problem was relatively mild, but saying "relative" is easy when you can retreat to a place with food and have money to buy it. That year I gained a renewed appreciation for Sahelians and their resilience, and also for the PCVs who were practically the only foreigners on the front lines as it were, trying to make sure that the villages they lived in were not forgotten when the lists of needs were compiled, seeking ways to generate project monies to assist in matters that get neglected when food is the bottom line, and more.

During the time I was in Niger, each year there was a kind of watch of the weather and then an assessment of the situation in various parts of the country where rainfall was marginal. When I left the country in 2004 I told some new volunteers, as I had earlier incoming groups, that there was a chance that they'd see a major drought or famine during their two years there. Would that I had been wrong.

Though the focus of this blog - to the extent I can add to it and have time to do so - will remain ICT in African languages, I will add any further information I receive from people on the ground in Niger. One letter by the Peace Corps Director in Niger, Jim Bullington, can be read on the Friends of Niger site, which also has links to other articles on the situation in Niger.

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

A quick catching up - currently in Morocco. It has been difficult to add to this blog. One short post I added a month ago did not load.

PanAfrican Localisation

Long preparations for the PanAfrican Localisation Workshop are over and we're in the midst of the workshop in Casablanca. It runs 13-15 June. Hope to have more to write on it later. For the moment, the page for the project of which it is a part is:

Unicode Conference (IUC27)

This was held in Berlin, 6-8 April. My participation was in co-organizing a panel on African languages and Unicode (held in French).


Work continues on other aspects of Bisharat. Also had a chance to visit and give a presentation at Peking University (Center for African Studies) on April 12.

Sunday, February 06, 2005

Modifications on this blog

I made some minor changes, including modifying the blog description and adding a new group/list - MINEL - to the lefthand column.

The previous blog description (for the record) was:
Don Osborn's reflections on the Sahel, language, agriculture, development, education & more... "Beyond Niamey" has the sense of a personal & family transition, and also of reference to a key conference on African language transcription in 1978 that has implications for ICT work today

I am not sure how the RSS feeds are working - I suspect they are not but cannot see them where I am (continued trouble with accessing the blog, though much less, curiously, for accessing the blog editor).

Description of Bisharat, its evolution, & a12n

Andrew Cunningham asked me for a brief description of Bisharat (see link on lefthand column under "Work") and how the ICT4D focus has come to link with other issues, and of a12n. I copy it below:

Bisharat began with a vision that can be summed up as "ICT in African languages for rural development in Africa." The various insights, observations, and conversations that led up to this are another story. But the motivation was and is to address the barriers to greater use by Africans of their indigenous languages in ICT, and its audience is as much foreign ICT for development programs active in Africa as technicians and others from the continent.

Evolution of the idea of Bisharat has basically involved 1) a progressive exploration of different mainly technical factors that make possible computing and internet usage in African languages, and 2) a gradual recognition of various other factors having to do with language but not ICT that are unavoidable considerations. In addition to a largely informational and networking role that will continue, it is hoped to participate in the implementation of some projects in the near future, including about software localization..

"A12n" - Africanization with an explicit ICT meaning - is essentially localization (l10n) in Africa plus those aspects of internationalionalization (i18n) that facilitate use of African languages on computers and the internet. I sought some sort of term or acronym that was as linguistically neutral as possible, simple, and widely recognizable to capture this concept and use for a gateway page and e-mail fora on the Bisharat site. "Africanization" is a term with some historical baggage, but A12n gives a fresh take on it.

We are starting to see much more activity in African language localization of content and software. An interesting dimension that does not get a lot of attention is the importance of African expatriates abroad in localization.