The African Language Material Archive (ALMA)
In October 2000, UNESCO awarded a grant to the Council of American Overseas Research Centers (CAORC) for the feasibility phase of the Senegambian portion of the African Language Material Archive (ALMA). The West African Research Association, which originally conceptualized ALMA, was subcontracted to facilitate the necessary work. ALMA is an initiative that aims at increasing dissemination of, and access to materials published in indigenous African languages, thereby aiding the retention of vernacular literacy in Africa. The creation of ALMA involves the identification, collection, and digitalization of published materials and their subsequent production in both CD-ROM and web formats. The technical phase of the initiative will be carried out at the West African Research Center (WARC) in Dakar. Senegal and Gambia were chosen for the ALMA pilot since they share several prominent languages, Wolof, Pulaar, and Mandinka, in which publication has been plentiful. The proximity of publication sources to WARC will also enable for the efficient transfer of selected Senegalese and Gambian materials to the ALMA processing site. ALMA is part of the CAORC-sponsored American Overseas Digital Library, which aims to make inaccessible material available in electronic form to all audiences.
I visited Senegal and Gambia from March 7-19 in order to meet with the authors/publishers/editors of various kinds of materials published in Wolof, Pulaar, and Mandinka. These sources had been identified with the assistance of ALMA's consultants, Mr. Matar Baldeh in Gambia (a literacy specialist at Catholic Relief Services) and Dr. Amadou Hamady Diop in Senegal (a sociolinguist at the Centre de Linguistique Appliquée de Dakar). Many of the materials are also cited in the Répertoire des Manuels d'Education de Base Non Formelle (1999-2000 Version), a publication prepared by the Senegalese Direction de l'Alphabétisation et de l'Education de Base. In the company of the ALMA consultants, I met with several dozen individual authors and directors of NGO's specializing in literacy activities to explain in detail the initiative and to ask for permission to include some of their materials on the ALMA CD-ROM and website.
The consultants and I consider that these conditions will aid in the dissemination of both African language materials and information on the providers of these materials.
The materials that have been contributed so far to ALMA represent a wide range of genres and subject matter. They include: post-literacy materials (e.g. booklets on small enterprise activities, health, human rights, etc.); newspapers intended for, and sometimes edited by, the newly literate; religious materials (e.g. Koranic and Biblical texts); poetry; information on AIDS and its prevention; folktales and epics; African language translations of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; and articles on oral history and culture. These materials have been contributed by NGO's and academic institutions as well as by individuals who publish in Senegambian languages. We believe that once ALMA has a "product" on a CD-ROM and website, it is very likely that other sources will come forward to contribute their own materials.
During our discussions on ALMA, we generally met with great enthusiasm on the part of literary specialists once they understood the potential impact of ALMA on the promotion of a literate environment in their countries. While computers are as of yet unavailable to the overwhelming majority of the Senegalese and Gambian population, the advance of information technology in both Senegal and Gambia over the last few years has been enormous. Both Dakar and Banjul are full of cyber-cafes that are in high demand, mostly by high school and university students. But the importance of the internet has not escaped the notice of those in literacy classes although they have had little exposure to it. Many of the literacy people we spoke with seemed to feel that the creation of an African language archive NOW is important so that it is in place when computers become commonplace even in remote areas.
The Association pour le Développment de l'Education et la Formation en Afrique (ADEF) has gone the farthest in its exploration of the use of information technology for post-literacy purposes. In 2000, with the support of IDRC (Acacia Program) and the Direction de l'Alphabétisation et de l'Education de Base in Senegal, ADEF carried out an experimental program in which neo-literates in the Dakar area were trained to use computers and to access information through both the web and CD-ROM's. The materials they accessed were mostly summaries of African language materials that had been collected on CD-ROM. ADEF Director Alioune Danfa was delighted with the idea that such a program could be repeated with students accessing entire texts via the computer. The results of this experimental program were presented during the 25th National Literacy Week in Senegal at UNESCO-BREDA, Dakar.
It is also clear that the secondary audience for ALMA, non-African students and scholars of African languages, will greatly benefit by the existence of a centralized source of materials. The teachers of African languages that I have spoken to in the United States and France have been very enthusiastic about the curriculum development that such an archive would make possible.
All organizations and authors who have contributed materials to ALMA will receive several copies of the ALMA CD-ROM. They will also be made available upon request by others in the field of literacy, post-literacy, or education more generally in Africa, or by neo-literates themselves. This will be done through the West African Research Center. Preparing a press release and contacting Senegalese and Gambian journalists about the DC-ROM and website would be an effective way of informing the public about the existence of ALMA. Organizations and individuals outside of Africa who wish to obtain the CD-ROM will be able to purchase it at a small cost from WARC which will cover postage.
UNESCO has accepted our feasibility study and given its consent for the second phase of the project. Contributed materials will be scanned and then organized according to language, country, and subject matter (e.g. health, environment, folk tales, poetry, Koranic text, Biblical text, etc.). A brief summary of each item will be written in both English and French and three or four keywords will be indicated (language, country, subject matter, etc.). The texts themselves will be scanned as images since this is the easiest way to solve problems of "unconventional" characters. The summaries and keywords will be scanned as text, however, and will thus be searchable.
We anticipate that by the end of Summer 2001, the ALMA website will be functioning and we will be able to transfer the information on this website to UNESCO for production in CD-ROM form.
Leigh Swigart ALMA Director
To read the first 31 African Language publication, visit the site
This pilot application is a multilingual digital library of 31 electronic
publications in three West African Languages: Mandinka (10), Pulaar
(10) and Wolof (11). It covers educational cultural and development
themes of interest to neo-literates and basic readers speaking one of
these languages, and is intended principally for use in public libraries,
schools and post literacy programmes.
Additional copies of this CD-ROM are available free of charge within stocks from:
UNESCO Information Society Division