East Africa: Mother tongue interference on the Internet

Don Osborn dzo at bisharat.net
Mon Feb 18 16:10:29 UTC 2008

Thanks for this item, Hal, which did not come up on any of my own Google

This is exactly the kind of issue that got me into the field of localization
several years ago with the Bisharat initiative and (concurrently since 2005)
the PanAfrican Localisation project mentioned in the article. In the
intervening years there has been progress:  
1) steadily improving support for extended-Latin (i.e., with special
characters) and nonLatin orthographies used for many languages in Africa
2) development of software to facilitate localization (from translation
memory to tools for localizing open-source software)
3) various localization initiatives, in Africa, among expatriate/emmigrant
Africans, and by others
4) the pivotal support by IDRC's Acacia program, as apparently the most
active donor agency in this area - PanAfrican Localisation is funded by it,
and actually is one project about to conclude and another one about to begin
and go for another 3 years

We're finally getting around to the key issues on the ground such as
illustrated in this article. Up until now, most "ICT for development"
projects in Africa have by default pretty much limited themselves to the
main official languages of Africa with a few exceptions. I literally had
people in the aid community question whether it was necessary or even
possible to support African languages on computers and the internet - I
could write more about this and the larger language in development questions
in Africa (esp. sub-Saharan). Now however the demand is becoming more

As usual I'm interested in knowing of other people and organizations working
in this area. There's quite a lot of potential and ultimately I think new
African approaches to multilingual ICT that we have yet to see. And this
does have policy and planning dimensions. One of the things I will be doing
for the new PanAfrican Localisation Network project is to research aspects
of language and ICT policy that apply to localization and the use of
localized software and content.

All the best.

