Wesley Diphoko
Wesley Diphoko

OPINION: Wikipedia hosts conference in Africa to save African languages

By Wesley Diphoko Time of article published Jul 20, 2018

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CAPE TOWN - If nothing is done to preserve African languages and knowledge online, they will die and be non-existent online in the next 20 years if not earlier.

According to the Oxford Internet Institute, very little is done from the continent in terms of adding African languages and knowledge on Wikipedia.

One Wikipedia statistic shows that Paris has more Wikipedia edits than the entire African continent.

This illustrates the extent to which African languages and knowledge exist on Wikipedia and the internet.

This challenge has inspired the Wikipedia organisation to host its annual conference (Wikimania) on the African continent, in South Africa (Cape Town).

Wikimedia’s vision of creating a world “in which every single human being can freely share in the sum of all knowledge” is far from being achieved as long as the African continent is not adequately featured.

Currently the organisation is limited as to who contributes to Wikipedia projects, the topics that are being edited, and the forms of knowledge that are put forward.

Wikimedia realises that it is critically important that this situation be corrected if we are to move towards knowledge as a service and knowledge equity.

This year’s Wikimania has a unique flavour - a theme that finds its roots in the African philosophy and way of life ubuntu.

Wesley Diphoko.

The organisation hopes that the hosting of this important event on the African continent will present an opportunity to further the goal of creating the “sum of human knowledge”, by encouraging greater diversity and inclusion in who participates, and what gets discussed, at Wikimania and by extension what gets featured on Wikipedia.

African languages

To get the sense of the extent to which African languages exist online you have to look at government websites across the African continent.

Very few if any present information in African languages. To gain access to government websites at present you have to be able to read English.

This is the case even though the constitution for some of the countries requires that government information be available in multilingual form.

If African governments’ information is also not available in African languages, how can European organisations be expected to present information in African languages?

Many who defend the presentation of information online in only English highlight the cost factor.

This is true, but cost should not be used as the reason for not presenting information in African languages.

Stellenbosch University is a great example of what needs to be done in this regard. The university has been instrumental in preserving the Afrikaans language without using cost as a barrier.

The result of this move (as seen in the Afrikaans music and movie industry) also shows that there’s a business case for preserving a language.

The Afrikaans music and movie industry proves that there’s economic value to preserving a language, even though initially this process may be costly.

Some institutions in South Africa are showing leadership in this regard.

One example in preserving the Zulu and IsiXhosa languages is the Isolezwe newspaper by Independent Media.

Similar efforts are required, even though they may prove costly in the beginning.

Preserving them online

What will change this situation and avoid the end of African languages online and non-existence of African knowledge?

There are a couple of interventions that will have to be undertaken beyond the Wikimania 2018 Conference, and they include the following: National Translation Project, African Wikipedia Team and Robot.

National Translation Project

Under normal circumstances the process of editing Wikipedia content and adding content online requires individual effort.

The current situation about African languages on Wikipedia and the Internet is such that a national and continental effort is required.

A continental and national translation project backed by institutions such as the African Union is necessary.

A deliberate effort to preserve African languages and knowledge is necessary if the extinction of African languages and knowledge is to be avoided.

African Wikipedia Team

Some academic institutions such as UCT have language departments dedicated to editing Wikipedia into African languages. This is not enough for required change.

To some extent a dedicated and diverse team of Wikipedians is required to make an impact in the process of translating Wikipedia into various African languages.

Robots that speak African languages

Lastly, as we move towards the Fourth Industrial Revolution, there’s a need to work towards a specific goal to build towards.

One such goal could be a development of a robot that speaks African languages, which will also contain the sum of African knowledge.

Currently, there’s no such robot. Working towards building such a project can rally everyone towards working on building blocks that will build such a robot.

The development of such a robot can start by contributing African languages on WikiData, the data project that is led by the Wikipedia organisation.

Wesley Diphoko is the founder of Kaya Labs. He is also the chief executive and editor-in-chief of The Infonomist. You can get more of his insights about the information economy via: www.theinfonomist.com

The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.


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