Editor's Note: This personal essay was written in the wake of a Twitter campaign organized by sub-Saharan Global Voices and Rising Voices, in which each week a different language activist shared their perspectives on the intersection of digital rights and African languages. as part of the “Identity Matrix” project: Platform for regulating online threats to expression in Africa ”.
According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), linguistic and cultural diversity is of strategic importance for people around the world to strengthen the unity and cohesion of societies.
This linguistic and cultural diversity prompted the UNESCO general conference to proclaim International Mother Language Day (DILM) in November 1999, to be commemorated annually on February 21. To reinforce DILM, the United Nations declared the International Year of Indigenous Languages (AIL 2019), to draw attention to the danger of the world's indigenous languages.
Today, more than 7,100 languages are spoken worldwide, 28% of which are spoken only on the African continent. Despite that, English dominates online spaces in the region. Nearly 20 years ago, 80% of the world's online content was focused on English. Currently, online content in English is said to have dropped to 51 and 55%.
Can we argue that more people are yearning to get online in their local languages? And is it true that 17 M people worldwide have no reason to get online, https://t.co/owzk24xch4
– GV SSAfrica (@gvssafrica) May 19, 2020
Can we argue that more people are longing to connect in their local languages? And is it true that 17 million people worldwide have no reason to connect…
Therefore, the million dollar question is: Could this abrupt decline be an indicator that people now prefer their native languages online over English, considering that less than 15% of the world population speaks English as their first language?
Swahili: Does it reach the world?
Swahili is recognized as one of the official languages of the African Union, along with English, Portuguese, French, Spanish, and Arabic. Swahili is also the lingua franca of the Member States of the East African Community.
Rwanda, a member of the East African Community, saw its legislative lower house pass a law in 2017 that made Swahili an official language, in addition to Kinyarwanda, French and English. In addition to being used for administrative purposes, Swahili will be incorporated into the Rwandan school program.
In Uganda, the Government approved in September 2019 the establishment of the National Swahili Council. Article 6, paragraph 2, of the Ugandan Constitution also states that “Swahili shall be the second official language of Uganda to be used in circumstances prescribed by Parliament by law”.
In 2018, South Africa, which has 11 official languages, formalized Swahili as an optional subject in its study program, starting in 2020. In 2019, the South African Development Community adopted Swahili as its fourth official language.
Swahili Invisibility Online
Despite the fact that Swahili is the most widely spoken African language, with approximately 150 million speakers, mostly in East Africa, the Great Lakes region, southern Somalia, and parts of southern Africa, its online visibility is regrettable.
John Walubengo, a professor at the Kenya Multimedia University, states in an opinion piece in the Kenyan newspaper The Nation, that the lack of online linguistic and cultural diversity creates a “society with a 'tunnel' view of the world”.
Walubengo predicts that most indigenous cultures end up surrendering “their identities to the 'English way' of doing things.” This sad reality can only be reversed if indigenous civilizations “struggle to preserve their identities both online and offline,” he says.
Join our co-founder for a Tweetchat on identity, language and digital rights in Africa starting tomorrow.
For Swahili, visit https://t.co/pjjxAsMAva https://t.co/pvHOpbxi6x
– Center for Youth Empowerment and Leadership (CYEL) (@cyelke) May 17, 2020
Join our co-founder for a Twitter conversation about identity, language and digital rights in Africa starting tomorrow.
For Swahili, visit https://sw.globalvoices.org/2020/04/matrikiutambulisho-mazungumzo-ya-twita-yanayoangazia-utambulisho-na-haki-za-kidijitali-barani-africa/……
But not everything is sadness and doom. There are some dedicated organizations in the front line of promoting and developing Swahili online.
Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN)
ICANN, the global multi-stakeholder organization that coordinates the Internet Domain Name System (DNS), Internet Protocol (IP) addresses and autonomous system numbers, instituted Internationalized Domain Names (IDNs) that allow People use domain names in local languages and scripts.
Ideally, they should be formed with characters from different alphabets, such as Arabic, Chinese, or Cyrillic. They are then encoded by the Unicode standard and used as permitted by the relevant IDN protocols, a set of standards defined by the Internet Architecture Board and its subsidiary groups; Internet Engineering Task Group and Internet Research Task Group.
Universal Acceptance Steering Group (UASG)
UASG is a community team of industry leaders, supported by ICANN, that prepares online communities for the next billion internet users. This is accomplished through a process known as Universal Acceptance that ensures that Internet applications and systems treat all top-level domains and email messages based on those domains in a consistent manner, including those in non-Latin languages and that are more than three characters in length. Universal Acceptance serves digital natives around the world in their local languages and with domain names that better align with their cultural identities. Hence, a multilingual internet is promoted.
This nonprofit organization provides a community-produced wiki on the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) and internet governance, and over time has partnered with organizations, educational institutions and individuals in Kenya. and Tanzania. This has enabled East Africans to build, translate, and add wiki resources in their own vision, language, and perspective.
This initiative in Swahili, of which I have personally been a part, has greatly bridged the information gap on internet governance issues by localizing ICANNWiki content to promote local engagement in target communities.
is a global community of volunteer collaborators who support the translation and adaptation of digital security tutorials and tools such as TOR, Signal, OONI, Psiphon. These technologies address security, privacy, and anonymity online and ensure that indigenous language activists have safe spaces to access information online. Localization Lab has translated over 60 of these security tools into more than 180 different languages and dialects around the world, including Swahili.
Kondoa Community Network (KCN)
KCN is the first community network to experiment with the use of white space television (TVW), “wireless technology that uses unused parts of the radio spectrum in the 470 to 790 MHz frequency band” to address internet connectivity in areas rural Tanzania. KCN empowers the rural population to create and host local content appropriate to their context.
Matogoro Jabhera, founder of KCN and professor at Dodoma University, Tanzania, told Global Voices in a Skype call that he believes local content provides an incentive for “more (of) the unconnected population” to connect to internet because they can be related to “your local news (…) compared to the current situation, in which most of the content is in English”.
The 'next billion' of multilingual users on the internet
The world anticipates the connection of the “next billion internet users” and 17 million of those users are projected to connect online and use the language as their digital identity.
Therefore, the lack of sufficient local content could have adverse effects for digital inclusion. This will directly affect digital rights, to a large extent, access to the Internet, the right to access information online and the right to use their own indigenous language to create, publish and disseminate information and knowledge through the internet.
Therefore, it is essential to establish formidable action plans that promote the development of information and communication technology applications and services, and the use of local languages, to guarantee the digital inclusion of all.
This, complemented by measures such as the adaptation of digital training and learning materials and literacy programs in information and communication technologies in rural areas, is likely to stimulate a digital revolution, and thus promote the digital rights of internet users and bridge the digital divide.
Ultimately, this process will accelerate the protection, respect and promotion of “all African and minority languages on the Internet”, as set out in the principles of the African Declaration on Internet Rights and Freedom.