Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Wikimania 2018: Sessions on, or of interest to, Wikimedia projects in African languages

The 14th annual Wikimedia conference - Wikimania 2018 - starts today, 18 July, in Cape Town, South Africa, and runs through 22 July. It is the second Wikimania to be held on the African continent - the first being at Alexandria, Egypt in 2008 - and the first in Africa south of the Sahara.

Here is a quick look from afar at what Wikimania 2018 sessions in the conference program might treat questions related to African language editions of Wikipedia, Wiktionary, etc. - what we have previously referred to as "Afrophone Wikis."


According to the program, the first two days - 18-19 July - are devoted to the Preconference, consisting of "various miniconferences and meetings." Among these, I'd make special note of the 2-day Decolonising the Internet Conference - "…the first ever conference about centering marginalized knowledge online!" Run by the NGO Whose Knowledge? (logo at right) as an invitation-only event, it has a theme that I'd consider of interest to increase African language presence on the internet.

Main conference

The main Wikimania conference follows, on 20-22 July. On the morning of the first day, Friday 20 July, there is a track devoted to Africa with three sessions, all of interest (titles link to project pages, which in some instances already have further links to slide presentations):
  • Babel's Tower: South Africa's Wikipedias: An overview and discussion of Wikipedia editions in South Africa's languages (focusing on the 11 official languages), and ways to address the poor development in most of those, including "possible interventions via both educational strategies and technological options." The presentation is by Michael Graaf, who wrote his dissertation at the University of Cape Town on South Africa's Wikipedias.
  • Africa's Wikipedias: "A panel to discuss the interesting challenges and possibilities of the Wikipedia language editions of Africa. Includes review of new tech to amplify efforts of editors." Panel includes several editors of African language Wikipedias (Afrikaans, Arabic, Swazi, Tsonga, and Xhosa).
  • The quotation of oral sources in a decolonization context: Discussion of how to incorporate oral citations in a resource that generally requires citation of written (ideally published) sources. Reference to an oral citations project in Namibia. Presentation by Bobby Shabangu and Stefanie Kastner.
That same morning, there is another session of particular interest from the perspective of working on African language projects (unfortunately conflicting with the Africa track):
 In the afternoon of the same day, another Africa-specific session that might have some content relevant to languages:
  • Coolest African Projects - Be inspired: Spotlights relatively unknown projects and activities by African Wikimedia affiliates. Presentation by Emna Mizouni, Felix Nartey, and User:Thuvack.
On the second day of the main conference, Saturday 21 July, the morning session has several sessions of special interest, including three in the Languages track:
  • Wikipedia for Indigenous Communities: Compares Western and OvaHerero (Namibia) approaches to knowledge, and discusses a project approaching Wiki editing in a way more acceptable to their community. Presented by Peter Gallert.
  • How majorities can support minority languages: Although description does not indicate Africa content, it deals with how people in positions of relative power (in this case speakers of dominant languages) can help those in positions of less power (speakers of "minority" languages) with their Wikipedia projects. Presentation by Jon Harald Søby, Astrid Carlsen, Jean-Philippe Béland, and User:Barrioflores.
  • Including minority languages in Wikimedia projects, a strategic approach: Again, no specific Africa content indicated, but a possibly relevant discussion of how to include minority languages in Wikimedia projects. Presentation by Ahmed Houamel-Bachounda.
Also in the morning, sessions dealing with Africa in the Education track (thus conflicting with the above), but without indication whether African language projects will be discussed, or just major Europhone language projects like English & French:
On the morning of the last day, Sunday 22 July, four sessions in the Communication track look interesting from the point of view of African language projects (even though none of these are specifically mentioned in the session descriptions except for the last one):
  • Working towards Growing Local Language Content on Wikipedia (GLOW): Discusses a 2017 collaboration among Wikimedia Foundation, the Centre for Internet and Society (CIS), Wikimedia India chapter (WMIN), user groups and external partners on a "pilot project in India to encourage local Wikipedia communities to create locally relevant articles in Indian languages." The results will inform development of the GLOW program, which is explained. Presentation by Jack Rabah and Rupika Sharma.
  • Record every language of the world village by village, with Lingua Libre: Discusses project to facilitate "the recording process of words in any language (even minor languages or dialects), uploading them to Wikimedia Commons and reusing them on other projects such as Wiktionary, Wikipedia or Wikidata." Presentation by User:0x010C.
  • Every Language in the World: Introducing Wikitongues: Focuses "on the activities coordinated by Wikitongues, a not-for-profit organization promoting the use and preservation of every language in the world" through collection of oral histories. Presentation by Daniel Bogre Udell.
  • Diglossia and Multilingualism: A help or a Hindrance to Arabic Wikipedians?: Explores "the ways students who are native speakers of Arabic [which has a standard & many vernacular forms] in a multilingual educational system overcome the obstacle of sharing knowledge by using a common idiom while allowing millions of readers engage with the content they create. This session will also suggest solutions for communities with similar language challenges inspired by the educational model used in Arabic-speaking schools that participate in the 'Student Write Wikipedia' program." Presented by Bekriah S. Mawasi.
The above should not be interpreted as meaning that other sessions would not be of interest. This is a subjective selection based on my reading of the descriptions. On the whole it is nice to note the optimism in several cases, with regard to African language projects, and also the efforts to accommodate and integrate oral content and sources.

