Bisharat's Vision
1. ICT in African languages for rural development in Africa

Bisharat! envisions ICT that can be used by the rural poor in Africa to their own benefit ...

... and the enhanced potential for knowledge generation in African languages.

Language is an important consideration for sustainable and appropriate development in multilingual societies ...

... and ICT offers new tools for development whose use, by their nature, involves choices of language.

The decision of whether, how, and to what extent to use African languages in ICT for rural development in Africa will have an impact on the relevance, quality, and sustainability of that development.

The idea for Bisharat grew out of a simple formula and the questions it evokes:

IK, ICT, & ANRM in the vernacular

On the surface this makes sense since:
  • IK, or "indigenous knowledge" - as part of a cultural and intellectual heritage - lives in and is expressed in the first languages of rural people.
  • In using ICT, or "information and communication technologies," one would naturally think to use the language(s) with which one is most familiar. This is such an obvious choice it barely gets noticed in the case of community radio or telephones.
  • ANRM, or agriculture and natural resource management, are the keys to livelihood, community, and hopefully improved quality of life for poor rural people. Here, too, people plan, learn, discuss, agree, disagree, collaborate, and work in the language(s) of their milieu.

Yet the current reality, in Africa as well as much of the global South, is incongruous:

  • IK has generally tended to be recorded and shared only in languages other than those of the people whose knowledge it originally was.
  • New ICTs, namely computers and the internet, emphasize international languages almost to the exclusion of the maternal languages of less advantaged peoples.
  • Most research, policymaking, and development programming relating to the lives and livelihoods of the rural poor tends to be carried on in languages that few if any of the people most affected speak, let alone read or write.

While the indigenous languages of Africa cannot replace the dominant international ones for international exchange or in many cases national communication, neither can languages of foreign origin supplant maternal languages. The extent to which the latter are marginalized in the processes of development and neglected in the expansion of ICT is the extent to which people's knowledge is underutilized and capabilities are hobbled.

What if IK could be recorded and analyzed in the maternal language of the people? ... if software permitted people to access information (even if via imperfect machine translation) and process ideas in their first languages? ... and if it were possible to more fully treat a range of issues concerning improving agriculture and enhancing natural resource management in the vernacular?

And beyond that, what if other applications of new technologies that native speakers of major languages take for granted could be explored in less widely spoken languages?

At this time, ICT emerges not only as an area for focus of use of language but also a factor that can enhance the ways diverse languages can be used, with implications for management of knowledge, cultural continuity & change, and social & economic development.

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