In a continent woefully short of its entire languages in the virtual world, 23-year-old Kiganira Deogracious Kijambu has a dream: to access the Internet in his indigenous language of Lusoga to expand his e-commerce business. BAMUTURAKI MUSINGUZI reports.
“My wish is to access the Internet in Lusoga,” says Kijambu, a businessman and accountant who uses the Batud ICT Training Centre, Mayuge to access the Internet.
“With the Internet in Lusoga it would link very many people in my area as very few of them understand English,” Kijambu says. “Though a few people have acquired computer skills, language is still a problem because the computer is dominated by English.”
One formidable obstacle to the diffusion of Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) in Africa is language. In 2005, only 20 per cent of Web Sites 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% of the people in larger regions of Africa are English-literate while the rest, more than two billion, speak languages that are sparsely represented on the web. As a result, many of these people have little use for computers, and in turn, have little means to drive market demands for computer applications in their languages.
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Kijambu’s desire 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 harassing 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. “It is a growing area of concern in business, a process supported by internationalism of technology. Its application in development is an emerging and promising concern that merits greater attention.”
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 differently identified and classified by linguistics.
Paul Bamwesige, the manager for The Batud ICT Training Centre , Mayuge, acknowledges that lack of local African languages on the Internet is indeed a challenge.
“We download information and translate it for our users. Because our users do not speak English, we face the problem of translating jargons, concepts and explanations hence creating a communication gap,” Bamwesige says.
The Batud ICT Training Centre , Mayuge is a unique project in Uganda as it downloads information and translates it for its users upon request into Lusoga for their own consumption. Like all other facilities in Uganda, unreliable power supply is its major challenge and a generator as an alternative source of power is very expensive. It also has to contend with high Internet tariffs and unreliable service from internet service providers.
“If we had the Internet in local languages there would be effective application of ICT in the communities because the mother tongue remains paramount to our everyday life in the process supplementing government social-economic programmes. And this should be addressed immediately because it would be a cost saving measure from relying on foreign languages that we do not understand,” Bamwesige says.
Speaking at the 3rd GK Conference held at the Kuala Lumpur Convention Centre, Malaysia (December 11-13, 2007), Malian Adama Samassekou who is also the President of the African Academy of Languages (ACALAN), 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 policymakers, adding that, “Unfortunately; Africa is still dominated by colonial languages while the local languages have been confined to the oral state.”
Samassekou suggested that it’s easier to effect change through the education system like the one computer per child project. “In Africa’s case our first step should be the lifting status of local languages or teaching of mother tongue in schools and later adopt foreign languages to participate on the Internet. 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 feeling and vision, and interact with others. No community can develop without the use of the mother tongue specifically in science and technology.”
According to Samassekou, the position of the Academy is to build the practice of mother tongue based bi-lingual and multi-lingual education in Africa’s education systems.
“Mother tongues should be taught at all stages of education, but which is not the case. It will take a long time to build, but it should be the perspective.”
ACALAN was established under the aegis of the African Union as a Pan-African scientific institution with its headquarters in Mali. Among the objectives of ACALAN that was adopted by the Council of Ministers of the OAU in Lusaka, Zambia, in July 2001, are to promote African languages, strengthen cooperation among African States in the area of African languages and promoting African languages in all educational sectors and at international level.
“Because language transcends the individual in favour of his community, it consequently becomes our property and that of our culture. It is through language that we acquire and transmit our knowledge and our know-how which facilitate certain domination over our environment. It stands, indeed, as the key component and the barometer of our development,” Samassekou contends, adding, “Rural people do not take any major decisions in their local languages, but the decisions are taken on their behalf in colonial languages. The problem is compounded further because we have no new tools in local languages, yet knowledge is embedded in our mother tongues.”
It emerges that no country in Africa has yet developed a sound and coherent policy on ICT and local languages to guide its socio-economic and political agenda.
In his book, the African Today, Diedrich Westermann writes, “The introduction of students into the full realm of European culture loses all its meaning if it implies a neglect of the African’s own life and language and this isolates him his own people. This is where modern education is easily inclined to make a fatal mistake”
African research universities are working on various techniques to promote greater access to and usage of 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 economic barriers to education in different parts of the world. However developing a system is one issue and adopting it 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.
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More recently Microsoft, the software giant launched its Kiswahili Windows products targeting the more than one million Kiswahili-speakers in the eastern African region, 10% of who have access to computers. Microsoft hopes to attract at least 5% more with its Kiswahili version products in the market.
The International Telecommunication 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 livelihoods. While the Internet has immense potential as a powerful driver of innovation, sustainable economic growth and social well being, 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 last 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 had access to the Internet, representing a 4.7 per cent penetration rate. Of the 5.6 billion people in the rest the world 1.2 billion used the Internet as of November 30, 2007 indicating a 21.5 per cent penetration rate.
“Access to information will be an essential prerequisite to establishing and maintaining knowledge societies. Affordability of this access is clearly critical for bridging the digital divide between those with regular, effective access to digital communication and ICT and those without. A deficit in access perpetuates the information gap that separates the rich from the poor,” ITU notes.