By coincidence, the timing of Wikimania 2018 corresponds with the 40th anniversary of the Niamey expert meeting on transcription and harmonization of African languages, so I'll draw some connections between the two seemingly very different events in the next post.

Note: The first two images above are from the webpages for the event (Wikimania 2018) or organization (Whose Knowldge?) concerned. Attribution of the third image can be found on the linked Wikimedia Commons page.

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Expert Meeting on the Transcription & Harmonization of African languages, Niamey, 17-21 July 1978

Niger's National Assembly, where the 1978 meeting was
formally opened. (Source:
Forty years ago today, the Meeting of Experts on the Transcription and Harmonization of African Languages began in Niamey, Niger. Along with the 1966 meeting in Bamako, it was one of the more significant of a series of meetings* organized in Africa with the assistance of UNESCO to deal with questions relating to standardization of the written forms of African languages.

This expert meeting was at once less ambitious than the 1966 Bamako meeting - seeking "harmonization" rather than "unification" of systems for writing - and wider in scope - including representatives from more countries around the continent:Angola; Benin; Burundi; Cameroun; Central African Republic; Guinea Bissau; Ivory Coast; Mali; Niger; Rwanda; Senegal; Tanzania; Uganda; and Upper Volta [now Burkina Faso] (some countries had more than one person). Plus France, United Kingdom, and Yugoslavia. (Representatives from Congo, Ghana, Nigeria, Togo, and Zaire [now DR Congo] were not able to attend.)

This diversity also meant that the number and range of languages considered in Niamey was greater than in Bamako. On the other hand, like Bamako, the Niamey meeting focused only on the Latin-based transcriptions used in educational contexts (notably literacy) by the recently independent governments in sub-Saharan Africa.

This conference was particularly notable for its connection with the African Reference Alphabet, which was intended to provide a common character for each sound encountered in main African languages (rather than each country devising its own symbols or character combinations).

African Reference Alphabet. Source: Proceedings of the Meeting, UNESCO, 1981.
This alphabet was later amended by linguists David Dalby, who participated in the Niamey meeting, and Michael Mann, to include a number of additional characters. They also suggested a lower-case only alphabet,with a keyboard design using both registers to accommodate all the letters. (This keyboard was never adopted as such.)

 This effort was significant in influencing orthographies adopted for many languages (although not all). However it did not seem to be explicitly connected with the contemporaneously emerging digital text standards. Although many of the characters in ISO 6438 "African coded character set for bibliographic information interchange" were the same, there were differences that indicate the latter was the result of a separate process (or perhaps "fork" in today's software development terminology).

