Digital humanities work in and about Africa poses numerous research challenges and issues. Some of these are technical as a result of differences in economic development and technological capacity or language. Others are cultural and involve the meaning of digital technologies and digital cultural products in different societies and for different peoples. Deeply engaged in a wide variety of projects in West and South Africa, the scholars associated with MATRIX are committed to exploring both of these dimensions of digital humanities research issues.
On the technical side, we face the challenge of creating digital resources that meet expectations of scholars in both the north, where there is ample bandwidth, as well as in Africa, where bandwidth may be limited or excessively expensive. This creates demand for image and document files of different formats and sizes. While taking full advantage of advances in the Internet available to some scholars, MATRIX also looks for ways to implement digital projects about Africa in ways that do not widen the digital divide.
Use of African languages in digital projects is another challenge. English is by far the dominant language on the Web, but there is much to be lost by ignoring African-language texts and the needs of learners and scholars who speak African languages as well as scholars of Africa who seek to learn these languages. MATRIX seeks African content in indigenous languages to address the under-representation of these materials on the Web. In an NSF-funded project, MATRIX has worked with audio and text materials in Pulaar (also Fulfulde), addressing issues of optical character recognition, character encoding, markup language, and synchronized audio and text presentation. In a second project funded by the U.S. Department of Education, MATRIX is working with handwritten documents in Ajami, the centuries-old practice of using modified Arabic scripts to write non-Arabic languages. Some of these documents are presented with scholars reciting the text and also with written translations.
International collaborations with African partners involving primary materials require careful attention to copyright ownership and sensitivities to “extraction” of intellectual resources from the African continent. Careful consultation and partnering with African humanities and social science scholars, archivists and librarians is crucial to such work. MATRIX is committed to principles of reciprocity and to developing and publicizing best practices in partnerships in our work in Africa. Our work on “best practices” emphasizes the importance of access. One of the greatest promises of the Internet is to give voice to many whose voices had previously been silenced.
Papers and Presentations
Representing Pulaar Digitally, by Bartek Plichta and David Robinson, 2002.
Disparate Voices, Conflicting Responsibilities:Reflections on the History of Oral History and the Implications of the Digital Age, presentation by Mark Kornbluh and David Bailey at 14th International Oral History Conference, July 12-16, 2006, in Sydney, Australia.