Computer systems should adapt to the ways people—all people—use language. West Africans have spoken their languages for thousands of years, creating rich oral history traditions that have served communities by bringing alive ancestral stories and historical perspectives and passing down knowledge and morals. Computers could easily support this oral tradition.
When we asked Aissatou, our new friend from a rural village in Guinea, West Africa, to add our phone numbers to her phone so we could stay in touch, she replied in Susu, “M’mou noma. M’mou kharankhi.” “I can’t, because I did not go to school.” Lacking a formal education, Aissatou does not read or write in French. But we believe Aissatou’s lack of schooling should not keep her from accessing basic services on her phone. The problem, as we see it, is that Aissatou’s phone does not understand her local language.