Lettera 27
Redazione | 25-11-2007 | ITA
(Translated by Anamaría Crowe Serrano)

What if the world spoke another language? Not the language of the colonisers but the language of the colonised, of the marginalised, of the "pariahs". A language against the prejudices of Western culture.

We wanted to wait a year at least before talking about lettera27, the non-profit making organisation set up in Italy in July 2006, supported by Moleskine. We wanted to wait and see how much of this ambitious project would become reality. And what a reality it has turned out to be. "Its mission is to support the right to literacy, to education, and the access to knowledge and information, all over the world and especially in the most deprived areas". We wanted to wait and see if it would end up being yet another empty promise, albeit well packaged, or a truly "functional" project.

So we waited.

As far as functional is concerned, we found the WikiAfrica project, which participated in the Festivaletteratura (Literary Festival) in Mantua, was present at the Literacy Campaign at the Frankfurt Book Fair and did various workshops for staff. To date the project has paid great attention to public relations and forged strong liaisons in the cultural sphere. But what has become, in a year and a half, of the initial idea of including the African reality, with its own vocabulary, in the global Wikipedia universe? "Griot, Tuareg poetry, African botany, Black Islam..." Five - and we stress five - founders of lettera27 have gone to the trouble of adding these and hundreds more words like them to Wikipedia. It's an admirable effort, especially given the mere 75,000 euros allocated to the enterprise.

Then there are the Moleskine notebooks that some artists - Dave Eggers, among others - have donated to lettera27 to advocate the cause. If you're curious about them, you'll find them at Moleskinecity.

As well as that, there are the 448 messages collected in the "Tower of Babel", sent from Italy and all around the world. Strangely, almost all of them are written in Italian (less than ten messages written in a language other than Italian). The original idea behind the "Tower of Babel" was to open up a space dedicated to "thousands of thoughts, phrases and dreams on the theme of the right to education and access to knowledge." In a year and a half, the goal of the first thousand still seems like a distant dream. Of the messages on the list, many don't go beyond "greetings and a hug".

Among the aims of the foundation, we find: "In the process of developing and carrying out its work, the foundation is open to collaboration with other agencies, organizations, or individuals who are pursuing compatible goals". Why then is the Amref Dagoretti Children project, a theatre workshop held in the suburbs of Nairobi, the only collaboration we know of? Why is there no trace of collaboration with any of the numerous cultural associations that revolve around African bloggers, for example?

Why is there no trace or any information at all on what the rest of the world is doing vis-à-vis literacy in developing countries? In 2002, for example, the UN inaugurated the Millennium Villages project, with the aim of combating poverty in the Third World. Among the objectives of this campaign against poverty was the aim to increase literacy, to make information freely available and the right to communication. How was this to be done? Thanks to the collaboration of Columbia University in the city of New York and to Ericson, 79 African villages will get - for free - the cable infrastructure necessary for installation of telephone equipment as well as solar powered batteries for mobile phones. Terranet, the Swedish company financed by Ericson, is currently testing experimental peer-to-peer technology for mobile phones in Ecuador and Tanzania. It's an independent network that provides free wireless communication.

Apart from the projects undertaken in the west, there are also some very laudable home-spun initiatives. William Kamkwamba, at 14 years of age, has made a windmill to provide electricity for his family. Five years on, he has created a blog for research and the financing of projects that might contribute to the development of his country: see Malawi Windmill Blog.

Then there is Internet World Stats. Africa is the continent that has seen the biggest increase - between 2000 and 2007 - in the number of Internet users: 874% more, compared to the 236% more recorded for the rest of the world over the same period. If numbers can impress, it is worth remembering that this vertiginous increase represents about 4.7% of the African population. In other words, in Africa, only one in twenty people use the Internet.

Yet that 4.7% of users has the will and the means to be heard, independently, without the mediation of western development projects. Just take a look at Afrigator, African Path, African Loft, allAfrica, Timbuktu Chronicles e Africa Unchained.

In fact, the journalist Jennifer Bréa affirms that African bloggers aren't very keen on the idea of non-African "experts" talking about their reality. Moreover, the Africans are asking rock star Bono to stop his humanitarian campaigns - according to Bréa - because western assistance and paternalism weaken individual resources and creativity.

Africa can get ahead on its own. The Chinese seem to have understood this all too well, seeing in the African continent a new market in which they can invest, compared with the European view that continues to look on Third World countries as a sick person in need of cures and special attention.

If you want to have some idea of the cultural wealth and resources that the so-called "Third World" has, Global Voices Online might be of help. It is a site set up by the American Ethan Zuckerman, where you can find all the blogs from developing countries. Zuckerman is also responsible for having founded Geekcorps in 2002: a voluntary non-profit making group with participants from the largest hi-tech companies in the USA and Europe, prepared to work for free, for up to 4 months, offering training in developing countries.

None of these promises are empty. And they're well packaged too.