The words “facemask” and “hand sanitiser” are now familiar the world over, but for isiZulu speakers in South Africa those terms did not exist a year ago, until a group of volunteers took to the internet to create them.
From Wikipedia posts in indigenous tongues to digital word libraries, African language lovers are going online to preserve and create words and content for future generations – an effort that has been given added urgency by the coronavirus pandemic.
“Language is very important, it’s the tool we use to communicate our understanding of the world,” said Perrymason Adams, 39, an accountant in South Africa who volunteers with WikiAfrica, a project to increase Wikipedia content in African languages.
Volunteers for the WikiAfrica programme translate online content into nearly 20 African languages, including Twi, Swahili, Afrikaans and Dagbani, according to a spokeswoman from the Moleskine Foundation.
The translated articles have been viewed more than 500,000 times, says the nonprofit, which focuses on cultural projects and helps train translators across the continent.
At the start of the pandemic, the organisation’s officials noticed the amount of content about COVID-19 on Wikipedia in African languages was lacking, said chief executive officer and co-founder Adama Sanneh.
“So we created a campaign to say to all the African-language speakers from the continent (and) from the diaspora to say, ‘If you know the language, please translate some of this content from English or French or Portuguese’,” he said over Zoom.
Part of WikiAfrica is about “democratising information,” said Lwando Xaso, a lawyer and activist from Constitution Hill Trust, an organisation promoting the South African constitution that partnered with the programme.