Friday, June 09, 2017

Digitizing books in Nigerian languages

The national libraries of Norway and Nigeria are set to formalize an agreement (on 10 June 2017) for digitization of literature written in Nigerian languages. Plans are for the project to begin in Norway and then shift to Nigeria after three years.

The project has interesting implications for digitization of materials in African languages more broadly. For one thing it could serve as a pilot for similar collaborative efforts in other areas of the continent. Those could involve libraries in other Northern countries that have significant holdings in African languages.

Another aspect to consider is that of cross-border languages. Of the three languages that the project will initially focus on - Hausa, Yoruba, and Igbo - the first two are also spoken in other countries of the region. Could this effort to digitize books be designed to anticipate readers from other countries where those languages are spoken, and involve their national libraries?

There are some questions concerning format and access which one anticipates will be answered as details on the project are shared.

Wednesday, June 07, 2017

African Border Day & cross-border languages

Source: Ghana Immigration, 2016
Africa's often strange border lines don't seem like something to celebrate, but since 2011, the African Union (AU) has been marking June 7 as "African Border Day." Actually the original rationale was not so much celebration as a way to focus constructive attention on border areas which are sometimes the scene of conflict or illegal activity.

In reviewing a number of articles and documents on African Border Day, there does not seem to be any mention of cross-border languages, a specific focus of the AU's African Academy of Languages (ACALAN). Keep in mind that although no one suggests changing borders, the way European colonialists originally drew them divided many ethno-linguistic groups, meaning that a prominent feature of border areas is the existence of cross-border relations and commerce among peoples on both sides who speak the same African languages.

African Union Border Programme

Source:, 2015
The AU's press release on the first African Border Day framed it as "a way of further popularizing the AU Border Programme (AUBP) and mobilizing the requisite support for the efforts to promote peaceful and prosperous borders in Africa."

Created in 2007, the AUBP has as its mission "The prevention and resolution of border‐related disputes and the promotion of regional and continental integration, which constitute a tool in the structural prevention of conflicts in Africa." Its focus is important, but evidently limited to technical aspects of delimitation and the general goal of integration. There does not appear to be any consideration of linguistic, cultural, or communication in cross-border dynamics.

Convention on Cross-Border Cooperation, Niamey 2014

In Niamey, Niger, on 27 June 2014, just after the fourth African Border Day, the AU Convention on Cross-Border Cooperation was formally adopted. This elaborates various areas for African states to work together on in their common border areas. However, although "communication" and "cultural activities" are included (Article 3, Sections 2 & 3), there is no mention of languages (other than in the context of translation of the Convention itself into the AU's main languages).

This absence is all he more striking, given the efforts of ACALAN since 2009 with its Vehicular Cross-Border Language Commissions. Is there a reason not to mention a subject that seems so obvious, and which is a focus of another AU organization?

Languages & the future of border areas

Some 16 years ago, then Malian president Alpha O. Konaré imagined the borders of Africa as "sutures," not as lines of division, and highlighted the importance of cross-border languages in that joining. Perhaps that perspective is worth reflection on this seventh Africa Border Day.