The African Voices Project (AV)


To promote African language literacy and to serve the interests of African language readers throughout the world.

Alex Zito, Masse Ndiaye, Leigh Swigart and John Hutchison after an AV interview
Alex Zito, Masse Ndiaye, Leigh Swigart and John Hutchison after an AV interview

The recent history of African education has been marked by a plethora of efforts in the non-formal realm that have fallen under the rubric of adult education and (maternal language) literacy programs. The universally touted wisdom, magnanimity and experience of an organization like UNESCO in this domain are accepted unquestionably, and UNESCO is lauded for its efforts. However, have such organizations, in fact, discovered the formula necessary for encouraging widespread literacy, particularly in maternal languages? In all but a few exceptional cases, adult literacy programs have failed to produce a print-rich, literate environment and a culture of reading. Whether providing instruction in the colonial language or in local African languages, the non-formal sector has yet to succeed in improving literacy rates in Africa. Today there are NGOs that are succeeding at literacy perhaps more than the national literacy services.

This project identifies and proposes other efforts linked to emerging “literatures” which, given their timely and topical nature, offer great promise and linguistic and cultural continuity in spite of the chaotic turmoil of our globalized planet. Here, are collected, oral narratives, produced by those who have for one reason or another been displaced in today’s world, in their own languages. For this kind of narrative, which is compelling for a broad range of stakeholders, the voices are of those who for educational, environmental or political reasons have been obliged to abandon their traditional homelands, who have been drawn to a capital city or other metropolis, perhaps for employment and economic reasons. It includes those who for one reason or another have given up their country and emigrated to another country with greater employment and income opportunities.

Alex Zito suggests that the topics of urbanization and emigration could foster a literature and spawn a readership in Africa. That suggestion constitutes the foundation of AV. Though in its infancy, it has already proven extremely compelling and moving.

Alex Zito and John Hutchison have done research on the evolution of literate environments and the history of literacy. They have come to realize that literacy programs and efforts in Africa could benefit from a greater awareness of how new generations of readers have been spawned elsewhere in relatively short periods of time. Zito is a doctoral candidate in Boston University’s University Professors Program doing an interdisciplinary doctorate on the form and practice of publishing in African languages in West Africa.

The AV interview typically takes a little over an hour. We normally begin by asking the subject to speak in English or French giving an autobiographical account of their lives both in Africa and in the diaspora, for not more than 10 minutes. Drawing from that autobiography, we then agree upon a subject to discuss in depth in the subject’s first African language, and ask the interviewee to speak up to 20 to 30 minutes on that subject if possible. A second and third theme are then selected for this treatment, in keeping with the time limit constraints. The video recordings are then transcribed in the African language and translated into English. AV interviewees sign a release form giving us authorization to use the recorded material for non-lucrative educational purposes only. They are also given a remuneration as a gesture of gratitude.

Interviewees (click each for video):

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