Emerging Voices: Building Digital Humanities in Africa

Submitted by karolina@clarin.eu on 9 July 2019


From 1-5 July 2019, in the week before DH2019, the Lorentz Center in Leiden hosted a workshop aimed at the articulation of the specific developments in the field of digital humanities (DH) that are taking shape in Africa and their potential to enhance the global DH agenda. In addition, attention was given to capacity building and the planning of initiatives along the lines of ‘science4development’. The programme included introductions into the infrastructural support for DH (including training materials developed within the PARTHENOS project) and the most widely used data analysis methods within the humanities and social sciences. Results of the workshop’s project-related activities will be presented during a special poster session of DH2019, on Wednesday 10 July 2019, 14:00-17:00 KF-Heinfoyer, TivoliVredenburg, Utrecht. 

For more information and the outcomes of the workshop please visit dhafrica.blog


Emerging Voices: Building Digital Humanities in Africa

Guest blog post by DEMBA Kandeh

Africa is said to be the most diverse continent. This is a posture articulated by many but it is also not so hard to see even for a casual observer. Digital humanities as a field is also diverse. By now, I think you know where I am headed with this. Combining two very diverse things therefore is, to put it mildly, a tough challenge. In this article, I will chronicle and reflect on a five-day workshop: “Digital Humanities – the perspective of Africa”, recently organized at the Lorentz Centre in Leiden.

The workshop is part of the NIAS-Lorentz program, which brings together perspectives from humanities, social sciences with natural and technological sciences.

Overwhelming composition

The workshop opened with introductions as usual. During the lightning talks (ultrashort pitches), I first tried to follow the names but after the third or fourth participants, I realized how much hard it was to keep up. Try the participant backgrounds, I thought to myself. Little did I know, that too was not as easy as I assumed. Then, I went for participant countries. I have had the rare opportunity of visiting over 20 countries around the continent, so it should be easy to follow. What was particularly interesting about the lightning talks was what I perceived as weird but also intimidating combination of areas of specialism for some participants. This created a form of euphoria as the week kicked off.

The introduction session was followed by reality. Terminologies started raining in: open science, data sharing, data harvesting, preservation, documenting, archiving, just to mention a few. For moment, I listened to those terminologies from a media background and thought, oh this is all easy but then when the details started to set in, the learning, unlearning and relearning began. The workshop was organized in a way that it provided exercises for deepening of acquired skills as well as light talks from practitioners and academics to illustrate the essence of the tools and skills acquired.

Essential digital humanities tools

The field of digital humanities is highly dependent on the use of digital tools and resources. Consequently, participants were exposed to various tools and resources. I will mention a few tools and resources that stood out for me. The CLARIN/PARTHENOS resources are amazing.  CLARIN simply stands for "Common Language Resources and Technology Infrastructure" and on its website, there is so much one can find useful. One more toolkit that really stood out was Voyant tools. Voyant Tools is a web-based reading and analysis environment for digital texts. Working with multiple digital tools sometimes can mean facing challenges in switching over. And this was the case on flipping through some tools but lucky for our desk, we had a Voyant Tools “queen” ready to assist at any time. The readily availability of assistance was an important feature of the entire workshop.

Individual and group projects

Since the workshop brought together like minded individuals and experts from across disciplines, it provided participants opportunities to work together on group projects. By the end of the week, there were at least four major projects: one on language and linguistics. This group besides an amazing project title, focuses on a really important part of digital humanities on the continent. Text Annotation of African Languages (TAAL) aims to put as many African languages online as possible. The media studies project on the other hand examines how digital media is creating sociopolitical engagements in Africa. A number of studies have been done in respect of digital technologies in Africa. However, little is known with regard to how these new tools have changed engagements and relationships in terms of social and political activities. Who are the winners and losers from the continent’s boom in connectivity? And what does it mean for different stakeholders: citizens, consumers, politicians, and or corporations? Individual projects also accompanied some of these group projects. I have no doubt that these projects will add more colors to the poster session at #DH2019, especially on the subject of DH in Africa.

Exploring Leiden and the Netherlands

Beyond the technical tools, heated debates, insightful discussions during the workshop we also had the opportunity to explore Leiden and other places. Jos Damen of African Study Centre and his colleague took us on a special tour of the city of Leiden. The tour offered us firsthand information on the history of Leiden, especially its connection with the African continent. What I found really astounding was the story of a freed African slave who wrote his dissertation at the University of Leiden defending the right of Christians to keep slaves. Yes, how ironic indeed. Jacobus Elisa Johannes Capitein, an ordained minister of Ghanaian descent is said to be one of the first Sub Saharan Africans to study at a European university. There was also a barbeque punctuated with football and other games at the beach in Katwijk.

Overall, the digital humanities – perspective of Africa workshop was by all standards a great success. Up to twenty-five participants from eight different countries attended the workshop. As we signed out of Leiden to head for #DH2019 in Utrecht, it was certain that a strong army of digital humanities scholars from the continent are set for the challenging but important task of furthering DH scholarship in the region. 


Demba Kandeh is an award winning journalist and media scholar from the Gambia. He has written extensively on politics, human rights, internet freedom, and social media, among others. He is currently a lecturer and researcher at the School of Journalism & Digital Media, University of The Gambia.


DH Africa workshop