Tuesday update #3: ‘Oral literature in Africa’ available for free download

Ruth Finnegan, anthropologist and emeritus professor of sociology at England’s Open University, agreed to digitalise her seminal book ‘Oral Literature in Africa’ under a CC-BY license. This allows students of African studies, academics and interested readers, to download the e-book for free, thus broadening access to this remarkable piece of scholarship.

Oral Literature in Africa

First published in 1970, ‘Oral Literature in Africa’ had since gone out of print and was only available at some selected libraries. Even when ordering a physical copy was still an option, the price was so prohibitive that Ruth Finnegan’s book hardly made it into the hands of scholars on the African continent.

Crowdfunding campaign

Thanks to a successful crowdfunding campaign led by the start-up unglue.it, the book was not only saved from oblivion but propelled to near universal accessibility. It is now downloadable for free in mobi, epub and pdf format, thus enabling anyone with an Internet connexion to enjoy its content.

Under the CC-BY Creative Commons license, Finnegan’s work can be shared, reproduced, translated, quoted – the only condition being to give the author due attribution. She is convinced that this choice is completely in line with her mission as an academic…of the modern age:

Yet it seems to me that open access represents the future for academic publication. It is a form of free knowledge-dissemination, using the new opportunities afforded by the web, and is very much in keeping with the open and democratising spirit of The Open University.

And the e-book version is not without its perks – besides being free and accessible to all online. This new edition of ‘Oral Literature in Africa’, which is also the first title of the World Oral Literature Series, has been livened up by a new introduction as well as extra media, including photographs and original recordings collected in Sierra Leone in the 1960s. These precious appendices could not have been part of the book in 1970 due to obvious technical limitations at the time, and had thus far remained unpublished.

An ode to literary creativity

In ‘Oral Literature in Africa’, Ruth Finnegan explores themes common to anthropology, linguistics and sociology, debunking commonly held conceptions of the time and reestablishing the relevance of studying the oral arts of Africa with as much rigour as any other form of artistic expression. The author certainly was and remains committed to doing so.

Even though it is not per se part of the central argument, literary creation is placed against the particular linguistic background of Africa. In the introductory section of the book, Finnegan outlines the range of literary devices afforded by African languages, taking the Bantu group as an example.

For anyone who has ever juggled with multiple noun classes and verbal derivatives, it is illuminating to see these language parts coming together to aid literary creation. We enter a world where personification is only a prefix away, where verb gymnastics transform the mood of a scene, and where a whole story hides in a name.

But the scope for creative expression does not end there. One of the most striking features of Bantu languages is their generous use of ideophones in story-telling. Ideophones are words – most often interjections – whose sound brings to life an idea. Used to add texture and intensity to the tale, they can portray sounds but also, more surprinsingly, the rhythm of an action, colour, smell, character etc.

Here are my favourite examples of ideophones from the Shona language, as presented p. 66-67:

k’we—sound of striking a match.

nyiri nyiri nyiri nyiri—flickering of light on a cinema screen.

go, go, go, ngondo ngondo ngondo, pxaka pxaka pxaka pxaka pxaka—the chopping down of a tree, its fall, and the splintering of the branches. (Fortune, 1962)

…and some Zulu ideophones:

khwi—turning around suddenly.

dwi—dawning, coming consciousness, returning sobriety, easing of pain, relief.

ntrr—birds flying high with upward sweep; aeroplane or missile flying.

bekebe—flickering faintly and disappearing.

khwibishi—sudden recoil, forceful springing back.

fafalazi—doing a thing, carelessly or superficially.

ya—perfection, completion            (Fivaz 1963)

The poetic potential of Bantu languages is exposed with such delicate eloquence that the thought kept me awake at night, murmuring bits of poems I had memorised from the book.

