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Fulbright-06-07-narrative | ... in the spirit of service


Narrative from Fulbright application

Narrative from my February 2006 application to fill an empty Fulbright teaching and research position at the University of Kankan, Guinea in 2006-7.

Language in Local Development in Rural Upper Guinea: An Underappreciated Dimension in Innovation, Dissemination of Information, and Community Participation?
Statement for Fulbright in Guinea #6606
Donald Z. Osborn

This is an application for a lecture/research Fulbright at the University of Kankan in Guinea for the 2006-7 academic year. Per the instructions on the website, it therefore includes narratives for both the teaching and research parts of the appointment (sections 1 and 2 below, respectively).

1. Lecturing/Teaching

My intended teaching field would be rural community development, and I could address issues of environment, agriculture, language, and uses of information and communication technology (ICT) in that context.

1.1 Why I Desire Appointment in Guinea / Contributions to Host Institution

There are several reasons why I would like to teach, research, and learn at the University of Kankan in Guinea, and several contributions I would hope to make, but if I had to put it all into a single word it would be “linkages.”

First, in terms of geography, this opportunity will enable me to better understand firsthand an important region – Upper Guinea – that is located between areas I have previously worked in (namely southwestern Mali and the Futa Jalon, also known as Middle Guinea).

In terms of research (which is outlined in the second section, below), it will help me explore the connections between language and rural development, two of my main interest areas.

On the level of contributions to the host institution, I believe that aside from contributing perspectives from my areas of specialty through teaching and interaction with colleagues, sharing aspects of my research, and offering my administrative and planning experience, I would be able to assist in establishing some institutional linkages. What could be among the latter are hard to outline before working there, but since I have maintained and developed a range of contacts in academia and like to facilitate networking,

A particular interest is in seeing what the potential is for enhancing collaboration among departments dealing with aspects of development on the one hand, and Guinean languages on the other.

Naturally I recognize that work at the University of Kankan will have its challenges, but feel that the opportunity to contribute and learn in this context is well worth working to overcome them.

1.2 What Experience as an Educator

My experience as an educator is diverse, including training, extension, classroom teaching, and use of the internet. I have also done some advising and mentoring. In all of these I approach the task as an opportunity to share knowledge, make connections, and learn. I think my range of experience is an asset, giving me examples to draw on.

The selection criteria would naturally put an emphasis on classroom teaching, and in this area I did one semester of courses on environment and community development at Chengdu University of Technology (CDUT) in Chengdu, Sichuan, China. These were in effect an experiment in that I was the first teacher to give courses in English outside of a strictly focused English course context.

I have also taught Fulfulde (Masina) and Pular (Futa Jalon) to small numbers of students. 1.3 How to Adapt Previously Taught Courses or Teaching Style

My approach to presentations was once described as easy and conversational, and in classroom settings I prefer this. Of course in a setting where there may be a large number of students in a class and an expectation of stronger professorial control, I will have to set a more formal tone at the outset, which can be modified later.

In my courses at CDUT I made extensive use of PowerPoint slides in part because instruction was in a language many students could not follow verbally alone. I realize that this will not be possible at the University of Kankan, but I also do not think it will be necessary since the language of instruction (French) will be familiar to the students.

I would hope to bring into consideration some key literature on development in English that students probably have not encountered, though one of the challenges will be how to work that out. My thought is that I will have to provide a translated “digest” form of such materials presented as a survey.

1.4 Expected Effect of This Opportunity on Teaching/Professional Work

I believe this opportunity will: 1) provide me with a rich complement to my previous experience in West Africa, in particular (a) a better understanding of academia in the region and of the graduates it produces and (b) first hand experience in the Mande heartland; 2) give me a new research base to support current and future investigations of topics of interest; and 3) enhance my credentials for obtaining an academic position in the U.S.

1.5 What Has Prepared Me to Work in this Country

I have lived and worked for about eleven years in West Africa, including in another region of Guinea (the Futa Jalon), and about a year each in China and Israel. I believe that during this time (which included Peace Corps service) I have demonstrated abilities both as a cross-cultural ambassador and to adapt to different living conditions.

2. Research Proposal: Language in local development in Rural Upper Guinea: An underappreciated dimension in innovation, dissemination of information, and community participation?

Like most African countries, Guinea is predominately rural, with the economy (apart from the huge export-oriented bauxite mining industry in the coastal region) based largely on agriculture and natural resources. Rural development therefore looms large in any plans for national development and improving the quality of life for the Guinean people, so there is a need to better understand its dynamics on the local level as well as higher levels.

There has been a great deal written on development as a process, both from the points of view of reporting on projects in the field and discussing broader trends and theories. This discourse in Africa has two aspects that tend separate it from rural realities: 1) it is dominated by people outside of the rural areas, many of them from outside of Africa, and 2) it is carried on in languages that are not widely spoken among rural people, with only limited didactic information verbally translated into African languages in the field (more on this point below).

