African Languages and Technology

I came across this article on the International Herald Tribune about building wikipedia in African languages. Like most people I am increasing getting used to the idea of turning to Wikipedia (the English version that is) to find out information am interested in or just to find out something that has never crossed my thoughts. Reading the aforementioned article from IHT prompted me to check out the Kiswahili version of Wikipedia. It is not comparable to the English version of Wikipedia but it is a good initiative overall . Going through the few pages that are there I discovered Microsoft’s effort to build a Kiswahili glossary as well as a Linux Kiswahili Localization project. The Microsoft led project has been more successful so far with about 3000 technology related words in Kiswahili.

These are without a doubt important projects in their own right as a step towards bringing technology closer to the native tongues of most Africans. It may not be realistic to have a deeper penetration of IT in the shape and form that has occurred in the west or that is currently taking place in South East Asian. Perhaps the developments of IT in South East Asian can serve as a model to further expand the use and benefits of ICT to the citizens of Africa.

News channels and documentaries tend to give an impression that Sub Sahara Africa is a small village where everybody knows the other. Sub Sahara Africa is a diverse region that comprises of numerous ethnic groups that are related at some level but have distinguishable cultural practices that include language. Most of these languages do not have any relation to the fields of science and technology which has resulted in the lack of appropriate words to describe new technologies such as the Internet, mobile phones and their associated infrastructure.

It is not accurate to make general assumptions about the literacy levels in Sub Saharan Africa since in the absence of war most urban dwellers in this region of Africa are literate. Examples of countries that have made strides in literacy levels include Kenya, Namibia (after gaining her independency only recently), Nigeria, Ghana and of course South Africa. It would be a mistake to over look other countries where the levels of literacy is indeed low; some of these countries include Angola, Sudan (South Sudan), Mozambique. These countries have been involved in long and protracted wars and some of them are just beginning to enjoy some measure of calm and hence get a chance to invest in their respective citizens.

The number of African languages is simply too many while some assumptions can be made based on the number of people who speak the language and appropriate efforts made to bring the gap between the language in question and science and technology. However, there could be a large collection of languages that have a small number of speakers and in totally these small collections could possibly make a sizable population who will not have access to technology in their native tongue.

I think the future of ICT in Africa does not lie in the use of computers but rather the use of mobile devices and more specifically mobile phones. Like in the PC industry innovations in technology is driving down the cost of making low end mobile phones and as such powerful feature are trickling down this group of phones. Assuming the availability of low cost, powerful cell phones it can be possible to enable mobile phone serve as the center of ICT adoption in Africa. I think the most important aspect of the cell phone is that its basic use requires the ability to converse in a language and it doesn’t matter which language it is. This is important because you don’t need to know how to read and write to use a phone; in the extreme case the basic use of a phone can be taught in an hour or so (depending On the learner of course).

The bulk of the global economy is heavily reliant on information and indeed in some countries their focus is on the information age and everything that goes along with that. Information is power and as such governments must ensure that their populations are informed and have access to information that they need but more importantly is that these citizens should be in a position to produce their own data for their own consumption. In creating knowledge, the government creates an asset with which it can bargain with other governments of the world that have information that is of interest to it. The new generation leaders take over power in various countries in Africa need to identify the importance of information and hence enable the dissemination of information in a more personal and useful manner. Radio and television are important mass media but there is a need to embrace the concept and practice of ICT in the context of the African environment.

I dare propose that governments in Africa consider lowering the cost of building and maintaining network infrastructure for data transmission; the logic is that people must be able to reach the network and communicate with persons who share common interests with them. This of course is not another communist type approach where the infrastructure becomes a community/state property for everybody to use. The simple end of it is that by lowering the barriers to accessing this platform, more citizens will participant in exchanging ideas and a few individuals from the citizenry can find ways of building and deploying services that earn money.

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