Beyond orality

Forty years after the book that essentially pioneered the field of ethnography of language, Ruth Finnegan published ‘The oral and beyond: doing things with words in Africa’. She looks back at almost half a century of research on orality, reviewing the intellectual debates taking place since the 1960s and opening up new perspectives for the study of orality, notably by questioning the long-held perception of Africa as the ‘oral continent’.

If you want to help unglue more books, have a look at the active campaigns and consider supporting the digitalization of a book under Creative Commons.

Photo credit: AttributionNoncommercialShare Alike Raymond Yee

Tuesday update #2: isiZulu newspaper Isolezwe, a South African success story

Launched in 2002 in its paper edition and in 2004 online, Isolezwe is a leading South African daily newspaper in isiZulu. The site is targeting both isiZulu speakers in search of news in their language (potentially over 11 million people) and learners of the language seeking reading material.

Known for using a more popular form of isiZulu than its competitor Ilanga, Isolezwe is meant to appeal to the Zulu speakers of today who live in an increasingly urbanised, modern environment. Here is former editor Thulani Mbatha’s take on his readership:

Our readers have always known they were Zulu, we’ve just managed to cater for the modernising Zulu. Someone who may go back home to the rural areas to slaughter a cow to the amadlozi [ancestors], but is as equally comfortable taking his family out for dinner and a movie in a shopping mall.

The isiZulu newspaper is a publishing phenomenon in South Africa, registering no less than 112 648 single-copy sales in the second quarter of 2012 and showing very promising growth. Isolezwe’s success is attributed to its tabloid format distilling a heady mix of entertainment, local football, but also issues related to religious belief, feel-good success stories and … very little politics!

The clout of the newspaper is such that stories penned by Isolezwe music chronicler Charles Khuzwayo are said to have contributed to the reconciliation of two maskandi artists who were embroiled in a conflict. In October this year, Khuzwayo won the Best Journalist award in the print category at the South African Traditional Music Awards (SATMAs).

All this augurs well for the development and the spread of isiZulu which is the mother tongue of 22.7 % of the South African population according to the 2011 census (pdf). But what of the other eight official indigenous languages of South Africa? The South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) offers news and various programs in all official languages, with radio stations being the most dynamic in promoting even minority, non official languages.

However, English dominates almost all spheres of communication, despite being spoken natively by only 8 % of South Africans. According to The Economist:

Not only is [English] the medium of business, finance, science and the internet, but also of government, education, broadcasting, the press, advertising, street signs, consumer products and the music industry. For such things Afrikaans is also occasionally used, especially in the Western Cape province, but almost never an African tongue. The country’s Zulu-speaking president, Jacob Zuma, makes all his speeches in English. Parliamentary debates are in English. Even the instructions on bottles of prescription drugs come only in English or Afrikaans.

In a South Africa witnessing the decline of its African languages, Isolezwe’s popularity is a sign that there is still a strong potential for isiZulu media.


We conclude this second Tuesday update in music, with late maskandi artist Bhekumuzi Luthuli :

More on South Africa’s languages on BBC Radio 4: Our language in your hands with anthropologist and linguist Dr Mark Turin

Education Apps for All…in ALL languages

iLearn4free is an organisation whose  mission is to ‘support language diversity in education by encouraging and enabling the creation of digital applications for literacy‘. Taking advantage of the World Literacy Day (8th of September 2012), it launched the Education Apps for All challenge to bring about collaborations between apps developers and educators around the theme of elementary education.

The apps selected will be judged according to their relevance to elementary schools’ education, adaptability to different languages, usability, user interaction design as well as user engagement. Each team must include at least one educator and present an app in two different languages, with a possibility to eventually extend its use to other languages. Submissions shall start on 15th October 2012 and the winners will be announced on International Mother Tongue Day, i.e. 23rd February 2013.

The stated objective is to expand the range of digital educational tools available in languages other than English.

