Editor's Note: This essay was written in the wake of a Twitter campaign organized by the Global Voices team from Sub-Saharan Africa 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 project “Identity matrix: platform for regulating threats to online expression in Africa”.
A few weeks ago, I received by WhatsApp an audio message and a video about COVID-19 in bambara. In its 26 seconds, the audio claimed that the virus was created in a laboratory by targets.
The second file, this video, was about an alleged herbal treatment for coronavirus. For almost two minutes, a man showed a bottle filled with a colorless liquid, which cures COVID-19, according to him.
This misinformation is widespread among the Mandinga community and, unfortunately, people believe it.
With a population of 11 million people, the Mandinga ethnic group encompasses the countries of Guinea, Ivory Coast, Mali, Senegal, The Gambia and Guinea-Bissau in West Africa.
Mandenká (also called mandinka, malinké, mandé or manden) is a tonal language but with different varieties spoken in West African countries: in Mali it was called Bambara / Bamanankan, in the Ivory Coast and in Burkina Faso it known as Dioula, in Guinea as Malinké while in Senegal and the Gambia it is called Mandingo.
“Who cares about misinformation or misinformation in a minority language like Bambara?”
There has been a large public discourse on misinformation on news channels, particularly in international languages such as French and English, and in the main African languages.
That's because misinformation, or misinformation, has a huge impact on people's lives: the inability to distinguish reality from falsehood is the challenge of our times. In the case of COVID-19, this information and propaganda are the biggest obstacle in the fight against the virus, especially in Africa.
But who cares about disinformation in a minority language like Bambara?
There is currently no control mechanism to trace false information in Bambara. Communities have not been told that platforms like WhatsApp and Facebook are potential vehicles for fake news.
This is a big problem in many African languages like Bambara. Unwittingly, people spread false news because they don't realize the danger. They cannot imagine someone writing or recording something that would be false.
The disinformation in bambara is spread through various digital platforms, such as Facebook and WhatsApp, and has become more evident with the COVID-19 pandemic. Some examples are that Africans are immune to the virus or that this disease affects only the wealthy, others claim that the virus does not exist. Those lies delay the application of protective measures against the new coronavirus.
The credible media essaient de combattre les fake news en consacrant des émissions au coronavirus dans les langues locales comme le #bambara
– GV SSAfrica (@gvssafrica) April 30, 2020
Reliable media try to combat fake news with programs dedicated to coronavirus in local languages like Bambara.
Misinformation about COVID-19 had already taken hold among bambara users in some countries before authorities launched awareness campaigns such as maintaining social and physical distance in public places. For example, Burkina Faso's Minister of Communication, Rémi Djandjinou, explains (as the video from the tweet below shows) in Bambara the hygiene measures to combat the coronavirus.
– GV SSAfrica (@gvssafrica) April 30, 2020
For example, in this video the Burkina Faso Minister of Communication tries to explain in bamaba, dioula, the barrier gestures against the coronavirus. It is good but not enough.
Linguistic inclusion and the fight against false news online
There is a similarity between the dissemination of false information and the transmission of COVID-19.
Someone receives false news from a digital platform, consults them and then spreads them with a dozen people, who do the same with others and soon the message goes viral.
In the case of the coronavirus, one person can infect more than five people, according to a recent study by Steven Sanche and another five scientists from the Los Alamos National Laboratory, United States. Infected people will also pass the disease on to others.
Recently, due to the massive dissemination of disinformation, WhatsApp imposed a limit on the sending of a message to contain the spread of rumors or viral messages that lead to disinformation.
In August 2019, Facebook partnered with Africa Check, a non-profit media organization, to integrate more African languages into the fight against fake news: Yoruba and Ingbo (Nigeria), Swahili (Kenya and Tanzania), Wolof (Senegal), Afrikaans, Zulu, Setswana, Sotho, Northern Cotho and Southern Ndebele (South Africa).
Unfortunately, there is no project for bambara.
– Kpénahi Traoré (@Kpenahiss) May 13, 2020
The many languages that are missing on the internet.
English and several other languages dominate the internet, but this leaves indigenous cultures without a voice online. Now they are fighting to get their languages online.
It's time for local African languages like Bambara to take their place on the internet. Many languages are missing on the internet. African languages matter.
Recently, I asked an Africa Check journalist in Senegal why Bambara was not considered in collaboration with Facebook about African languages. He said that since neither he nor his colleagues were Bambara-speaking users, they cannot check the disinformation in that language.
Unfortunately, it was a missed opportunity to work on a specific project to identify and verify disinformation in Bambara.
Bambara is hardly considered in most international interventions unlike Yoruba and Igbo (Anglophone African languages). Frequently, the African languages of the French-speaking countries are forgotten in local language development projects.
A new respite to bambara on digital platforms
At RFI (Radio France International) where I work, the Bambara newsroom is broadcast online. This is a project of a French public media and not an initiative of the Bambara-speaking nations.
Digital platforms can breathe new life into that language and display it as a dynamic language. There are few projects or initiatives to promote bambara on the internet.
Coleman Donaldson, a linguistic anthropologist at the University of Hamburg, is the founder of An ka taa (“Let's Go”), an online project that teaches bambara. An ka taa also makes information about Bambara-speaking cities, such as Bamako or Bobo Dioulasso, available online. It is an ambitious project without profit and without financial support from the institutions.
For example, in Mali and Burkina Faso, traditional local media promote bambara. Although they want to be visible online, they cannot because they do not have internet access.
Je souhaite qu'un jour les locuteurs du bambara puisse des espaces de discussion sur internet, des espaces qui prennent pleinement en compte l'orthographe et l'évolution du vocabulaire de la langue, que bambara évolue avec le monde #identitymatrix
– GV SSAfrica (@gvssafrica) May 1, 2020
I hope that one day Bambara speakers will find a place for online discussion, a space that considers spelling and vocabulary evolution, that Bambara will evolve with the world. Identity matrix.
Another obstacle is that digital technologies are not intended for African languages, although the “choice to create and disseminate information through the internet” in one's own language is a digital right of the language, as established in the Declaration on the Rights and Freedom on the Internet ”in Africa.