Sat, Feb 19, 2005 - Page 16 News List

`Kompyuta' literacy spreads quickly, but translates in a uniquely East African way

Only about 1 percent of the population of East Africa owns a "kompyuta." This is what a computer is called in Kiswahili.

Internet cafes are quickly spreading across the country but in order to benefit from this technology you need to know English. In East Africa, computer programs are sold in English only.

UNESCO estimates about 90 percent of the world's approximately 6,000 languages are not available on the Internet.

But in Africa there is change in the air. The search engine Google now offers an interface in Kiswahili. By the middle of the year, Microsoft plans to introduce Windows and Office versions in the same language.

Kiswahili is spoken by about 100 million people in six countries, making it worth the effort. "We want to give more people in Africa access to computers," says Patrick Opiyo, Project Manager at Microsoft in Nairobi.

The history of Kiswahili goes back to the times when Arabic seamen traded with the Bantu population. Since the upper classes in the former British colonies continued to speak English, Kiswahili modernized only slowly.

For many terms in the world of compu-ters, no separate Kiswahili word has established itself, as yet.

"You can see that clearly with the word kompyuta, a term derived from the English, of course," says Opiyo. "Today, some people prefer to say tarakilishi instead, a word which comes from Kiswahili for `calculate.'"

Translating the [computer] mouse was not a problem: Kiswahili also uses the name for the animal.

In order to translate the approximately 3,000 office software terms, Microsoft has employed linguists from Uganda to Zanzibar.

People were encouraged to make suggestions for translations through the Internet.

Microsoft adopted this method from its competitor Linux, which writes whole programs with the help of volunteers. "When a new term is translated into a native language, the language stays alive," Opiyo says.

Opiyo would like like to take Africanization a step further. "I could imagine incorporating local sounds, as well, so that when a new e-mail arrives, you don't hear the sound of a bell but the beat of an African drum."

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