As techies talk things AI we’re coining Kiswahili lexicon for it

Monday December 11 2023

The Google Bard web page seen on screen with Google AI on mobile during the launches. PHOTO | JONATHAN RAA | NURPHOTO via AFP


Last week, when talking about what I see as the biggest danger of AI for Tanzania, I said that “we are a credulous people.” There is more to it than that. We don’t value social scientists, so we’re not used to people reminding us in the public dialogue that modern African living has psychological, cultural and social complexities that have carried over from colonialism.

We live in multiple worlds, all at once, make contradictions work. We have traditions that compete with contemporary values, religions that have decimated indigenous belief systems and replaced most of them with alternatives like “witchcraft” that are devoid of the sa-cred.

We are robbed of the intricate truths of our long, long histories and thrust into the periphery of a “rational” capitalist world, which even those living in the Imperial Core know does not value human life. And we are encouraged to shunt aside our deep knowledge systems and natural science practices for technology and intellectual products that we have not designed but are practically coerced to con-sume.

Read: EYAKUZE: When the created become the creator

And so, to cope with all of this, we have to learn to live with schisms in our logic, in our social reality. In Tanzania this means being a socialist ruling party with a clear capitalist agenda and a rent-seeking political elite. It means going to choir practice on Sunday and gossiping with your friend about what your witch doctor told you to do about your marital problems.

“Affordable” social media packages offered by the telecoms DO NOT include access to the internet, resulting in far too many people thinking that “mtandao” means only social media sites. How does one verify anything if you can’t even Bing information you got from your over-subscribed WhatsApp group?


Worst of all, after we buried loved ones who died from atypical pneumonia because “Tanzania didn’t have Covid,” we truly crossed into a post-truth existence.

Does this sound like a human collective with the intellectual, social, spiritual resources to cope proactively with the encounter with artificial intelligence?

We can adapt most received technologies into the much-needed rehabilitation process of this our development agenda.

But AI is a different sort of beast. The telephone did not have “black boxes,” which could confound Alexander Graham Bell, nuclear fission and fusion cannot rewrite its own code. Some of the tech community is even beginning to talk about AI in terms of consciousness, while Tanzania continues to work on creating a lexicon for words like “computer” and “artificial intelligence” in Kiswahili.

Read: EYAKUZE: Is it really easy to mimic humanness?

As much as I love our national language, technological and scientific terms — and therefore intrinsic understanding and thinking — do not come naturally at all. A beautiful analog language in a digital world.

So, this is the context. What is going to happen? A lot of shenanigans, to be sure. But I think we might have a particular set of qualities, common to most poor nations and African societies, that might just prove to be a source of resilience and even opportunity and growth. I’ll tell you about it next week.