WikiAfrica Expands Africa’s Access to COVID-19 Information

Since the COVID-19 pandemic began in March 2020, it has become especially critical that everyone has access to public health information in their native language, making the role of translators and interpreters difficult to overestimate. But when a given language doesn’t have commonly used native words for vocabulary like “hand sanitizer” or “face masks,” this can present a bit of a problem—this was the case last year for many of South Africa’s isiZulu speakers, according to a recent report from the World Economic Forum (WEF).

In an effort to combat these problems, a team of volunteer translators and language activists has been working with the WikiAfrica program to create such terms and make public health communications more accessible in nearly 20 different African languages, such as isiZulu, Twi, and Kiswahili. WikiAfrica, which was first launched in 2006, is a project that aims to document and strengthen languages native to Africa by translating Wikipedia articles into these languages. 

According to data from Web Technology Surveys, less than .4% of the Internet’s content is written in languages native to the African continent. While languages with a larger online presence such as English, French and Arabic do have large populations of speakers across Africa, languages indigenous to the continent are much less accessible, which is likely a major factor in the Internet usage gap reported in Africa, with the WEF reporting that less than one in four Africans access the Internet despite being able to do so.

The WikiAfrica program has so far produced more than 40,000 Wikipedia entries since its inception. When the pandemic first began, volunteers and members of WikiAfrica’s partner organization, the Moleskine Foundation, noticed that many Wikipedia articles on COVID-19 had not been translated into African languages. As a result, the program has come together in an effort to “democratize” information on COVID-19 while also combating the spread of misinformation in their communities by translating information necessary to fighting against the pandemic. “I think the urgency of the virus is that no one should be outside of their information bubble,” said Lwanda Xaso, a lawyer and activist partnered with WikiAfrica, according to the WEF.

Andrew Warner
Andrew Warner is a writer from Sacramento. He received his B.A. in linguistics and English from UCLA and is currently working toward an M.A. in applied linguistics at Columbia University. His writing has been published in Language Magazine, Sactown Magazine, and The Takeout.


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