WikiIndaba 2017, A Meeting of African Wikimedians in Accra, Ghana

Hotel Urbano, Accra, Ghana.

The African continent has about 1.1 billion people with all of its 14 major cities having access to internet. This means there are more Africans who read or have had interaction with Wikipedia than those who are contributing to the website.

This then raises the questions, why are Africans themselves not contributing to Wikipedia?  Who is contributing there? And what challenges are Wikipedia volunteers facing in the African continent? What are the successes and what can be learned from other African Wikimedians? And what needs to be done going forward?

All these were questions raised at the WikiIndaba 2017 conference in Accra, Ghana. A biannual regional conference of African Wikimedians that took place between 20 and 22 January 2017 where about 50 Wikimedians were in attendance.

Wiki Indaba 17 Day 1
First day of plenary session, WikiIndaba 2017.

Several key plenary sessions explored the ideas of why Africa’s growth depends on cross collaborations of open movements, how to choose the right partnership and how to communicate with partners? Ingo Koll, began discussing with a hard-hitting presentation on the situation of African languages. He argued that African languages are as important as the dominant European languages, particularly with regards to Wikipedia. He pointed out that the reason why some African countries aren’t able to develop their own languages is because of too much linguistics diversity. However, Wikipedia and other open media can preserve these languages and give them a chance to survive. Later he shared statistics of how many African Wikipedia languages were there since 2014 and how many are there currently. This presentation renewed my interest in editing and improving my small language Wikipedia which also is my mother tongue, SiSwati Wikipedia.

Community experience and the need for partnerships emerged as the key theme on the 2nd day of the conference. The conference was divided into two group discussions where my group tackled the question of how to run a successful partnership? It emerged that Wikipedia is a well-known brand and with the right kind of communication skills it’s not difficult to sell it to potential partners. Once you are able to form a partnership, that will also allow you to gain access to the wider community of the partner. Some of the challenges that were shared by the group entailed not being able to convince active community Wikimedians to take part in volunteering efforts as a result you find that there are very small number of volunteers in usergroups. There were however solutions that were identified to solving some of the challenges, these included identifying your strengths as a chapter or user-groups, this means that you don’t need to be many in number but those who are good with administration can focus on tasks such as filling, bookkeeping, planning and drafting of grant application and reporting, while those with communication skills can deal with anything that has to do with the media, organising of events and public relations.

Having realised the dearth in Wikipedia volunteers and African content, the South African Wikimedia chapter conceived and held the inaugural WikiIndaba in 2014 as a pilot with support from the Wikimedia Foundation. The aim of that regional conference was to establish where to begin with supporting African Wikimedians and what were the pressing issues that needed urgent attention. Different challenges and successes were shared amongst volunteers and a decision was taken to have a team that will monitor progress of African usergroups and provide help where needed. It was also decided that there needed to be more open communication between African Wikimedians and WikiIndaba needs to be a continuous conference. The African Wikimedia mailing list was set up and the next host city was awarded to Accra, Ghana.

In 2014 I was a Wikipedian In Residence (WiR) with the Johannesburg Heritage Foundation (JHF). Hence I had an interest on the break out session about GLAM and WiR. I was not doing a presentation on this session but I shared my experiences on the work I did at the JHF and some of the participants got to ask detailed questions around how did we got to partner with JHF? What were my daily tasks? Was I paid? How did JHF benefit from that partnership? And what was in for Wikimedia ZA? Firstly,  I shared how we identified JHF which are an archive institution with an interest in heritage sites and buildings, this was important to us since we were running Joburgpedia, a wikitown project which aims to increase Joburg’s content. JHF has hard copies of original pictures and archival material at their disposal. My daily task entailed digitizing the pictures and old documents, create Wikipedia articles for sites tagged as heritage, generate Wikipedia qr codes for the blue plaques which were to be installed at those heritage sites so that when someone scan the code it directs them to the Wikipedia page. I explained that I was based in JHF for 2 or 3 days a week from 9am to 12 noon depending on whether I’m off from my real job that week. I was a volunteer which meant that I was not paid but received compensation  for transportation, data and other expenses I might have incurred that week I was at JHF. Sometimes it required me to go to the actual proposed heritage site etc. Digitization helps preserve the originals and makes them easy to access while generating interest. 

