InfoTech in Swahili

There are a number of barriers that keep people away from the benefits of information technology. Not being able to afford a computer, or get access to one for example. However, during my stay in Arusha I have found that the number of people with email addresses suggests a wide range of people can scrape together enough money to visit an internet caf� every fortnight or so. People who see the benefits of being online can usually find the money required. A more fundamental barrier perhaps is that of language. The language of IT is often hard to understand, with all its jargon and strange conventions that those in the know just take for granted. Being faced with a computer for the first time is a confusing experience. The keyboard isn’t laid out ABC style, but a funny QWERTYUIOP – where is the letter A? What is that thing next to the keyboard other people in here are fiddling with all the time? What? A mouse? Get me out of here!

Once those stumbling blocks are passed, you will start looking at the screen. File Edit View Favorites – what are these? Confused? Well, imagine if you didn’t speak English.

The language of IT and the internet is mainly English. Web sites are predominantly in English. Software often comes in a variety of languages, unfortunately Swahili is rarely included.

A number of popular web sites are available in Swahili. Many of these are from international broadcasters who have Swahili language radio programmes, for example:

The links on pull together the latest content from many of these sites – although on first glance it looks like this site is in English, scroll down for headlines in Swahili.

There are also a number of Tanzanian sites that are mainly in Swahili

Fortunately, the most popular and useful search engine, Google is available in Swahili. If you aren’t seeing Google in Swahili when you use it, click on the Language Settings link, and select Swahili from the list of languages under Use the Google Interface in Your Language. This does not limit the sites that appear in your search to Swahili, but may make you feel more at home when using the search engine.

The open source directory, DMOZ has a Swahili section at with Swahili sites.

One of the best sites about Swahili is the Kamusi Project – This site includes an online dictionary, translation tools. Unfortunately, the Living Swahili Dictionary seems to be broken at present.

Getting Swahili Represented Online

Swahili web sites and software at present do not represent the number of Swahili speakers using computers or the internet, or those who will be in the near future. What can be done to change this? There are a few things you can do as computer users or providers of IT services to help buck this trend:

  • Browsers can be set to automatically select Swahili versions of web pages
  • in Internet Explorer go to Tools, select Options then click on the Languages button. In the window that pops up select “Swahili [sw]”. This will not necessarily make a noticeable difference, but site providers will see that people are looking for Swahili versions of their site, and may in time respond. If Swahili is listed at the top of the language list here, Google will automatically display its Swahili version.
  • If your web site has pages in Swahili say so! In your HTML add the line in your head tag. This will allow search engines to see your site is in Swahili. In the future this may allow filtering in search engines.
  • Register Swahili sites you know about on DMOZ at the link above using the Add URL link.
  • Well designed software is easily translated. Get involved with projects to translate open source software and web sites into Swahili. A project exists to translate the GNOME Linux desktop into Swahili – see for more details. The Mozilla browser is also being translated – see and the pages on Juamozilla for details. Such projects can only succeed when many people get involved. If you speak English and Swahili, you could be volunteering on these projects!

As things stand IT is dominated by English, but this is a downward trend with only 52% of web pages being in English in 2001. More and more languages are being represented online meaning greater access to more people. The language barriers are coming down!

Originally published in Arusha Times 309


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