Printer-friendly versionSend by emailPDF version

Despite rapid adoption of Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) into administration, education, media and several sectors of the economy, the greatest challenge remains on how the image of these new technologies could be altered to please the majority of the local population who still view them as tools designed for the minority elite.

East Africa: Kilinux OSS innovation Propels ICT Localization in Ki-Swahili

Despite rapid adoption of Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) into administration, education, media and several sectors of the economy, the greatest challenge remains on how the image of these new technologies could be altered to please majority of local population who still view them as tools designed for the minority elite.

The Internet and cellular phones are no doubt the world’s most spread modern ICT. The Internet however, is not penetrating deeper into Africa at a rate that cellular phones does. The majority of Africans particularly those in the rural areas can only communicate in local languages, and hence cannot use a computer let alone to comprehend the Internet contents even if they get access to it.

Kiswahili, for instance is the most popular local language of about 50 million people in east, southern and central Africa but has yet to absorb and develop its version of ICT vocabulary from the corresponding English, France and Portuguese versions, which are the languages of the former colonial powers in this region. This is the greatest challenge to a wide continuum of linguists and ICT experts in the region.

Already some academicians of the Kiswahili Research Institute (TUKI) in the University of Dar es Salaam in collaboration with the Swedish IT Consultancy firm namely IT + 46, have formed a team of scholars to deal with Open Ki-Swahili Localization project. The team is known as Kilinux (klnX), from combination of words – Kiswahili and Linux (http/ Dr. Hashim Twaakyondo, the head of the Computer Science Department of the University of Dar es Salaam, coordinates the team.

Early this year the project team unveiled to public their new edition of a Ki-Swahili spellchecker ( The spellchecker works natively with Jambo, which is the first release of an office suite in Ki-Swahili. The software has been developed based on the free open source software openoffice 1.1.3 ( It consists of eight features including: Word Processor called “Writer”; Spreadsheet called “Calc”; A drawing and illustration program called “Draw”; and Presentation creator called “Impression”.

Other features are: A Data Source Editor; A HTML (web page) Editor; A Mathematical Formula Editor called “Math”; and Advanced Macro and Scripting language called “Basic”. Generally speaking, the Jambo is simple to use, exceptionally stable and can compute complex documents. It can be used with a normal standard PC running Microsoft Windows OS or Linux OS preferably with 64MB or more of RAM. The hard disc space in the hard drive for Microsoft Windows OS is 130 MB and Linux is 170 MB.

Jambo open office has removed a strong learning barrier since Kiswahili speakers can now skip the troubles of learning English language as a compulsory eligibility criterion before enrolling for any basic computer course.

The klnX project has so far gathered a multi-disciplinary academicians mostly IT scientists and linguists. Dr. Seleman Sewangi of TUKI is one of team members. He coordinates vocabulary development tasks and is responsible for translation and terminology in the project.

“This project will have indirect benefits to education development though is not responsible for content development. The OpenOffice program for instance would enable Kiswahili speakers to use computers more proficiently. The learning process would be simplified by reducing the burden of cramming the English IT terminologies,” says Dr. Sewangi. The new OpenOffice is compatible with other applications such as Microsoft, Linux and Apple.

“Our project successes would depend on other factors such as connectivity and availability of resources,” says Dr. Sewangi, pointing Finland as a successful example of a country that applies local language – Finnish - in all walks of life. Dr. Sewangi obtained his Ph.D in computational linguistics at the University of Helsinki in 2001. He admires the Finnish successes of adopting ICT in their language and believes ICT can be simplified by adoption into Ki-Swahili and applied better in Africa.

The Kilinux pioneering effort does not only aim to localize free and open source software to the Ki-Swahili language, but also create awareness among Ki-Swahili speakers of the benefits of using and extending open source software. The Swedish International development Agency (SIDA) supports the project in collaboration with the University of Dar es Salaam.

The three-phase project started in 2003. The first phase involved OpenOffice and Spellchecker development and on February 28, 2005 the Prime Minister of Tanzania, Frederick Sumaye inaugurated the OpenOffice program to signify the completion of first phase of the project.

In his inauguration speech at the University of Dar es Salaam, PM Sumaye said 90 per cent of Tanzanians can only comprehend information in Ki-Swahili and hence to disseminate ICT in a foreign language is to deprive them knowledge and hence deter sustainable development.