A few years ago I had hoped it would be possible to use the occasion of the 40th anniversary of the Niamey expert meeting to organize a conference to review the status and influence of the African Reference Alphabet and its descendants - with particular attention to technical support in ICT - and issues related to non-Latin scripts used for African languages. And perhaps to broach other topics related to use of African languages in the spirit of the efforts of a half-century ago.

Perhaps such a conference will prove useful in the future, but for the moment I'll mark this 40th anniversary with a series of short posts on the 1978 Niamey expert meeting itself and/or contemporary efforts that in one way or another reflect its aspirations.

* Several other expert meetings during this period addressed more specific sets of issues.

Friday, July 13, 2018

A movie on the life of Bishop Samuel Ajayi Crowther?

Bishop Crowther, 1888
Source: Wikipedia

Bishop Samuel Ajayi Crowther (c.1809-1891) was a remarkable figure in West African history, whose life bridged the end of the Atlantic slave trade era and the beginning of the period of European partition of the continent. Could his story be the basis of a major film production?

A compelling life story

Captured at age 12 or 13 in what is today Oyo State in southwest Nigeria, separated from his family, and sold into slavery, he was "recaptured" by a British anti-slaving force and eventually found his way back to his homeland and became prominent as a linguist and a member of the Anglican clergy (becoming in 1864 its first African bishop) in what was to become Nigeria. Towards the end of his life, however, this success collided with increasingly racist attitudes associated with the imposition of colonial rule.

This compelling story deserves more attention, and it is easy to imagine it being the subject of a major motion picture production. The idea is in no way new. From some contacts in Nigeria, notably Dr. Tunde Adegbola, and through him, filmmaker Tunde Kelani, I learned some years ago that there is interest in the production such a drama. There is at least one published dramatization of Crowther's life, a play focusing on his difficult later years, written by Prof. Femi Osofisan

Certainly the most dramatic episode in Crowther's life was the unexpected reunion with his mother in 1846, which he himself recounted in these words (as presented in an 1892 biography):
"August 21. The text for this day in the Christian Almanac, is 'Thou art the Helper of the fatherless.' I have never felt the force of this text more than I did this day, as I have to relate that my mother, from whom I was torn away about five-and-twenty years ago, came with my brother in quest of me. When she saw me she trembled. She could not believe her own eyes. We grasped one another, looking at each other with silence and great astonishment, big tears rolling down her emaciated cheeks. A great number of people soon came together. She trembled as she held me by the hand and called me by the familiar names by which I well remember I used to be called by my grandmother, who has since died in slavery. We could not say much, but sat still, and cast now and then an affectionate look at each other--a look which violence and oppression had long checked--an affection which had nearly been extinguished by the long space of twenty-five years. My two sisters who were captured with us, are both with my mother, who takes care of them and her grandchildren in a small town not far from here, called Absika. Thus unsought for--after all search for me had failed--God has brought us together again, and turned our sorrow into joy."
Although a figure of the 19th century, Crowther's life story resonates beyond that period so critical in African history. The theme of separation and reunion is universal and powerful. His encounter with some of the worst aspects of racism, which unfortunately is still a very present problem (it was not until 2014 that the Church of England finally apologized for the treatment he received). Crowther's efforts in the area of Christian-Muslim dialogue reflect an important ongoing process. And his work with African languages, particularly but not limited to his native Yoruba, have an ongoing influence.

Ajayi Crowther, translation, and transcription

Early in his time in what is now Sierra Leone, where he was settled after reacue by the British, Crowther took an interest in languages and linguistics. Aside from his mother tongue and the English he learned in Freetown, he also learned Temne. In the course of his education leading to clerical vocation, he learned Latin and Greek, which later were essential in translating the Bible into Yoruba. He also learned Igbo (and contributed to work on translating the Bible into that language), Hausa, (in the context of a trip to the north), Nupe (for which he also published a grammar and vocabulary), and Igalla (which is closely related to Yoruba).