Within this discourse such as it is, there is also very little consideration of the linguistic dimensions, even in the study of development communication. Although there is some academic treatment of the subject of African languages in development (e.g., Robinson 1996), it is relatively limited and to our knowledge there is little examination of the effectiveness of for example, agricultural research and extension, in official and African languages. There is anecdotal evidence to support the idea that linguistic barriers impede communication and understanding in technical areas related to development (see for instance Fagerberg-Diallo n.d.), but as yet there is not a great deal of hard research. This is a gap that this project seeks to address.

The interest in researching this goes beyond enhancing the effectiveness of development programs to consider the dynamics of local development. We know that in community development, people tend to use their first languages in the main, and often in multilingual contexts there is a mixing of languages. What we do not know as well is how much people talk about new knowledge that is introduced in whatever language and how misunderstandings due to poor translation or lack of appropriate and comprehensible terminology may affect the quality of discussion, or how richer information in the language(s) of the community may make for more productive and successful development. These are some of the questions that might be asked by the proposed research.

2.1 Research Activities Proposed / Research Approach

My interest in better understanding certain aspects of language use in rural development and extension includes the localization of ICT, but for purposes of this research, my main focus will be on how extension services, development projects, and community groups use the official language and the main first language of the region, Maninkakan.

I am proposing an exploratory, qualitative study, using expert interviews (beginning in Conakry, but mainly in Kankan), field observation, structured interviews, and follow up. Some basic statistical data will be sought for background, and other statistical data if available may be incorporated in the final paper(s) summarizing findings, but quantitative studies would be left to follow-up research as needed. It will look at three areas important in local development: innovation, dissemination of information (formal and informal), and participation

One key aspect of development is innovation, including – in the rural context – the adoption and adaptation of crops and techniques of production and utilization. In this context I am interested in looking specifically at the use of substitutes – mainly the historically recent crop of soybeans – for the seeds of the African locust bean tree (Parkia biglobosa) in making the popular West African condiment known in Manding as sumbala or sometimes sungala. This is a trend that has been little documented in the literature but is increasingly common in the face of growing population and a static or declining population of African locust bean trees (Osborn 2006). One of the reasons why this is of interest in Upper Guinea is that the first documented case of such substitution with soybeans was an experiment dating to the late 1940s in this region (Chevalier 1948). What the current practice is, how it relates if at all to that early experiment, and what people think of it, and again the language of the innovation and the passing on of information about it are questions I will consider.

This also relates to a broader interest in communication and the dissemination of information in African rural development. In the case of local techniques for use of soybeans, for instance, this has involved informal channels. The formal channels of agricultural extension are of interest too, in large part because the national agricultural research and extension services (NARES) in Africa have tended to function in French or English at the higher levels, often leaving information to be translated ad hoc into farmers' languages as necessary at the level of extension agents in the field. To investigate this aspect of language and local development in the Kankan area, I will need to begin with open-ended discussions with extension services, building I hope on connections in the university. From there it should be possible to develop more structured questions and approaches for later research.

Language is also a key issue in considering the modes of beneficiary participation in local development efforts. “Participation” has become a byword in the field of international development since at least three decades, but curiously there has been little discussion of language as a factor. In effect, it seems to be taken for granted that on the community level, the local language(s) is(are) used for various purposes. However, how effectively this is worked with by projects is an open question. Indeed, one could argue that the language of discourse on the local level has a great deal to do with the level and quality of participation and neglect of it hampers longer term success and “sustainability” of development. To understand this better I hope to observe a selected community or two, perhaps working with at least one where N'ko literacy and programs are present.

2.2 Academic and Professional Context of the Project

Development has been a major theme in Africa since before the end of colonial rule. It has taken various forms according to different political end economic philosophies and successive fads in the community of foreign donors and international aid organizations, but several preoccupations remain more or less constant. Among these are rural development, focusing largely on improving agriculture and local natural resource management. This reflects both African realities, where still the majority of Africans live in rural communities, depending more or less directly on production from the land for their livelihood and even survival, and the dominant understanding in economics of the key role played by agriculture in economic development.

This concern is reflected in the work of NARES, a few international research centers, and various development projects working either through the previously mentioned or separately. However well or poorly these have performed – and consensus is generally that they have not succeeded well – one constant is that all of these function formally in the former colonial and now official languages in Africa, until the last mile in the field, as it were, where concepts, terms and propaganda are translated by extension agents into the languages of the farmers.

This “last mile” of the research and extension chain is arguably a big part of the problem. Extension agents are not trained in translation and often do not master the language of the milieu in which they work. In some cases may have insufficient understanding of the concepts they are working with, which is also related to language, as the following passage illustrates:

“In a recently published dictionary of agricultural terminology in an African language (Pulaar), the authors explain that they decided to compile this dictionary after their 'frustrating attempts to transmit scientific knowledge' in an agricultural extension program. They tell the story of speaking with '...a young technician at our institute for agricultural research who was in daily contact with researchers there, who constantly spoke with them in French about every detail concerning growing cotton, who carried out experiments for them. And yet one day he admitted that until he had read the version in Pulaar, he had never understood the booklet written in French about the insects which destroy a cotton crop' (Tourneux and Dairou, 1998, p. 9). As they exclaim, 'If he couldn't understand it, who else possibly could?'” (Fagerberg-Diallo, n.d.)

