As some of you know, the Young Women’s Group and I have been working to start a library. I have been running into serious roadblocks, however, as there are very few books that are translated into Swahili. There are some great Tanzanian and Kenyan writers who work in their mother tongue, but just as many greats from both Swahili-speaking countries and the entire continent who write in English and are not translated into Swahili or any other African language.
This creates a hierarchy of who gets to read — many of us who speak English or other European languages have been lucky to have access to the works of writers like Chinua Achebe and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, but many living here do not. If a person who speaks Swahili happens to be working class, they are effectively denied the possibility of reading not only much of the great literature coming out of both their home country and the continent, but also widely-translated classic publications, like National Geographic.
My Tanzanian friends I have spoken to about it are also insulted at the lack of translations into their home language, so, in the name of libraries, book-lovers and book-lovers to be, I wrote this letter and sent it to Nat Geo.
Here we go…
Dear National Geographic,
I remember the entire shelf devoted to your magazine at my parent’s home in Canada, and how as a child I eagerly awaited it each month. I would re-read the old issues and explore the world vicariously through the eyes of the writers and photographers whose work you published.
Now grown, I am living temporarily in Tanzania after completing my undergraduate degree in Sociology at York University, Toronto. I will be returning to Canada for my Master’s degree this coming fall, in the same field.
I am writing to you because I have a problem.
While here, I am working with a women’s support group in New Land, a village on the outskirts of Moshi (I’ve also enclosed the flyer for the group). Since many of the women in the group said one of their main problems was the difficulty of educating their children and themselves, I suggested we work together to start a small community funded library. They were immediately enthused about the idea of having books in the community, and 22 young women signed up to be on the library committee the very day we decided – unanimously – that the project should run.
The first publication I dreamed of contacting to ask if they would be willing to contribute a free subscription was, unsurprisingly, National Geographic.
I was very disappointed when I found that among the 40 languages into which National Geographic is translated, the most widely spoken language in Africa, Swahili, is not one of them.
Not that you are the only ones who do not translate into Swahili. No one does. Even the works of even great African writers like Chinua Achebe and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie have not been translated.
Therefore, the pool of information that is available to almost everyone else is denied to large groups of native Swahili-speakers, who number approximately 100 million people in total. This is frequently explained away with assurances that “everyone speaks English too, anyway.” However, the Tanzanian educational system has operated on a two-tiered basis whereby primary school education is conducted in Swahili and secondary school education is conducted in English. Given the fact that Tanzania is very poor, and that secondary education is not free, many people (in fact, most people I have come in contact with in Moshi and the surrounding area) speak either very rudimentary English or none at all.
I recognize that the people who cannot read the magazine in English may not have the same spending power as other readers, and that it may not be a profitable enterprise to translate your magazine into their native tongue. However, access to knowledge that one can access on one’s own outside the classroom is an integral part of a person’s education, and can help lift a country and a people out of poverty in the long term.
National Geographic’s long history – 123 years of bringing knowledge to the world – has put the publication in a position to be a global leader in education and development. The success of the publication has also presumably put it in a position to engage in some development projects on a voluntary basis, possibly with little expectation of return beyond the satisfaction that more people worldwide will have access to the publication.
The spread of knowledge is development. We must believe that it is worth translating publications into a written word that people can understand, and that such availability will have an impact here just as it has had in other countries. The complete lack of translations of books and magazines into languages that the working class in Tanzania and other Swahili-speaking countries can read means that it is more difficult for them to educate themselves and their families in the same way that many people in the developed world have been privileged enough to take for granted.
It is for these reasons that I implore you to consider translation of your magazine into Swahili, so that others may enjoy it as much as I have.
Tusaidiane Women’s Group, New Land, Tanzania
York University, class of 2014