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Africans get tools to cross the digital divide

Sunday 26 September 2004

A few pioneering experts want to remove the English barrier so the continent can fully join the computer age, STEPHANIE NOLEN reports


JOHANNESBURG - Dwayne Bailey hears the question all the time. ’’Why bother translating software into isiZulu?’’ people ask him. ’’Who needs it? English is the language of global business — you’d be better off spending your energy teaching people English.’’

To which Mr. Bailey replies, quite simply, "Izixhobo kufuneka zisebenzele abantu, hayi abantu izixhobo. Isoftware sisixhobo ngoko ke kumele sisebenzele abantu ngolwimi lwabo lwasemzini!"

Mr. Bailey, a 33-year-old pioneer in software translation, typically declines to translate his reply, in isiXhosa, but it means: "Tools adapt to people not people to tools. Software is a tool, so it must adapt to people and their language."

His point, of course, is that English-based software is as impenetrable to isiXhosa speakers as is his reply to those who don’t speak the South African language.

Mr. Bailey is one of a small but determined group of computer geeks trying to translate open-source software into African languages, in an effort to reach the continent most isolated by the digital divide. There is presently no commercially produced software available in any of the hundreds of African languages, although Microsoft Corp. offers "supported" versions of its Windows program in Kiswahili and Afrikaans. (So, you can’t use the program in the languages, but you can set an English version to recognize words from an Afrikaans dictionary.)

Last week, Mr. Bailey’s group,, launched versions of the software Open Office (a free program that operates much like Microsoft Office) in Zulu, Afrikaans and Northern Sotho, the predominant languages in the three main language groups in South Africa — the first software to exist in any of those languages.

"In South Africa you have computer labs being rolled out into schools where kids don’t have English as a mother tongue," Mr. Bailey said. "And without translated software, you’re either saying, ’Learn English and then learn computers’ or ’Learn computers badly.’ "

Few other African countries are extending the reach of computers as far as South Africa, but the Internet is spreading across the continent. Software translation efforts are under way in Dar es Salaam for East Africa’s 130 million Kiswahili speakers, and in Kampala for Lugandan software that could be used by 12 million people.

All these initiatives use open-source software, which is typically developed by volunteers and shared freely. New users are encouraged to adapt the operating code to their own needs, to copy and disseminate it. The best-known piece of open-source software is the Linux operating system, whose proponents champion it as an alternative to Windows. Using open-source software means the translators have access to the code and do not have to worry about violating copyright.

The Zulu version of Mr. Bailey’s Open Office has an isiZulu interface — so instead of reading File, Edit, View and so in the menu bar of a word-processing document, the user sees those words in Zulu. The user doesn’t Save but rather Gcina. Anyone who wants it can download the software from the project website. Those who provide funds for the initiative include the South African government and the foundation of the continent’s lone astronaut, South African Mark Shuttleworth.

In Uganda, a small team of information-technology entrepreneurs is testing a Lugandan-language version of the open-source Web browser Mozilla, which they hope to have ready in two weeks. After that, they will get to work on a Lugandan version of Open Office.

"It’s harder than we thought," said Wire James, 30, who runs an IT company in Kampala. To do the translation, they must first have an agreed vocabulary, and then translate the thousands of strings of programming code that involve English words.

"With the digital divide, we tend to think it is only access to Internet or to computers. We look at the hardware side, but we forget that the interface to the human beings is one of the things that causes the divide," Mr. James said.

"A significant number of people [in Uganda] are literate only in local languages — they are locked up in a vacuum. They can’t use the computers; they would have to learn a foreign language first."

Small Internet cafés have opened up all over Uganda, he said, and surfing time has become quite cheap (about two cents a minute) but the English interface of most word-processing programs and Internet browsers keeps all but the well educated away.

The Kiswahili translation project, working on Open Office, is being run out of the computer science department of the University of Dar es Salaam, with funding from the Swedish government. Alberto Escuerdo, 31, a Spanish IT expert who is helping with the initiative, described how he has seen many efforts in recent years to take wireless Internet connections into remote regions of Africa and Asia, but "people can’t use them anyway, because of the cost of computers and the language."

Most African languages lack a technical vocabulary, and that presents some challenges for the translators. But Mr. Bailey said that many words that are used routinely have equivalents in a language such as isiZulu. Saving a file, for example, simply relies on the almost universal concept of keeping something. His translators used the concept of "secret" for "password." For specifically technical terms, however, such as "word processor" and "spreadsheet," they had to invent something.

Mr. James described the struggle to find words for such concepts as an Internet cookie. "Eventually we called it a kuki," he confessed, with a chuckle.

Mr. Escuerdo’s team has run into some challenges finding the right word. Take recycle bin, for example. In Tanzania, the concept of recycling is virtually unknown, and bins are a luxury item. One proposal was to Kiswahilize the term to "resikli bini." But the team instead took the concept of "a place where you put something to get rid of it in the penultimate step before destruction," and is considering instead calling the recycle bin, "the dark hole in the ground," a reference to where people in rural areas put waste.

"Do you want to write something that brings people into the IT world or something that means a 40-year-old Tanzanian is going to [understand] the computer?" he asked.

Mr. James hopes his team will eventually translate software into the 15 most common languages in Uganda (there are about 40), but for now they would be content with Lugandan.

Mr. Bailey’s team aims to have software available in all 11 of South Africa’s official languages by June; his program priorities are things such as e-mail and instant messaging, which will be useful to the largest number of people.

"It’s not even that expensive," he mused from his Pretoria office. "Maybe only 50,000 rand [about $10,000] to do Open Office. I don’t know why Microsoft hasn’t done it."

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