Katrina Spencer

Digital Access, Authority and Agency in the Afro-Francophone World

By Katrina Spencer, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign

Quiz Item 1

Which of the following is a French-speaking nation?

A. Senegal

B. Cameroon

C. Togo

D. Burkina Faso

The correct answer is E., all of the above. French is spoken as a language of importance and repute in 29 countries. The answer to the first item on this “exam” is a freebie.


Although when we think of the land of berets and baguettes, we in the United States tend to envision ‘European,’ ‘white,’ the Eiffel Tower, escargot (snails), Napoléon, Les Misérables, the Champs Élysées and delicious chocolate croissants, ‘reading France’ within such a narrow panorama of stereotypes and cultural production would be to deny its colorful, multifaceted diversity and

Quiz Item 2

A. rich

B. rancorous

C. rife

D. wretched

history in the Caribbean, in the Maghreb (a region on Northern Africa that includes primarily Islamic countries like Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco) and importantly for this post, in Sub-Saharan or ‘black’ Africa. It would be akin to saying the United States is hamburgers, Lady Liberty, American Idol and nothing else. And that’s not true, right?

Quiz Item 3

Like the Spanish, the English and the Portuguese, the French

A. approached

B. invaded

C. discovered

D. colonized

a broad swath of territories on both sides of the Atlantic (and sometimes, to a lesser degree, the Pacific) which has problematized the ideas of nationhood, citizenship, sovereignty and independence. Perhaps it needn’t be said, but this type of historical domination has ushered in a long era of instability throughout ‘post-colonial’ Africa. This is reflected in much of its underdeveloped infrastructures that challenge consistent digital access to open sources of information like Wikipedia, a central theme to this post. What’s more is that widely disseminated and popular depictions of the continent and its people are rarely created, framed, drawn or written by African authors. Despite the foreign voices that have supplied these images and scribed these stories, both have been widely published for and understood as truth by global audiences.

Now that you’ve completed your history quiz, know that Afripédia, in conjunction with Wikimédia France, has initiated a project with two major goals: one is to supply a number of Francophone (French-speaking) African countries and their residents with offline access to Wikipedia via plug computers like this one, given that many African nations still negotiate the difficulty of acquiring regular and high-quality connectivity to the Internet; the second goal is to supply these same parties with the authority, the opportunities and the instruction to digitally publish information and construct narratives about their places of origin, national events and developments. In other words, Francophone Africans are being provided with the platforms necessary to create information about themselves, to meaningfully shape archives, chronicles and narratives about themselves and to disseminate them all throughout the world.

Born in the summer of 2012, Afripédia comprises a series of campaigns aimed to educate Francophone Africans regarding the use of Wikipedia. Included in this instruction are themes centering on how to create a Wikipedia article, how to edit its existing articles, how to add images to these articles and more. The program has been met with a good deal of enthusiasm and supporters in the 11 participating African regions have been numerous. The program, however, is not immune to local hindrances: challenges like university strikes, restricted so far to two cities have delayed the speedy and effective implementation of the program in otherwise interested and invested sites. Afripédia’s  next step is to widen its scope by including countries like Madagascar that form part of the Afro-Francophone world, but have yet to engage these initiatives.

This program is unique in that it seeks to promote and respect an admittedly rare concept of African agency. Instead of assuming an entirely paternalistic role in indicating what articles must be written, how, why and when, the program has taken on a fraternal one in providing the tools necessary for Ivorians (people from the Côte d’Ivoire), the Beninese (people from Benin) and Chadians (people from Chad) and many more to craft their own histories and stories with a great degree of liberté. Afripédia’s ethos wins our admiration as it demonstrates a desire to reconcile an at times turbulent past and to welcome a newly defined, post-colonial legacy of teamwork and mutual, international and intercontinental support.

Updates on the program’s progress can be followed via Twitter @Afripedia. Any party interested in becoming involved is encouraged to contact Adrienne Charmet-Alix at the following e-mail address: adrienne.alix(at)wikimedia.fr. With regard to the remaining multiple choice questions for Items 2 and 3, please create your own answer key and grade yourself accordingly.

