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.

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