As we speak, BBC, Twitter have taken our tongues

Monday May 14 2018

BBC launched the Pidgin digital service for

BBC launched the Pidgin digital service for West African audiences. It cleaned out. But the thing had been sitting there for decades, asking to be taken, and we (Africans) did nothing. PHOTO GRAB | BBC 

By CHARLES ONYANGO-OBBO
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Social media platform Twitter now offers translation Swahili.

Big deal? Yes, but not for the reasons many might think. This is not a victory for the East Africans who agitated for years for Twitter to offer Swahili translation. It is a victory for Twitter.

It’s estimated that there are over 100 million Swahili speakers in East and Central Africa. Swahili is spreading fast into Somalia, and as the populations of eastern African countries and Democratic Republic of Congo explode in the years to come, Swahili is set to grow.

A Swahili translation will boost traffic to Twitter, and by the same token make it difficult to grow any Swahili social-media-like platform in the region. It’s our fault, not Twitter’s.

At the beginning of the 2000s, when Africa started “happening” again, as it emerged from the debilitating effects of the Cold War, and in the giddiness of a post-apartheid southern Africa in which then president Thabo Mbeki spoke euphorically of an “African Renaissance,” visions started floating around of giant pan-African knowledge and information organisations.

By 2005, there was agreement that the continent needed its own “African BBC” or “African CNN.” There were many efforts, which all failed spectacularly for reasons that are too embarrassing to go into here.

From about 2010 we started clutching at any sign that came along of tech startups that promised to be “the African Microsoft,” the “African Amazon,” or “African Google.” We are still waiting.

Instability, political pigheadedness, corruption, repression and quite a bit of narrow-minded cultural nationalism combined to hamper us.

I don’t know what the figures are today, but a short while back I read about the numbers of Africa users of the BBC’s Somali Service, its Kinyarwanda, and Hausa language service, and they were almost impossible to believe.

Its Hausa website alone had more visits than any other African online platform. And it seemed that at some point, virtually anyone who spoke and could access the Kinyarwanda and Somali services did so.

Not too long ago, the BBC launched the Pidgin digital service for West African audiences. It has cleaned out. There were howls of protest, and maybe rightly so. How could a mzungu sitting in London, think of starting a Pidgin service; Pidgin perhaps the only other thing that is more West African than fufu?

But the thing had been sitting there for decades, asking to be taken, and we did nothing.

In many ways, services like the BBC are probably more entrenched in this digital age, than they were in the analogue era when we were plotting to supplant them with our own Africa variety.

Today, Facebook and Google are doing more tinkering to bring affordable internet to poorly served parts of the continent than most African governments and companies.

Africa’s internet users continue to grow, but they still download less than 10 per cent of African content. And as a percentage of total internet content, Africa’s contribution is still smaller than a spit.

Things like Swahili translations are great for surfing more African content and engagement, but they don’t give us ownership of it. We can win this war to organise African knowledge, but first we need to realise that right now we are losing all the important battles.

Charles Onyango-Obbo is publisher of data visualiser Africapaedia and Rogue Chiefs. [email protected]