One of the highlights of the conference for me was Peter Gallert’s presentation, where he argued that oral citations don’t need to be recorded as it’s accepted practice on the English Wikipedia. He reminded the conference about the very existence of Wikipedia by quoting Jimmy Wales, the cofounder of Wikipedia when he is quoted as saying ” Imagine a world in which every single person on the planet is given free access to the sum of all human knowledge.” His emphasis was in “the sum of all human knowledge”. Gallert pointed out that there’s more to oral citations than what is captured on visual or audio recordings, also, the recordings are usually something used by someone who doesn’t have authority over the local language or culture of the local people and might misrepresent or misinterpret what he’s being told. Framing questions the correct way is important as well. I was in particular fascinated by the examples he gave of his experience in Namibia about interviewing a village elder, “instead of asking which year was electricity brought in the village, one must ask under which chief did electricity come to the village? And it would be easy for the tribesman to respond since he might not be counting the way you are counting.”  The focus of the presentation was to show the stark difference between Western way of citation and the African way of citation and how each can learn from the other. Also, it was to show that Wikipedia needs to accommodate all kinds of knowledge sources. Compounded by a culture of speedy deletions when Wikipedia users don’t agree with your views, the conference realised that this was a difficult feat to accomplish.

On the third day I attended Asaf’s presentation on conflict engagement. This presentation was about giving Wikimedians the necessary tools to deal with or handle conflict better. Asaf, Head of Global South & Relationships at the Wikimedia Foundation, argued that as humans we cannot avoid conflicts, it’s part of human behaviour. He made an example of an elephant and a mahout, the elephant being your emotions and the mahout being yourself. ” As Wikipedians we must strive to control our emotions, that’s what the mahout does to the elephant.” One thing I’ve learned from this talk was that Wikimedians are people too and sometimes they loose their cool but when you are confronted by someone who deletes an article you’ve just created or revert your edit, try to deal with the person on the merits of his action rather than personal attacks, bring as much facts as you can to the table and if it happens that you win your case, don’t crush that person’s ego by bragging about your win. An important aspect that came out of this presentation is that conflict can be prevented by clear and open communication where one frames what they want to say by clearly letting people know the subject topic of what they want to address, they then have to advocate their claim by supporting their statement, then they would have to illustrate how their idea will work, lastly they would have to enquire others opinions to what they think of the idea. “If you don’t reach consensus you can always solve a dispute by a vote, that’s the culture at Wikimedia “… I realised as Asaf was presenting that this is not an easy thing to do but it’s something that can be learned over time.

An advantage of having Wikimedia Foundation staff attending the conferences is that you can interact and ask them questions and get detailed answers. This is what was happened at this conference. Participants got to ask Kacie Harold, Grants Program Officer at the Wikimedia Foundation, questions around Wikimania Scholarship Applications, how to go about applying for them? and what’s the criterion for awarding scholarships? Previous grantees of the Wikimania scholarships shared their experiences and what one needs to do in order to be awarded one. Peter Gallert gave an answer which I thought summarized the whole process beautifully.  He said when you do the application don’t fight to finish it in 10 minutes,  Hence it’s important to do the application early and save your answers to fill them later. When you write your answers to the questions, think more like you are writing a CV. Members of the conference were encouraged to speak to those who have been granted scholarships before in order to check if their applications were correctly answered before they submit them for vetting.

Another break-away session I decided to attend was Wikidata, presented by Asaf. Before he got to the nitty gritty of how Wiki data actually works and how one can contribute to it, Asaf explained the importance of data and how it helps Wikipedia and other Wikimedia projects by using codes which makes it easy to distinguish text therefore limiting ambiguity on searches. He continued to explain how Wikidata can determine same names that might mean different things e.g Ushaka on the Zulu Wikipedia can mean a Zulu king and the founder of the Zulu nation and Ushaka can also mean a Shark which is a fish. He then went on to explain about the different ways to contribute on this Wiki where you can play different games that were designed to encourage contribution. Questions were raised and experiences were shared by other members but what I took from this presentation was perhaps we can introduce Wikidata games to our editathons especially when we are doing schools outreach. I think the games are something that can encourage learners to contribute to Wikidata. 

The latter part of the conference was open to questions from the floor. It gave an overall view of what participants were thinking about the conference and what they think needed to be done going forward. A point of concern was that there’s not much representation from all the regions of African continent. It was determined that more activation work needs to be done by participants in their respective countries to activate more volunteers for better representation. Katherine Maher, Wikimedia Executive Director gave closing remarks thanking all who participated and the organising team with a congratulatory note to Tunisia as the next host country for Indaba 2018.