Awkward, Cumbersome, Inclusive and Sensitive?

Katrina Spencer, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign

Many Romance languages, like Portuguese and Spanish (and French to a slightly lesser degree) have a grammatically ingrained predilection for sexism. As you’ll remember from your high school “SPAN 1AB” or college “SPAN 101” course, whenever there is a group of people and any one of them is male, they are referred to with “los,” the Spanish language definite article, as in: Los chicos, María, Juan e Isabel visitan la playa todos los veranos.

This default mode for masculine markers also shows up in what we call “demonstratives” in the world of language:  Otros, por ejemplo Fernanda, Marcos, Luis y Estrella, prefieren ir a las montañas.

As you can see in the two examples above, female figures either (1) represent the majority of characters in the statement or (2) represent exactly half of the group, but the masculine article is still used.

This is an interesting and problematic space to explore for me as someone who is working as a translator for this feminist collective. On the one hand, I’ve been taught for years that respecting the conventions of formal language use is a vehicle of strong communication. This applies in arenas such as the use of the subjunctive, indirect object pronouns and precise vocabulary. On the other hand, as a 21st century learner, employee, woman and feminist by essence and association, I realize how exclusive these conventions can be when it comes to conversations about the sexes. The “o” in “los” excludes, ignores or overshadows the females it represents. What do we do?

Hi, my name is Katrina Spencer and I have used sexist language.

In this area of the FemTechCommons, periodical press releases can be found regarding the goings-on in our community. As a “grad hourly” at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign’s Graduate School of Information Science, one of my jobs is to translate these press releases from English to Spanish in order to include wider and even international audiences. The sexist language constraints I’ve described, however, are ones I encounter, consciously or subconsciously, every time I open my mouth to speak Spanish.

It is my belief that a good deal of the pedagogical resources shared in this space are intended for women and used by women. As a matter of fact, for every ten females I see using this space, I have seen only one male. But when I translate a document about FemTechNet users, my inclination is to type, “los estudiantes” and “los instructores.” Grammatically speaking, I’m “right” but socially I am diminishing the strong, ubiquitous and pulsing female energy that has created and developed FemTechNet.

Is there an easy solution?

María González Aguado, another FemTechNet-er like myself, brought this to my attention, although it wasn’t the first time the issue had been raised. In her words, “Feminist scholars and women’s associations consider that plural in masculine invisibilizes women, so we try to use non-sexist language using an x or @ to avoid linguistic sexism.” So, per her suggestion, the statements above would appear as Lxs chicxs, María, Juan e Isabel, visitan la playa todos los veranos. OR L@s chic@s, María, Juan e Isabel visitan la playa todos los veranos. The other sentence would be: Otrxs, por ejemplo Fernanda, Marcos, Luis y Estrella, prefieren ir a las montañas. OR Otr@s, por ejemplo Fernanda, Marcos, Luis y Estrella, prefieren ir a las montañas.

Yes, okay, that’s fine, but how, now, do I pronounce it/ say it out loud/ read it aloud?

Also, what happens when I want to say “The participants in the Video Dialogues will include Judy Wacjman, Anne Balsamo, Julie Levin Russo, Faith Wilding and many others”?

Indulge me for a moment. The only participants listed are female. “Many others” does not identify sex. Should the sentence start off as “Lxs” or “L@s” in order to leave the possibility open of men participating in the future? Or should it be “Las” because up until this point, only women have shared the space?

And given that “lxs” and “l@s” cannot be pronounced, should every sentence sound like, Los miembros y las miembras publican sus opiniones en los foros?

Is it acceptable for language to be awkward and cumbersome in order to also be inclusive and sensitive? What does “fair” and “feminist” language representation look like? Do you type/write “s/he” when referencing a figurative, anonymous and sexless third person?

Join the discussion!