International Journalist's Network, working with the University of Lagos, has invited African media academics and publishers to submit research papers on the past experiences, current status, and future potential of the continent's indigenous-language media.
Abiodun Salawu, a lecturer in the Department of Mass Communication at the University of Lagos in Nigeria, is the project’s coordinator. "The project was inspired by the need to promote African languages and direct attention to the study of the media using African languages," he said.
Salawu said he hopes the project can help Africans become more appreciative of their languages. Colonialism and the perception that Western languages and cultures are more civilized have severely influenced the way Africans feel about their indigenous languages and cultures, he said.
"The project is conceived to be a contribution to the African languages’ and cultures’ renaissance," Salawu said.
Indigenous-language media has had a turbulent history in Africa. A newspaper for the Egbas and Yorubas called Iwe Irohin Fun Awon Ara Egba ati Yoruba was the first indigenous-language newspaper in Africa. It was founded in Nigeria in 1859 by Reverend Henry Townsend, a missionary of the Church Missionary Society. Publication ceased in 1867, however, when an anti-European uprising destroyed the mission where the newspaper was published. Since then, many indigenous-language newspapers have come and gone, with varying degrees of success.
The University of Lagos project is expected to allow scholars to chart possible growth strategies for the indigenous-language press in Africa. For example, over the last two years, South Africa has seen an increase in the number of isiZulu language newspapers, such as the Isolezwe paper. Isolezwe began in 2002 as the second South African newspaper published in isiZulu. After two years, it has a loyal readership of 339,000 readers per day and has recently launched a website.
Growth in the production of indigenous-language newspapers will make information available to indigenous-language speakers and may increase literacy. "The broadcast media in Africa has been doing far better than the print media in the use of African languages," Salawu said. Furthermore, Salawu said, the production of newspapers helps to counteract the impact of colonialism and promote indigenous languages and cultures.
Methaetsile Leepile, the former editor of Mmegi, an independent Botswanan newspaper, recently received the prestigious 2004 Media Institute of South Africa Press Freedom Award for his involvement in establishing Mokgosi, the first vernacular Setswana newspaper in Botswana. In his acceptance speech, as reported by Mmegi on September 1, Leepile explained, "Language encapsulates a people’s culture, social mores, values, and knowledge. When a language dies, a people’s knowledge dies with it."
"Language is about economic and social empowerment," Leepile said. "More people can be brought into public and productive life by wider and more productive use of languages like Setswana."