African Languages Grow as a Wikipedia Presence
By NOAM COHEN
Published: August 26, 2006
At the second annual Wikimania conference, held this year at Harvard Law School, there was what might be considered a quintessential Wikipedian moment: as Martin Benjamin, a researcher at Yale University, gave a talk about the Swahili dictionary he is creating online, Ndesanjo Macha was simultaneously sitting in the audience using a Wi-Fi connection and laptop to put the finishing touches on his Wikipedia entry, "Martin Benjamin," in Swahili.
It was just the 1,025th article written for the Swahili version of Wikipedia (sw.wikipedia.org), the online, open-source encyclopedia founded five years ago by Jimmy Wales, and the fifth Mr. Macha had written that weekend in Cambridge, Mass.
In founding Wikipedia, Mr. Wales has said, he aimed to create "a free encyclopedia for every person on the planet in their own language," a goal he has defined as having 250,000 entries in every language spoken by more than a million people.
But while larger Wikipedias, like those written in English (1,377,015 entries and counting) and French (348,243 entries), wrestle with questions of accuracy and vandalism, as well as the imposition of limits on who can create and edit entries, smaller Wikipedias face more basic questions: How do you create an online encyclopedia when few native speakers have access to the Internet? What use is an encyclopedia when literacy rates among a language’s speakers can approach zero? (This is not a problem for Swahili.) And who should control the content of an encyclopedia in a local language if not enough native speakers are moved, or able, to contribute?
If only native speakers of Swahili had contributed to that version, the Wikipedia might not exist at all. Though Mr. Macha, 36, who trained as a lawyer in Tanzania and is now director of the largest Boys and Girls Club in Greensboro, N.C., is a major source of entries, none of the other primary contributors grew up speaking the language: "One is German, one is in Texas, and one is in Canada," said Mr. Macha, who was the only African — or African-American — to attend the entire three-day conference.
"They are all white, and to me it is very interesting — it shows that the world is not flat, that the world is still round," he said. "We have allies, people who are willing to help us, but we need to be in charge of our own identity. When it comes to producing information, we don’t want to be dependent."
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