Character combos for open-e, open-o, & /sh/
in Yoruba. The small line is the "classic" look;
a dot under seems more often used these days.
Apparently much of the early work on writing Yoruba in the Latin alphabet (an older Ajami transcription already exised, likely used mainly by Muslim Yorubas) was begun by missionaries in Freetown working with Yoruba speakers who had been settled there, and Crowther collaborated with them. The system Crowther used to write Yoruba, including marks under e and o to denote open vowel forms of them (the language having a 7-vowel system), presumably built on those early efforts. With some modifications, such as tone markings, that orthography is still in use today, a significant contribution to the written forms of African languages.

When back in what was to become Nigeria, Crowther worked on A Vocabulary of the Yoruba Language, (1852), which was apparently the first linguistic work published by an African. His translation of the Anglican Book of Common Prayer and Bible into Yoruba came later.

Ajayi Crowther's place in African history

Although I had learned some basics about Bishop Crowther in my limited study of and reading on African history over the years (it is relevant to my work, but not my field), I first took an interest in his story due to his role in establishing the Yoruba orthography.² I hadn't realized until later that opinions of his role in Nigerian and West African history varied. In Prof. Osofisan's words (from prefatory notes to his play):
"Crowther has been much vilified by African scholars and historians, who accuse him of having been merely a lackey to the white colonials. His work as a pioneering missionaery who travelled widely and extensively along the River Niger, establishing missions and, above all, putting up a staunch fight against slavery, is hardly even appreciated. Even his works as translator and scholar, who established schools in many parts of the mission, and worked out the first written alphabets and primers for not only Yoruba, but also Igalla and Igbo, is always glossed over."
Maybe it's time - already a few years after the Church of England's apology for what was done to him late in his career - to "rehabilitate" Bishop Crowther's image in history more generally, and to provide the current generation with a new perspective on a complex and influential life and life's work?

A film on the life of Ajayi Crowther

Crowther achieved several firsts, as a clergy in his adopted religion, and as a prominent early linguist specializing in African languages. He engaged with African cultural, linguistic, and religious diversity. He was one of the first students at the famous Fourah Bay College. He personally experienced both slavery and the institutionalized racism of colonialism, but rose above them. He left a legacy that has perhaps been underappreciated.

So, could this story, to which the above sketch does not do full justice, be the basis for a major feature film production? One involving Nigerian and international producers and actors? Could it fully, accurately, and appropriately treat the linguistic aspects of the story?

The market is there for big Africa-themed productions - including ones in which African languages figure prominently. The action film Black Panther is a recent example. The 1997 historical drama Amistad did well. Language, transcription, and translation may seem like a harder sell, but the recent sci-fi film Arrival had linguistics as a central component of the plot.

Ethnic dimensions might need care to navigate. Crowther was obviously a Yoruba figure, but also spent formative years in the Creole community of Freetown, and later traveled and worked widely in what was to become Nigeria. The episode of his capture into slavery is said to have involved "Muslim Fulani" as well as eventually Portuguese slavers - so how to be historically accurate without feeding stereotypes should be a priority.³

The biggest challenges are that there is no script or even script treatment on the subject, and that research on the subject might yield more than one reasonable plot line to tell the story, with the potential for conflict between commercial imperatives (especially the bigger the production) and the importance of historical and linguistic accuracy, and sensitivity to the people groups treated.

So this post is intended to give a little more lift to an idea that merits consideration and, hopefully, action.

1. Femi Osofisan, Ajayi Crowther: The Triumphs and Travails of a Legend, Bookcraft, Ibadan, 2006. The play was first performed in Lagos in 2002.
2. This was about 10-15 years ago when I was focusing on support for African writing systems on computers and the internet.
3. There are currently reports of conflicts in Nigeria between herders, mainly Fulani (Fulɓe), and farmers of other ethnic groups, which have led to fatalities.