Saturday, September 30, 2006

Retrospective: "Wikimania," 4-6 August 2006

Just a quick note as September fades into October, and referring first of all to August...

At the beginng of last month there was a meeting in Cambridge, Massachusetts called "Wikimania", which brought together various experts and enthusiasts working on Wikipedia and related Wikimedia projects. Although I did not attend, I participated virtually, or as close to that as one could, in two sessions related to Africa, one by Martin Benjamin entitled "Huru na Bure: Swahili Collaboration and the Future of African Languages on the Web", and the other by Kasper Souren called "The Bambara Wikipedia, One Year Later" (see the discussion sections). In the runup to Wikimania I had corresponded with Martin and Ndesanjo Macha, cc'ing Kasper (at the time I did not know he was going to attend) about finding a way to support development of African language editions of Wikipedia. Some ideas found their way into a document called Facilitating African Language Wikipedias.

Following the conference, Martin and I set up a Yahoogroup called AfrophoneWikis for discussion of and collaboration on some of the points in that document. A list of African language editions of Wikipedia is available on the site for that group.

The BBC redio show, "Africa, Have Your Say", of Wed. 6 Sept. was devoted to African languages and Wikipedia, and featured among many others, Martin, Ndesanjo, and myself. (The recording of the show was apparently available for only a short period.

Anyway this is old news, except to say that the effort is ongoing and there is some noticeable expansion of some of the Wikipedias in African languages, notably Swahili, thanks largely to Ndesanjo.

Also, I think that the overall goals of localization are advanced by such specific / specialized projects to the extent that we communicate about them and share lessons.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Back again. Gates, Rockefeller & African languages

I've expressed reservations about the medium of blog before - in some ways very useful, but in some ways a drain on time. And then all the blogs and who has time to read most of them?

I've tended to drain my expressive time on several lists, which require less in terms of maintenance and in theory have a built in readership as well as a more egalitarian mode of interaction. As a collective enterprise, even when one person is the "owner," the focus is not so much on the personalities than the issue (though in practice perhaps a few people - and personalities - may dominate for various periods of time). And keeping the list going is a task shared by several people. (But enough on comparative dynamics of lists and blogs!)

Also I've been caught up in other tasks and issues.

Nevertheless, having set this one up and still feeling as strongly as ever about the principles that led me to do so, and being aware that a blog - however little read - still has a presence, I will take it up again. There are several reasons why, but the tipping point, as it were, is reading of a Washington Post article about the Gates, and Rockefeller foundations "joining together to fight African hunger. A lot could be said about this, but in terms of the topic of this blog, I would say that there is a great opportunity to think first about farmer education and building on the bases of their knowledge about their situations, and in order to do this, to work seriously in the languages most familiar to the farmers, their families and communities.

Crop improvement and various technical innovations are important to agriculture in Africa, at least as much as elsewhere. But the foundation for agricultural development there, no less than elsewhere, is educated farmers. This is not just my opinion, but one that is held by many experts. But in Africa there has been very little attention to working in the languages most familiar to the people, especially in rural areas. Mostly agricultural extension messages for instance are translated ad hoc in the field by extension agents, who as a general rule have never had training in use of African languages (even their mother tongues) for this work.

Farmers' languages are not an inconvenience to be worked around in Africa any more than any other part of the world. But in Africa and African development they are usually treated that way. If the Gates and Rockefeller foundations are really "looking for a more systematic, long-term solution to African hunger," they need to balance the usual technical and market approaches with an educational initiative that takes fully into account African languages as a media for communication and innovation.

All this is not to discount English and French but to get real. There is no substitution for communicating in the language(s) that people know best and are most likely to use among themselves, and there is a lot of advantage to promoting "domestication" (in Alpha O. Konaré's term) of new scientific and technical information in those same languages. It's not second best, it's just best.

And there's also an important gender dimension. In general African women farmers are have less facility in the "official languages" (English, French, Portuguese) than men farmers. So the extent to which the community languages are used will be proportionatly more beneficial for women in terms of inclusiveness. Everyone wins, especially women.