He alerted the university academicians that Ki-Swahili is growing popular not only in Africa but also outside the continent, since some universities in the US, Japan and Sweden already conduct Ki-Swahili courses.

The Jambo spellchecker has been developed as the result of the compilation of numerous Ki-Swahili word lists. It contains a total of 70,000 Ki-Swahili words and is released as free software (LGPL).

The wordlists have been compiled based on studies from numerous sources including: Dr. Jason M. Githeko of Egerton University of Kenya ( who contributed 48,340 words; Professor D.P.B. Massamba, and Professor A.M. Khamisi of TUKI who contributed 18,327 words from TUKI’s English-Swahili Dictionary.

Other contributors include Dr. Martin Benjamin of the Kamusi Project, (, whom contributed 15,418 words, Professor Alberto Escudero-Pascual and Dr. Kevin P. Scannell of Corpus Building for Minority Languages ( who contributed more than 8,008 words.

The Kamusi Project is an ongoing work of collaborative scholarship that is developing a free online dictionary and learning resources for Ki-Swahili. “Kamusi” is a Ki-Swahili word for dictionary and since the establishment of the project in 1994; it has become the world’s most-used resource for the Ki-Swahili language, delivered by most Internet search engines (

Tanzania is leading all countries of this region in application of Ki-Swahili in state affairs, education, business, the media and social activities. Ki-Swahili is the official national language of 34.6 million people of Tanzania, but the language is not used as a teaching medium in secondary schools or any higher learning institution.

All pupils taking primary education except very few in some private schools learn all subjects in Ki-Swahili for seven years of basic education. The English language is taught as a subject in all public primary schools but become a medium of learning all subjects after the seven year of primary education. This system of education has been criticized in several forums but the government has refused to change it.

The critics suggest that Ki-Swahili, be used as a teaching medium in all subjects from primary to university level or alternatively let the English take over as a learning medium right from the primary education. The African Union (AU) approved Ki-Swahili as one of its official languages last year (2004) after persistent demand by the Tanzanian representatives in AU forums. Other official languages of AU are English, French, Portuguese and Arabic.

Ki-Swahili is the only language that portrays the real black African culture having inherited the native Bantu languages in a mixture with other foreign words picked mostly from Arabic, Portuguese, Germany and English. About 100 million people and 300 Africa tribes communicates in Ki-Swahili globally though the fluent speakers do not exceed 50 million in 150 tribes, mostly within the East Africa Community (EAC).

It is the only language in Africa technically classified as a true "Lingua franca." Unlike most other African native languages it is a non-tribal language with more of an intra-national language image. Ki-Swahili spreads from Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, Eastern Zaire, Northern D.R. Congo, Northern Malawi, Northern Mozambique, Northern Zambia and Somalia. Ki-Swahili is also spoken in Congo, Southern Sudan, the Comoro Islands, Northern Malagasy, and in some areas of the Persian Gulf. It is one of two official languages of the new East Africa Community (EAC) formed by Tanzania, Kenya and Uganda. Thus, Ki-Swahili is most widely spoken in eastern Africa than the rest of the world.

Moreover, the media in Africa and outside have accepted its diasporas and hence it is among the languages that features in several world radio stations such as, the BBC (UK), Radio Cairo (Egypt), the Voice of America (U.S.A.), Radio Deutschewelle (Germany), Radio Moscow International (Russia), Radio Japan International, Radio Sweden, Radio China International, Radio Sudan, and Radio South Africa.

While the debate on the issue of Ki-Swahili application in education is on progress, a new challenge emerged when recently the Tanzanian government announced its willingness to integrate ICT as a compulsory subject and a training tool in all secondary schools.

The Tanzanian Ministry of Education and Culture (MoEC) unveiled its project for compulsory ICT training in secondary schools during a stakeholders’ workshop held in Dar es Salaam early this year (2005). ” The future of ICT in Secondary Schools - Strategizing for Implementation” was the title of a four-day workshop held from January 24 to 27. It was a unique workshop that probed and eventually set a foundation for integrating ICT in secondary education. It was sponsored by SIDA as well.

The workshop gathered participants from a board spectrum of ICT stakeholders. They include eighteen students from selected five secondary schools in Dar es Salaam. The students were able to interact with professors, university lecturers, secondary school teachers, curriculum developers, government officials, ICT experts, service providers and dealers. All including the students took part in recommending appropriate inputs towards a strategy for implementation.

