Reclaiming Space Expanding Voices from Africa Online

Attendees of the "Wikimania" in 2013.
Attendees in 2013 at the “Wikimania”, an international conference for users of the wiki projects operated by the Wikimedia Foundation, including “Wikipedia”. | Photo (detail): Alex Hofford © picture alliance / dpa

There is more content on “Wikipedia” about France than about all the states of Africa combined. The WikiAfrica Education initiative aims to counter that. Adama Sanneh, co-founder and CEO of the Moleskine Foundation, the organisation which founded this initiative, discusses the importance of adding African languages and histories to online databases and the global discourse.

By Adama Sanneh

What is important for the WikiAfrica Education initiative to achieve?

In the 1950s, the UNESCO published a resolution highlighting the need for the African continent to invest more in producing knowledge in African languages. The document stressed that Africa is the only continent in which education is delivered primarily in foreign languages. Although many African scholars had been saying this for years, it showed the international community recognised the importance of the issue. Flash forward roughly 70 years, and we see that this task which seemed highly complex, and in theory should be left to governments, is now an issue we can take into our hands thanks to technology. The idea is really to inspire a new generation of content producers from the African content and diaspora and contribute to rebalance the presence of knowledge in African languages online.

Oral history is important in Africa and written African history may not always be available for citations, complicating the process of adding entries to Wikipedia. In an era of fake news, what are possible solutions to allow the publishing of oral history while also not lowering the barrier for subjects where citing written sources is important?

Our work goes beyond Wikipedia. The wealth of knowledge produced by underrepresented communities can go beyond what Wikipedia is able to contain. The platform’s handling of oral history, for example, is still under development. More interestingly though, we live in an era where we can now generate fictitious citations for almost any statement. We are bombarded by citations. I don’t think that the solution is in the tools. Even a Wikipedia article can be misrepresented, misinterpreted or cited wrongly. The solution is inspiring a new generation that masters critical thinking and that has the capacity to understand these dynamics. The answer to fake news will be to educate and prepare humans. And that’s what WikiAfrica Education does. It helps to develops skills, not only technicalities. The only way we can keep up with technology is by continuing to develop and invest in ourselves.

One of your aims is to increase African perspectives of the continent’s history and challenge white or Western perspectives. In what ways is the gaze in online databases westernised?

As the world’s most used online encyclopaedia Wikipedia is often a useful proxy for what is collectively known about a topic. However, there’s more content on Wikipedia about France than about all the states of Africa combined. When we ask ourselves why, we can see it really comes down to two key things: who is writing this content and in which languages? The missing languages and voices from Africa go beyond the obvious lack of representation for the people and cultures online. It is also a missed opportunity for the world in terms of creativity. So many sensitivities, new ideas and content will be absent from global discourse, overlooked completely.

On the website of the Moleskine Foundation, the organisation which founded the WikiAfrica Education initiative, it says that you want to “enhance agency”. How does this happen through editing and adding information to Wikipedia or other knowledge-transfer-focused websites?

Writing a Wikipedia article is not only an element of writing about your passion, or a research exercise. It’s much more. This is because when you, your community and language, are underrepresented online and when you decide to write an article to contribute to filling this content gap, you are directly taking action to reclaim a space, to claim visibility for your people and to offer the world the wealth of knowledge and creativity that you possess. This is intrinsic to all of our programmes; all our work begins with a young person who has decided to learn more about themselves, and this person is both available and willing to develop the tools to start this journey. So through their interest in their own community, and ultimately therefore in themselves, they decide to share their knowledge and creativity impacting their wider community and the world at large. WikiAfrica Education allows you to do precisely this; it creates the space through which you can decide to take action and become a change-maker.

The WikiAfrica Education initiative aims at providing extensive information on the entire African continent, in as many African languages as possible. How do you decide which topics, histories, or countries to focus on next?

By way of the language and content gap, we’ve decided to contribute to a huge challenge that’s far bigger than us. It’s an enormous process, and there’s really no top down project mechanism here; we are navigating and experimenting. Having said that, there are a few solid constants. For example: everything we do is through partnerships, so our main goal is to get the right partners out of cultural and education organisations. As Moleskine Foundation, we have built a large network of cultural and creative organisations from around the continent and beyond. This is our first go-to place. We also try to open up and keep open calls, and open opportunities which spark new connections. Another key point is that we are not alone. We work alongside others who have also committed time, energy and resources to the creation of knowledge in African languages such as the likes of Wikimedia South Africa, Wikimedia Dagbani, Wikimedia Yoruba, Wikimedia Tanzania, and Ethale Publishing.

This year for the first time, we are experimenting with one overarching topic. We will run a series of online activities to spark knowledge creation, creativity, and activism across different communities from the continent producing content under the theme “Who we are”. This provokes the engaging communities to produce content that’s not only relevant for them, but intentional in the portrayal of their cultures online so as to leave space for a wholesome portrayal. , and it is hopefully just the starting point for a larger project.

Many of the writers during edit-a-thons –meetings, where numerous volunteers gather and publish a lot of content, are students, taught by experts. One problem is that Wikipedia requires citations for information, or else it might be marked as unreliable. How do you deal with this?

As said earlier, at the base of our approach, there are partnerships with cultural organisations who are experts in their subject matter and offer a curatorial angle. Through those partnerships, we ensure the students are surrounded by inspiring leaders and experts from that specific field. But we also ensure the organisations prepare sets of references. Probably the best example of this was collaborating with Constitution Hill in South Africa, the home of the South African constitution and preservers of their cultural heritage. During our programme, Constitution Hill curated the direction of the 120 articles to be produced so they spoke to the theme of “We the People” concerning protagonists in the struggle for freedom and democracy. They also ensured there was a pair of references per article, whilst participants were encouraged to find their own additional sources for the articles they produced. We saw the effectiveness of the approach after the articles accumulated almost 200,000 views within three months of creating them.

The interview was conducted by Juliane Glahn.