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Ethan Zuckerman is Worldchanging

One of the most exciting Free/Open Source software projects underway in Africa is Translate.org.za, an effort focused on the herculean task of making F/OSS software available in each of South Africa's eleven official languages. Supported by the government's Department of Communications, commercial software developers and private charities like the Shuttleworth Foundation, Dwayne Bailey and his team are localizing OpenOffice and Mozilla into Afrikaans, Northern Sotho, Xhosa, Zulu, Ndebele, SiSwati, Sesotho, Setswana, Xitsonga, and Tshivenda. As of August, OpenOffice can be downloaded in Zulu, Sepedi and Afrikaans.

Why start with OpenOffice rather than Linux? It's a stealth strategy, designed to introduce government, business and educational users to the value of F/OSS without forcing them to change platforms. Bailey believes that once users see the benefits of using office tools and a web browser in their mother tongues, they'll demand more localized software, and realize that F/OSS makes localization possible, while Microsoft is unlikely to produce XP Setswana any time soon. (Microsoft has promised a Kiswahili version of Windows for East African users, but it's unclear when the software will be available.)

Translate.org.za is emerging as a clearinghouse for translation software in Africa, with links to Kiswahili spellcheckers and a Luganda version of Mozilla. Through the efforts of Translate.org.za, and likeminded projects like Kabissa's Bisharat!, Africanization - or "A12N" - is becoming a major new frontier in the battle to ensure that the benefits of information technology are felt all over the world.

Ethan Zuckerman founded Geek Corps, serves as a fellow at Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet & Society, edits BlogAfrica and blogs himself.

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