The question of adopting ICT from a foreign language (English), while majority of Tanzanians can only speak, read or write in Ki-Swahili was raised by some participants together with other burning issues. “How can ICT bring about rapid development by adopting it in our secondary schools, while the medium of training is English?” A sociologist asked other workshop participants.

“How can ICT develop Tanzania by adopting it in English in secondary education when only less than 12 per cent of the relevant age group enter into secondary schools?” That was another question from the NGO representative amongst participants. He suggested to the workshop that Ki-Swahili be considered as a teaching medium for the ICT and other subjects if possible and that ICT lessons should be taught in primary schools as well.

The response by majority was dispute. Ki-Swahili cannot at the present time be used for teaching ICT because the language does not have the necessary ICT terminologies. Above that it is imprudent to teach ICT in Ki-Swahili, when most subjects are learned in English and the Internet has very little Ki-Swahili contents, argued majority of participants.

They suggested to the Tanzania Institute of Education (TIE), which is government body responsible for curriculum development to start preparing Ki-Swahili contents for ICT subjects before the language is used as a learning medium. If it responds positively to the plea, then TIE would definitely utilize extensively the new Jambo and the spellchecker in developing the necessary materials.

There is no doubt also that MoEC would be the prime beneficiary of the KnlX project during the implementation of its project for compulsory ICT training in secondary schools planned to start in 2006.

Currently, about 70 per cent of all Internet content is in English and only 12 languages out of the world’s 6,000 or so accounts for about 98 per cent of the total web content. Ki-Swahili language, which constitutes over 80 per cent of the local media and public information contents in Tanzania, is not among the 12 languages. In other words, Ki-Swahili is among more than 5,900 world languages, which constitutes only two (02) per cent of the Internet content. Above that, over 95 percent of the Tanzania population can only speak, read and write in either Ki-Swahili or tribal languages and hence can not comprehend most of the contents in the Internet.

According to official government statistics, the Tanzania’s gross enrolment levels for secondary education are among the lowest in the world. Total enrolment in six years of secondary education (Form I –VI) was 289, 699 in 2001, compared to a total primary education enrolment of 4, 845,185. Secondary enrolment is no more than about six per cent of primary enrolment, reports the government. However, the government is proud that the secondary school enrolment is gradually increasing and by 2001 an increase of 10.6 per cent in total enrolment was recorded compared to 2000. The number of secondary schools increased from 721 in 1997 to 8270 in 2001 and the government target is to exceed 3,000 by year 2010.

The government decision to reduce taxation on computer imports and the 2003 National ICT Policy, which emphasizes ICT application in all sectors of the economy accelerated rapid growth of the ICT sector. Recently the government placed ICT among its development priorities steered by Tanzanian Vision 2025, which is a compass of national development plan to year 2025.

The Vision 2025 ( is a focal point to several government policies including the national Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper (PRSP), the National ICT Policy and the Education Policy. The vision is attuned with the UNDP ‘s Millennium Development Goals (MDG), which emphasizes among other things the advancement of knowledge and people-centered communication for development and poverty reduction.

According to retiring President Benjamin Mkapa, Tanzania envisages to be a nation whose people are ingrained with a developmental mindset and competitive spirit. These attributes are driven by education and knowledge and are critical in enabling the nation to effectively utilize knowledge in mobilizing domestic resources for assuring the provision of people's basic needs and for attaining competitiveness in the regional and global economy.

“Tanzania would brace itself to attain creativity, innovativeness and a high level of quality education in order to respond to development challenges and effectively compete regionally and internationally, cognizant of the reality that competitive leadership in the 21st century will hinge on the level and quality of education and knowledge,” says President Mkapa in his foreword to Vision 2025.

The National ICT Policy on the other has a mission, which is: “To enhance nation-wide economic growth and social progress by encouraging beneficial ICT activities in all sectors through providing a conducive framework for investments in capacity building and in promoting multi-layered co-operation and knowledge sharing locally as well as globally”

With that mission the vision is: “Tanzania to become a hub of ICT infrastructure and ICT solutions that enhance sustainable socio-economic development and accelerated poverty reduction both nationally and globally”


E-mail: [email protected]