Einstein in Wolof


Usmaan Faty Ndongo selects a dusty tome from the top shelf of his bookcase.  “Look!” He beckons, flipping to a dog-eared page.

Mooy ben…,” I try to puzzle out the Wolof words before Usmaan declares, “It’s Einstein’s theory of relativity!” Usmaan slaps his knee: a gesture not of humor, but of triumph.

“You see, for years they said that we couldn’t write about science in our own languages. That we couldn’t write literature in our languages. That Wolof and Pulaar and Serer were just ‘colloquial languages.’ But we have proven them wrong.”

“Who is ‘they’? I ask.

“The French. Americans. Canadians. Even Africans. For so long we were taught to loathe our mother tongues. Unconsciously, some of the self-loathing might still be there.”


Today Usmaan’s mission is to show everybody – Africans and westerners alike – that African languages are not only rich cultural resources, but also pathways to development and portals to a globalized world. Executive Secretary of L’Association Nationale pour l’alphabétisation et la formation des adultes (ANAFA) // National Association for Literacy and Adult Education (ANAFA), Usmaan received an ASHOKA fellowship to devise literacy solutions using digital technology.

The newest branch of ANAFA, which itself is just over 20 years old, the initiative ‘Alf@net’ is in its formative stages. First, a team of tech-savvy personnel translated Firefox, Abiword, and several software programs into Wolof and a handful of Senegal’s 16 indigenous or national languages. Then a team of linguists from Dakar’s University verified the translations. [As I will describe in more detail in later posts, incha allah, almost everyone in Senegal can speak Wolof, but almost no one can write it.] Currently, Usmaan and his team are teaching internet technicians to read and write in Wolof, Senegal’s vehicular language, so that they can eventually become teachers in Alf@net’s “programmes de formation,” or literacy classes that teach formerly illiterate and uneducated adults how to 1) read and write in their mother tongue, and 2) how to surf the web in their mother tongue.

It is this initiative, housed in a white-washed three story building in Dakar’s Parcelles district, that I came on my third trip to Senegal to assist. After spending last summer studying norms of internet usage and language usage among Dakarois youth, I thought that for this two-week stint I could conduct a mini-ethnography project that would help ANAFA tailor an online discussion forum in standard Wolof to the local communication frameworks of ANAFA’s beneficiaries. Ha! After two days in the company of Usmaan’s boisterous and dedicated staff, I realize that I have a lot to learn about ANAFA, and more broadly, about Senegal’s national language politics and technological landscape.

So I’ve switched gears. I’m spending my brief time in Dakar learning about ANAFA’s mission and organizational structure, and making a short “vidéo capsule” about the intersection of local languages and digital technology in Senegal.

Coming soon in my next entry, incha allah, will be an abridged, coarsely translated version of my first dialogue with Usmaan about ANAFA’s history, African languages, new media, and the future of West Africa.