This was my second visit to Benin, where I visited first time about two years ago. This time I stayed there for two months from October to December 2019.
Benin in West Africa is often called ”a small African country”, even though its population (about 12 million in 2020) is twice the population of Finland. Perhaps the smallness comes from the area that covers about one third of Finland.
I was a stipendiat in Villa Karo, that is the only Finnish cultural center and residence in Africa. It is located in Grand-Popo, a community in South-West coast of Benin that consists of a cluster of villages at the issue and lagoon area of Mono river.
Villa Karo hosted a Wikipedia event in November. The purpose of the event was to inform people living in Grand-Popo rural area about Wikipedia and to urge local people to form editing ring.
If we look at Wikipedia articles in any of the about 300 language Wikipedia editions, they seem formally more or less the same. This is somewhat deceiving, because the conditions to create these articles are not the same in different parts of the world. In order to understand the conditions in Benin, we have to know some facts.
Accessibility to net remains a prevailing problem in Benin. There is good coverage of mobile network, but the data is expensive for those who can afford using it. Average price of one gigabyte (1GB) of mobile data (2019) in Benin is 20,99 US$. It ranks with the most expensive data among African countries with Chad, Zimbabwe and Mozambique. The average price of one gigabyte in Finland is 1,16 $.
The big star of modern communication in Africa is smartphone. It has achieved a great breakthrough since the transistor radio about 50 years ago. Looking from Wikipedia viewpoint, smartphone is great for reading and short editing. But hardly it is a device for serious searching information and writing of articles, in spite of Wikipedia mobile interfaces. Laptops and tablets are rare and accessed mostly by those who need them for work.
In the tower of Babel
If you think of languages of Benin, it is the tower of Babel. In principle, I guess Wikimedia policy would be to support African languages, but how to create Wikipedias in a country where local languages, almost all non-literal, extend to as much as about 50? In Benin area French and Yoruba language Wikipedia are published, and Fon language Wikipedia is in incubation stage.
Culture in Africa is mediated from one generation to another mostly orally. Here Wikipedia verification standards have not much to say. Should we create another citation policy for these languages?
African information resources are scarce. In Benin public library or museum network do not cover especially the smaller communities. I discussed the hot issue of restitution of African art and cultural objects from European museums back to Africa with local experts. I was reminded that there is no national museum in Benin.
Illiteracy, which is still more than 50 percent of the population, is a big problem in Benin. Wikipedia is a media that can help to fight illiteracy. In Benin it is usual that people understand one or two African languages and in addition to French, the Lingua Franca, another European language, too.
On the other hand, I never had difficulties finding my way in Benin. The society is very multilingual and the skills of oral communication are high.
Thirst for knowledge
During my first travel, I visited a secondary school class in Grand-Popo and gave a lecture about Wikipedia in a classroom with only two chalkboards and one map. After the lecture I asked the school students to present any questions from Wikipedia, since I had a laptop with mobile connection with me. Wikipedia gave answers to all their questions in French, which is the language used in schools. The thirst for knowledge seemed to be endless. Is there a list of French kings? Give some details of the planet Pluto. What is the birth year of Michael Jackson?
A Nobel prize study published last year confirm that providing information with developmental aid is essential in fighting poverty. In schools, we must change the Wikipedia usage and writing closer to the students everyday life and their own view rather than abstract structuralism from above.
Those who have permanent access to Internet read Wikipedia. But they seem to know less of how to use Wikipedia and how to edit and write it. It is important to mediate the readers of Wikipedia knowledge about Wikimedia information systems to understand the elements of the whole.
Editathons that are used in many countries in introducing Wikipedia, are not perhaps the best way to initial approach here. Understanding the organization and idea of knowledge and structural information, the use of citation and principles of encyclopedic knowledge are perhaps more essential than creating hands-on situations.
I was invited by Wikimédiens du Bénin User Group to University of Benin in Abomey-Calavi to talk about the three photo contests they organized in 2019. I analyzed and gave criticism on participating photographs. Especially popular was Wiki Loves Africa 2019 photo contest, where Benin achieved the second largest number of photos uploaded. Is it adherent to this multilingual society, that visual communication is paramount? If I think of the African culture heritage, no better word comes into my mind than ”audio-visual”. Think of the possibilities of Wikimedia systems with this in the age of smartphones!
One of the ideas brought up in discussion of the Villa Karo event was that the organizers of Wikipedia events should guarantee at least one working computer with network for the participants.
Wikimedia Suomi is planning a new Benin Bilateral Companionship program. Our long-term goal is to share the experience between WMFI and the new Benin Wikimedia movement. We work with culture center Villa Karo in Grand-Popo, Benin and their Helsinki office. I met with the representatives of Villa Karo organization from both Benin and Finland, and they greeted this with interest.
After the Villa Karo event, a local Wikimediens du Grand-Popo group was formed as a WhatsApp group.
Villa Karo main building in Grand-Popo, Benin in December 2017.
With Wikimédiens du Benin people in front of Villa Karo main building.
Wikipedia in Villa Karo event.
Schoolkids studying books in Villa Karo library.
Villa Karo museum.
I caught a Zangbéto performing at Vodun Festival in Grand-Popo, January 2018.
Street market view in Come, the nearest city.
Zinsou Museum in Ouidah, Benin.
Viewers at the monument "Door of no return" in Ouidah.