Part of iLearn4Free’s mission is to develop the free resource library Art4Apps :

We hope to help developers and educators create applications for educational use at a low cost through the use of our resources. The primary objective in sharing this database is to promote apps development in the field of literacy in an effort to support and sustain the diversity among world languages.

Following numerous user requests, Art4Apps is looking for linguists specialising in the Tooro / Rutooro language, spoken in western Uganda. If you are competent and interested, do get in touch with iLearn4Free to participate in this innovative project.

You can connect with iLearn4Free on Twitter (@iLearn4Free) or on their blog to read the latest updates and offer your contribution!

Informations pour les francophones sur le blog SecouezLeCours.

From Metaglossia: Web Resources for African languages seeks volunteer to maintain the site

Below, I reblog Guy De Pauw’s call to volunteer for the website ‘Web Resources for African Languages’:

Dear colleagues,

A while ago, we took over the wonderful web site “WEB RESOURCES FOR AFRICAN LANGUAGES” (www.africanlanguages.org) from Jouni Maho with the intention of converting it to a format similar to “African Language Technology” (AfLaT.org). Much to our regret and due to reasons of time, we have not been able to maintain and update these pages. We are now looking for an enthusiastic volunteer to take over the maintenance of the site and the (popular) domain name. If necessary, we can also still host the site on the AfLaT-server, free of charge.

Let us know at guy [at] aflat [dot] org if you’re interested in this endeavour.

Kind regards

Guy De Pauw.

Reblogged from Metaglossia

Swahili: online resources in and about Kiswahili

If you have ever endeavoured to learn a couple of African languages or happen to have an interest in them – of whatever nature it may be – you are surely not without knowing that locating resources can be a huge challenge…sometimes even more so here in Africa than in, say, London! Books, in particular, can be hard to come by and one would hope that the Internet becomes an instrument of promotion of African languages in the near future.

Kiswahili enjoys a considerable online presence, which is not ultimately surprising given the international dimension of the language. Below are some links to websites I have come across and have deemed worth sharing :

  • News websites

BBC Swahili is an excellent reference point to follow up on East African as well as international news. It is not as comprehensive as the English site but it is still fairly well-documented. You might also enjoy the occasional audio ‘mjadala‘ (debate) that gathers participants from around the Swahiliphone world, as I like to call it.

Global Voices Online publishes blog reviews from around the world and articles about citizen media. I find it to be a great alternative source of information to traditional media.

[The Kiswahili page of Global Voices Online seems to have stalled of late, probably due to a shortage of volunteer translators.]

Word on the cyber street is that Al Jazeera is about to launch a Kiswahili channel! I don’t know about you but I am really thrilled by the prospect of watching AJ in Kiswahili.

  • Learning Resources

When browsing the Swahili-language web, I always have the Kamusi Project open in a separate tab. Kamusi means dictionary and this is exactly what you can expect from this website: translation of words from Swahili to English and vice versa, alternative meanings, examples of words in context and etymology, all packed into one.

Wikipedia ya Kiswahili is the most extensive Swahili-language website I know of, gathering over 22,000 articles to date. Always a bastion of diversity, the open encyclopaedia is one of my favourite resources in Kiswahili: I often spend delightful hours hopping from one article to the next…

For those interested in Swahili culture, I recommend following @Swahili_Methali on Twitter. This tweep regularly posts Swahili proverbs along with their English translation.

  • Blogs

Mjengwa shares news of Tanzania through poignant pictures and assorted texts.

Kisima cha Fikra is a blog expressing Reggy’s personal take on life and politics. The right menu provides a number of links to other blogs in Swahili that you might want to have a look at.

Tazama uzuri wa Afrika!

I would like to address a word of thanks to Oliver Stegen (@babatabita) for kindly introducing me to the Tanzanian blogging scene. Do check out his website as well: it is full of insightful articles beckoning you to download and read them!

The list is obviously non-exhaustive. If you feel there is a website or a blog that should be featured here, please contact me and I’ll be happy to add it to the list.