#IdentityMatrix: African languages and digital rights 

A woman from the Ndebele group in South Africa. Many indigenous groups and languages in South Africa lack representation online. Image by UN Photo/P Mugabane, January 1, 1988. (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Between April 20 to May 22, 2020, Global Voices sub-Saharan Africa in conjunction with Rising Voices hosted a Twitter conversation as part of the project, “The identity matrix: Platform regulation of online threats to expression in Africa”.

This project is funded by the Africa Digital Rights Fund of The Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa (CIPESA). 

For five weeks, five language activists from four African countries shared their perspectives on the intersection of African languages and digital rights in the continent.  

The activists curated their thoughts on the subject using five African languages like Bambara, Igbo, Khoekhoe, N|uu, Swahili, Yorùbá, in addition to French and English.

They also shared their personal experiences and insights using a language lens on challenges and threats to digital rights.

The conversations interrogated how threats to net neutrality marginalized digital content in African languages; the expansion of mis- and disinformation in African languages on various digital platforms and what companies or civil society are doing about it; the effects of a lack of affordable internet connectivity in places where there are large communities of speakers of an African language; the importance of and challenges for the right to access information in digital spaces in African languages. They also looked at corporate policies, as well as ongoing challenges that affect how citizens freely express themselves in their language.

Bambara language (Burkina Faso)

Si ni kɛnɛya (‘Longevity and health’), a Bambara/Jula language inscription on a bush taxi in Burkina Faso. Image and translation by Coleman Donaldson/An ka taa, used with permission.

There has been abundant public discourse on false information in news channels, particularly in international languages like French and English, and in major African languages. 

But who cares about mis- and disinformation in a minority language like Bambara? 

With no control mechanism to track fake information in Bambara — one of West Africa's languages — digital platforms like WhatsApp and Facebook are rife with disinformation.

Language activist Kpénahi Traoré reports: 

Khoekhoe and N|uu languages (South Africa)

South Africa has eleven official languages: nine are Bantu languages and two — Afrikaans and English — are foreign languages. 

But two first languages, Khoekhoe and Ncuuki (or N|uu) are neither recognized as a mother tongue, nor taught in South African schools, making it even more difficult to reverse the trend of language loss. 

Activist Denver Toroxa Breda leads a digital ‘language revolt’ against the erasure and extinction of these two first languages of South Africa.

Swahili (Kenya)

Swahili is the most widely spoken African language, officially recognized as one of the official languages ​​of the African Union (AU), alongside English, Portuguese, French, Spanish and Arabic. Swahili is also the lingua franca for East Africa Community (EAC) member states.

However, Swahili’s visibility online is dismal. 

Kenyan language activist Bonface Witaba is working to change this.

Yorùbá language (Nigeria)

Priestess at the Ọ̀ṣun shrine in southwestern Nigeria. Image by Carsten ten Brink, November 15, 2018 (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

Yorùbá is a tonal language spoken by some 30 million people in southwestern Nigeria, and in the neighboring countries of Benin, Togo and Sierra Leone. The language also has about 100,000 speakers in the United Kingdom and some 190,000 in the United States.

However, the Yorùbá language is relegated to the rear on the internet and often gets trampled or ignored in digital spaces.

Nigerian Yorùbá language activist Adéṣínà Ghani Ayẹni asserts that Èdè ẹni ni ìdánimọ̀ ẹni (one's language is one's identity). Hence, cultural and linguistic diversity online is a right for all languages.