Don Osborn

> -----Original Message-----
> From: owner-lgpolicy-list at ccat.sas.upenn.edu [mailto:owner-lgpolicy-
> list at ccat.sas.upenn.edu] On Behalf Of Harold Schiffman
> Sent: Monday, February 18, 2008 9:03 AM
> To: lp
> Subject: East Africa: Mother tongue interference on the Internet
> Mother tongue interference on the Internet
> IN A CONTINENT WHERE ALMOST all languages are absent in cyber space,
> 23-year-old Kiganira Deogracious Kijambu has a dream that one day he
> will access the Internet in Lusoga, his mother tongue.  So far, he has
> managed to build his e-commerce agricultural business from a humble
> Ush200,000 ($117) in 2003 to Ush600,000 ($352) today despite all the
> obstacles facing rural communication. He is optimistic that if all his
> clients, agents and suppliers were able to communicate in Lusoga, a
> language used in his home region in Mayuge District about 100
> kilometres east of Kampala, his business would boom.
> Mayuge is one of the seven districts in Busoga region with a
> population of close to 400,000 people. Lusoga is spoken by the Basoga,
> a Bantu ethnic group that occupies the region between Lake Victoria
> and Lake Kyoga. They grow crops such as cotton, coffee, bananas,
> potatoes and cassava, fruits and vegetables.  "My wish is to access
> the Internet in Lusoga," said Kijambu, a trained accountant. He uses
> the Batud ICT Training Centre in Mayuge to access the Internet for his
> e-commerce trade.
> "If we had the Internet in Lusoga, it would link many people in my
> area since very few of us understand English," Kijambu said. "Although
> some people have acquired computer skills, language is still a
> problem."
> Kijambu acknowledges that although the Internet has brought about
> prosperity for some enterprises, further growth is being hindered by
> the dominance of English.
> "My business is only limited to those few who understand and use
> English. I would have had more customers if the Internet was in
> Lusoga," he said.
> Kijambu buys maize and coffee in his home area, searches for the
> current prices on the Internet and then posts the quantity of the
> products ordered by his clients who are mostly schools.
> One formidable obstacle to Information and Communication Technologies
> (ICT) is language. In 2005, only 20 per cent of all Websites in the
> world were in languages other than English, and most of these were in
> Japanese, German, French, Spanish, Portuguese and Chinese.
> LESS THAN 10 PER CENT OF people in Africa are English-literate, while
> the rest speak languages that are hardly represented on the web. As a
> result, there is little use for computers, which means they cannot
> drive market demand for computer applications in their language.
> It has been acknowledged by ICT experts that linguistic and cultural
> diversity are realities of development, and knowledge is expressed and
> conveyed in all languages and cultures.
> "ICT can transcend them all, and it is our willingness to exploit that
> potential that will make a difference in ensuring full access to
> technology for effective participation in development and the
> knowledge society," observes Global Knowledge (GK), the world's first
> and leading multi-stakeholder network committed to harnessing the
> potential of ICT for sustainable and equitable development.
> "Localisation includes ensuring content and user interfaces are
> available in all users' languages, and adapted to cultural preferences
> and sensitivities," GK adds.
> Knowledge is an ingredient of development, and if ICTs are to promote
> development, they must adopt the local languages. Some 1,500 to 2,000
> African languages have been identified and classified by linguists.
> The people of Uganda belong to three distinct ethnic groups
> (Nilo-Hamites, Nilotics and Bantu) that can be broken into more than
> 50 ethnic nationalities, each identified by its own vernacular
> language.
> The manager of Batud ICT Training Centre, Paul Bamwesige, said lack of
> local African languages on the Internet is a big challenge. "We
> download information and translate it for our users. Because these
> people do not speak English, we face the problem of translating
> jargons, concepts and explanations hence creating a communication
> gap," he said.
> THE BATUD ICT project is the only one of its kind in Uganda. It
> downloads information and translates it for its users upon request
> into Lusoga. Like all other facilities in the country, it faces the
> challenge of unreliable power supply. It also has to contend with high
> Internet tariffs and an unreliable service by the providers.
> "If we had the Internet in local languages, there would be effective
> application of ICTs in the communities because mother tongue remains
> paramount to our everyday life, thus supplementing government
> social-economic programmes," Bamwesige said.
> Speaking at the Third Global Knowledge Conference in Kuala Lumpur in
> December last year, the president of the African Academy of Languages
> (Acalan), Adama Samassekou, noted that language expression is a right
> to practice cultural rights in diversity.
> "Cultural diversity is a heritage," Samassekou said at the conference
> that brought together 2,000 global visionaries, innovators,
> practitioners and policy makers.
> "Unfortunately, Africa is still dominated by colonial languages, while
> local languages have been confined to the spoken word," he added.
> Samassekou told The EastAfrican: "If you want to change the world,
> your mother tongue is the tool, because language is embedded in the
> way you think, see the world, express your feelings and vision, and
> interact with others. No community can develop without the use of
> mother tongue, specifically in science and technology."
> African universities are working on various techniques to promote
> greater access to ICT, including developing prototypes, and exploring
> potential technologies that can be adopted for rural communities in
> Africa such as mobile commerce (m-commerce). Distance learning through
> the Internet answers the social and economic barriers to education in
> different parts of the world. Developing a system is one thing and
> adopting it is another.
> The Pan African Localisation (PAL) project that started in 2005 plans
> to have 100 languages localised by 2010. Localisation includes
> translation and cultural adaptation of user interfaces and software
> applications, as well as creation and translation of Internet content
> in diverse languages. The project seeks to address localisation in two
> overlapping regions - Africa and Arabic-speaking countries. Its main
> focus is on sub-Saharan Africa and predominantly Arabic-speaking North
> Africa.
> More recently, software giant Microsoft launched its Kiswahili Windows
> products targeting the 100 million Kiswahili speakers in the East
> African region (Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda and parts of the Horn of
> Africa, Great Lakes, Malawi, Mozambique and the Indian Ocean Islands).
> Ten per cent have access to computers, and Microsoft hopes to attract
> 5 per cent more with its Kiswahili version products in the market.
> The International Telecommunications Union (ITU), a United Nations
> agency, estimates that one billion people worldwide still lack
> connection to any kind of ICT. Most of them depend on agriculture for
> their livelihood. While the Internet has immense potential as a
> powerful driver of innovation, sustainable economic growth and social
> wellbeing, growth is restricted in many countries because of lack of
> access, ITU observes.
> While the total of fixed-line phones, mobile subscribers and Internet
> users has grown substantially in the past few years, only 18 per cent
> of the world's population currently has access to the Internet.
> According to the Internet Usage and Population Statistics for Africa
> prepared by InternetWorldStasts.Com, out of the over 941 million
> people on the continent, only 44 million have access to the Internet,
> representing a 4.7 per cent penetration rate. Of the 5.6 billion
> people in the rest of the world, 1.2 billion used the Internet as of
> November 30, 2007, indicating a 21.5 per cent penetration rate.
> MALAYSIAN PRIME MI-nister, Dato'Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, expressed
> concern that: "Beyond the issue of high infrastructural costs, other
> barriers such as a lack of relevant content, poor technological
> support and the dominance of the English language on the Internet
> continue to hinder many developing countries from participating in the
> knowledge-economy. Indeed, the lack of local content for developing
> countries is seen as one of the key factors leading to the widening of
> the global digital divide."
> Some countries are trying to bridge the gaps locally. In an effort to
> popularise ICTs in rural areas, the Uganda Communications Commission
> (UCC) has decided to provide translated versions of each District Web
> Portal across the country, after realising that the absence of local
> languages has hindered the usage of these websites.
> UCC started and administers a Universal Service Fund (USF) for
> communications in accordance with the provisions of the Communications
> Act of 1997.
> This USF is the Rural Communications Development Fund (RCDF). RCDF is
> mandated to provide access to basic communication services within a
> reasonable distance to all the people in Uganda, leverage investment
> to rural communications development and promote ICT usage.
> "Now that we appreciate that language is one of the limitations for
> usage of the District Web Portals among other ICTs, we have provided a
> translated version of each Web Portal into the respective local
> languages," the RCDF fund manager Bob H. Lyazi told The EastAfrican.
> "The inclusion of local content will help to increase participation of
> Ugandans, especially those in rural areas," he noted. He added that
> this will be in two areas; translation of the available content into
> local languages and uploading appropriate content for a given
> community. "That way, we will be able to bring about increased usage
> of ICTs in rural areas."
> RCDF was started in 2003 to provide Internet points-of-presence,
> Internet cafes, and ICT training centres in each district, create
> district web portals and install public pay phones for every 1,200
> inhabitants or every parish.
> Increasing Internet access is hindered by unreliable power supply and
> high bandwidth costs. "It costs me Ush30-50 (0.02-0.03 US cents) per
> minute to access the Internet," said Kijambu. "That is too costly for
> me."
> HOWEVER, INTERNET USE has grown from 233,675 users in 2002 to 1.6
> million in 2006. A UCC survey shows that 46 per cent of the
> respondents use the Internet daily, 42 per cent once a month and 11
> per cent don't use at all.
> It was also disclosed that eight out of 10 people access the Internet
> through cafes although satisfaction remains low; 41 per cent of the
> respondents felt connection speeds were slow, expensive and not
> reliable, characterised by frequent breakdowns.
> The East African Submarine Cable system is expected to reduce the
> costs, increase the connectivity speed and - with more local content
> online - give more people meaningful access to the Internet.
> http://www.nationmedia.com/eastafrican/current/Magazine/mag180220084.ht
> m
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