Travelling around you always notice some differences markedly.
“How do you know where to go without any signs on the road?” my friend Richard asked our driver on the way to Abuja airport. The answer was that he’s lived around Abuja and travelled the road a lot so he’s seen it change and has been able to always find someone who could tell him where to go. At the airport in Abuja you notice lots and lots of staff helping you through 6 different security checks, immigration control etc. How did we know what to do and where to go? Someone would ask us what we were doing and would tell us where to go. In Frankfurt there were comparatively fewer staff around; instead there are just lots of signs everywhere.
In some ways this is symbolic of the different cultural expectations. In writing-focussed societies we expect to find a sign telling us where to go, but in most of Africa you get people doing that job as part of the conversation. (Around airports you’ll also find lots of people who absolutely insist on helping you and then being reimbursed for it even if you really don’t need any help, thank you!)
Is the Desktop metaphor dead? The linked article suggests that touchy-feely tablets and phones are starting to sweep the desktop metaphor away. That’s certainly happening in part, but my own perspective is that in some parts of the world it’s never really been alive or helpful.
The point of the desktop metaphor, popularised by Apple and (to some extent) Microsoft was that it made something new seem familiar. Or to put it another way, it gave you new tools to do the same kind of things that you might want to do.
Rewind now to about 12 years ago when I was in a reasonably remote part of northern Nigeria trying to teach basic computer skills to Bible translation team members. It gradually dawned on me that we were up against a major difficulty; the ‘desktop’ metaphor that had made computers accessible to ordinary people in the Western world was actually making it harder for my Nigerian colleagues.
Zuru 2001: basic computer skills in the language development and translation office
The problem was that none of them had encountered ‘files’ or ‘folders’, ‘directories’. One or two had come across a typewriter before. They knew nothing of (written) reports. Their houses didn’t even generally have windows! They very rarely used buttons of any kind. Mice were familiar, but were for chasing away from the granary, not for moving around a table. They squeaked, didn’t click. Arrows were for hunting, not pointing. Not even fingers really were for pointing (chins were for pointing). They did know all about saving. Being ‘saved’ was certainly important in church and nothing to do with storing something important.
At the time, even as I struggled to explain first what a window was and why we use that term on a computer, I thought what we really need is to rethink the whole concept of Human Computer Interaction for different environments. But I was too busy working on a dictionary and other things to make any serious headway, except to note that on traditional Lelna compounds, there is a degree of organisation that might transfer to a computer system. And existing social differentiators and hierarchies too might prove helpful concepts.
TCNN 2012: basic computers for linguistics
Roll on 10 years and I find myself again teaching computers to people who have only just encountered them. Now a whole load more people are using computers and laptops are much more common across Nigeria. Mobile phones too are quite ubiquitous. But just as most of Africa has somehow skipped the landline age and leapt straight for mobile telecommunications, I have an inkling that the ‘desktop’ age may be blithely bypassed by many. Perhaps many Africans encountering technology for the first time will join the IT highway several junctions along from where I joined it.
However, that’s not the full story. The fact is that user interfaces rely on some degree of familiarity. If skeuomorphic designs are being edged out now it doesn’t necessarily imply that they were a bad idea all along. How much do the new mobile-inspired UI designs rely on familiarity with older idioms, that is features of the desktop metaphor? Even when bold new strides are made, there must be some continuity for existing users to make the transition successfully, and some connection to the rest of their life for new users to be able to grasp a way of relating to computers.
Perhaps now we have a unique opportunity now to rethink user interface in culturally appropriate ways. As we have seen, new approaches to user interface design are being thrashed through right now. At the same time Africans are becoming familiar with various bits of mobile technology. (I say this based on living for much of the last 6 years in East and now West Africa.) In African cities and towns we see an interesting mishmash of ‘western’ and ‘traditional’ concepts and life. Not everyone lives in an agricultural world any more though still the majority of the Nigerian populace are linked to farming in some way. Perhaps the concepts I had considered before of ‘granaries’ for storing bags of grain as a metaphor for data storage will not work, or perhaps they will. We certainly need to abandon ridiculous archaisms such as a floppy disk icon representing ‘saving’.