Such discussion of the role of language in development has been limited, whether in extension or other spheres. Some of that relates to adult basic education which in turn is part of a larger body of literature on first language and bilingual education. So far as we are aware, Clinton Robinson (1996) published what is apparently the only book-length treatment of the broader topic of language and development in Africa (Watson and Robinson 1998 list some more general titles in their references). A workshop sponsored by the British Council and the U.K. Department for International Development (DfID) in 1998 was apparently the only one focusing specifically on this issue, and it was partly aimed at providing information for education policy. Another at Cornell in late 2005 had a focus on “language and poverty,” looking at connections between language, including endangered languages, and poverty, but not the dynamics of development.

On the other hand, some literature about languages in Africa mentions issues relating to language use in various activities.

Part of the reason for this gap is certainly that in African contexts, development donors and agencies tend to give little importance to indigenous languages (Watson and Robinson 1998), except in literacy and sometimes primary schools, although this is beginning to change. Some even see African multilingualism as a hindrance to development (Brock-Utne 2005), even though there has never been any causal link demonstrated between linguistic diversity and poverty (Watson and Robinson 1998). This negative view is due to several possible reasons among which it is worth mentioning that the elites in African countries with whom development agencies interact generally have little interest in expanding use of African languages (whether for preserving their position or for fear of setting back construction of “national unity”). Nevertheless, issues of power and status are involved, as Easton and Belloncle's (2000) experience with a Malian extension service jealous to preserve its monopoly on research against a local farmers' research group (which functioned in Bambara) illustrates.

2.3 Teaching and Professional Experience

My professional experience includes development work in the field on rural development projects (primarily agriculture and natural resource management), administrative work, and, especially recently, work online in collaboration with various people on ICT localization issues. I am currently directing a small project entitled PanAfrican Localisation Project funded by IDRC which aims to facilitate the translation of software into African languages. My previous experience has been in rural development and development adminitration. I have also done some writing as an “independent scholar” in the years since earning my doctorate.

2.4 Significance of the Project for the Field, Professional Development, and the Host Country

Per the discussions in the introduction to this section (2) and in 2.2, this research would explore what seems to be an underappreciated dimension of rural development in Guinea and Africa. In principle this research should contributre to both the fields of development studies and linguistics, though the emphasis here is on the former. In practical terms this research is relevant to Guinea's and Africa's need to enhance the effectiveness of development of rural communities and the essential agricultural sector of their economy(ies). This work will also meet with efforts to use ICT for development in Africa and to localize web content and software interfaces in its indigenous languages.

2.5 Why Residence in the Host Country is Necessary for the Project

Several things make residence in Guinea necessary: collaboration with faculty in Kankan who have limited connectivity; contact with extension services in the area, which is difficult without personal presence; observation of communities and conversations with people involved in development and extension activities.

2.6 Arrangements for Affiliation

The position is filled each year through an arrangement with the Fulbright process.

2.7 Competence in Languages

I speak, read, and write French from using it in various capacities during eleven years' work and residence in Francophone West Africa, through reading and study related to graduate research, and through online work. Among other things, I founded (Jan. 2002) and maintain a major French-language e-mail list on ICT and African languages, Unicode-Afrique, and organized the first panel with presentations in French at an Internationalization and Unicode Conference (IUC27, Berlin, 6-8 April 2005).

I also have a decent (though admittedly rusty) command of Bamanankan (Bambara), a Manding language very close to the Maninkakan (Malinké) that is the dominant language in Upper Guinea. I also have command of Pular as spoken in Middle Guinea.

2.8 How Information Will be Disseminated

I plan to publish at least one article in a refereed journal and there will hopefully be at least one opportunity to make a presentation on the research and experience. In addition I will be sharing observations and thoughts with other colleagues involved in language and/or rural development, and members of the Mande Studies Association.

2.9 What Topics I Might Lecture On

In addition to the courses I will teach I can give lectures on diverse topics such as:

  • Software localization in African languages
  • American Civil War from the perspective of a soldier (my family has correspondence from two collateral ancestors who served in the Army of the Potomac; I catalogued this several years ago).
  • Aspects of life in the US and in China

2.10 What Has Prepared Me to Work in this Country

(see 1.5 above)

3. Tentative Calendar

This position and research will be for 9 months, beginning October 10, 2006. A tentative calendar for the research will include a week in Conakry during October, then Oct.-Dec. 2006 in Kankan getting situated and doing preliminary investigations in the three indicated areas. The next six months (Jan.-June 2007) will be organized based on the findings and connections made during the initial period to permit optimal exploration of the topics outlined

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