On a trip to Tanzania in 1993, Martin Benjamin GRD ’93 was fed up with every Swahili dictionary he found.
So upon returning home, Benjamin created the Kamusi Project, a dual English-Swahili and Swahili-English dictionary on the Internet. While it has over 56,000 entries, what makes the Kamusi Project truly unique is the fact that it is a “living dictionary.” Through the use of its own privately-developed “edit engine,” users can suggest corrections to existing entries and new entries to add to the database. The site also offers a discussion forum where scholars, students, and native speakers can debate and refine definitions for the dictionary.
Benjamin, now a lecturer in the African Studies department, said the dictionaries available while he was in Tanzania were out of date and difficult to use.
“I was extremely frustrated with the dictionaries that were available at the time,” Benjamin said. “The main dictionary that was used had been completed in 1936 by Oxford. [I knew that] if someone sat down and wrote a dictionary it would take a very long time. But if it was parceled out, each person would take a smaller section and take a lot less time.”
After his return from Africa, Benjamin, then a graduate student at Yale, proposed the idea of a Swahili dictionary to his Swahili professor, Ann Biersteker.
After receiving a $4,000 grant from the Yale University Consortium for Language Teaching and Learning in 1994, Benjamin began a database that had 3,000 words by December of the same year. From its humble beginnings, the project received help from a variety of sources. Merrill Lynch agreed to provide pro bono Excel Spreadsheet services, and several graduate students helped input data, often for little or no monetary compensation. Benjamin taught himself HTML and designed the web site, which was able to post a 21,000 word dictionary by September 1995.
The project got a much-needed boost in 1997 in the form of a three-year grant from the U.S. Department of Education, which allowed Benjamin to hire a computer programmer, Joe Rodrigue, to start work on the edit engine. Meanwhile, Benjamin received the copyright to the Rechenbach Swahili Dictionary that had been published by Catholic University Press in the 1960s but had gone out of print. With the absorption of this data, the Kamusi Project reached 56,000 entries by 1999, and in April 2000 the edit engine was finally launched.
Since 1995, the Kamusi Project has received over 677,000 hits and recognition from many different sources. It was honored as a finalist in the Stockholm Challenge 2001, an international juried competition for innovative educational and cultural Internet projects sponsored by the city of Stockholm, Sweden. The project has also collaborated with google.com, a popular search engine, to translate their web site into Swahili.
Biersteker said the dictionary has been very important within the field of Swahili.
“I think it is very useful in classes,” she said. “Not only do I recommend it to all my students, it is used all over the world by students and teachers.”
Recently, however, the project has been experiencing difficulties.
“Essentially, there is not a lot of money floating around for African languages,” said Benjamin. “The Department of Education grant was for three years and it recently expired. The university is only able to offer us baseline support. We are currently trying to find private donations and writing grant proposals.”
When asked about the possibility of introducing a hard copy, Benjamin said, “The economics of Swahili dictionaries aren’t in favor of printing it. Most of the people who are going to be using it are going to be East Africans who earn less than $1 a day.”
Swahili is the second most common language in Africa, with over 50 million speakers.