This is not the end of the road but perhaps only the beginning. What I would love to see would be truly African approaches to using computers that no longer fall in line behind a mysterious and misunderstood western world. Perhaps I’m a bit of an unrealistic ideologue but I would love to see people using computers without spending ages worrying about the intricacies of how to use and manage the computer itself, and focussing much more on the content they are actually manipulating and communicating.
Yesterday we had naming of parts. Today,
We have daily cleaning.
Today is Sanitation Saturday. That means that everyone has to stay at home until 10am and clean their houses and the area around them. And, yes, it is enforced by the Sanitation Police! I’m not sure how much sanitation we will actually do, but it is certainly very pleasant when the road outside is so quiet. For a couple of hours we can enjoy the pleasant warbling of the birds instead of the car horns and taxi touts.
A major feature of the last few weeks has been Julie starting to home educate Rebekah in earnest. She has been delighting in telling everyone that she is in P1, even though the term is fairly meaningless to most people she talks to! We have had lots of fun with reading, writing, maths, art and science. Yesterday we did “naming of parts” where we drew round Rebekah and Elizabeth and they coloured in the pictures of themselves. Then we stuck labels on the the different body parts. We are also planning to meet with another home educating family every other Wednesday to do art and crafts together, so that will be something to look forward to.
And now, as it is Sanitation Saturday, we should get on with the daily cleaning!
(Anyone know which poem we are alluding to in this email? The first three correct answers will receive a small prize!)
I’ve had a mobile hotspot with a battery inside but I can see there may be many situations where actually a small (translation) office or home could connect several WiFi devices through the same connection powered by USB either from a backup battery or a computer. Wonderful when you don’t need to mess about installing any software to make it work. If I get one, I’ll post feedback on how well it actually works in Nigeria.
An excellent Melvyn Bragg film about William Tyndale expresses eloquently why people all over the world need access to the Bible in their mother tongue and gives an insight into the dramatic changes it can bring.
It was on iPlayer in June 2013 and hopefully will be again. Well worth watching. We found it inspiring for our own involvement in Nigeria. It was interesting to see that Tyndale had to flee his native land and needed the theological, linguistic and technical support of others in Europe to make the translation happen. But crucially it was a native speaker who actually did the translation.
This seems to be seizing the initiative from Forward Together which has struggled and stalled over the years to reconcile people/congregations who were evangelical first, CofS second and those who were the reverse. I find it interesting that this is trumpeted by the official mouthpiece of the denomination and is happening as a torrent of gospel-focussed churches declare the necessity of distancing themselves from a compromised denomination. How many well-intentioned people get swept up without recognising it to be a fifth column (or Trojan horse) will remain to be seen. Those of us who have seen the reality of the lies and scheming of those desperate to wring the gospel from the Kirk will be forgiven if we appear sadly cynical.
As we’ve talked about our work in Nigeria, several have asked about the language(s) I work with. One quick way to find out some basic information about any language in the world is to look it up on the SIL Ethnologue. So roughly in order of more – less involvement on my part here are a few languages:
If you look at the page linked, you’ll see that Gworok is officially listed as a dialect of Tyap, which already has been developed fairly significantly, and has a Bible translation project well under way for some years.
At first sight it seems that there are some fairly significant differences between Gworok and Tyap, though some Gworok speakers can just about follow the Tyap Bible. But there seems to be substantial interest in having a Gworok translation.
Gworok is sometimes known as Kagoro, which is the town at the centre of the language area. Often outsiders refer to a language by the name of the most significant town in the area.
I really don’t know the number of speakers of Gworok. I’d hazard a guess at 50,000+.
Similar in some ways to neighbouring languages Ninkyob (who are still struggling to start) and Irigwe/Miango (whose New Testament was just launched).
Those with good memories may remember I thought I might have involvement with the Tal Bible translation project. I’ve had some chats with the Nigerian missionaries involved in church planting there but there’s not been anything in particular for me to help with yet.
A nice piece of spam to firstname.lastname@example.org today reads:
Would you like people who are looking for ngbible.com to find you before all of your competitors? please click here
Well if only there was more competition to promote mother-tongue scriptures in Nigeria! I don’t really care if people find ngbible.com first, but finding scriptures in language that speaks to the heart/innards/intestines/gut is all that matters.
Dineke and Klaas from the Netherlands explain a bit about what it’s like to move to a completely new place and adjust to life, language and culture there. This is Asia and many things are different to our Nigerian context, but many aspects are the same. Continue reading →