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Knowledge about and from Africa is largely under-represented on Wikipedia. Pensa speaks to the challenges and rewards of enhancing the coverage of Africa, its history, its people, its innovations, and its many contemporary realities.

Published onNov 04, 2019

Rewrite History

Let me take you back to 2005. Princess Marilyn Douala Manga Bell is dressed in an old coat of quality craftmanship. It is her mother’s, who has loaned it to her every time she comes to Europe in winter for an international conference, leaving behind Cameroon and Douala, the hot city in central Africa where she lives and where she has founded the art center doual'art. "To ask for a protectorate my ancestor wrote to Queen Victoria, who did not answer. So he wrote to the German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck," she comments, telling the history of Cameroon while we are waiting for a coffee in a bar of Rotterdam in The Netherlands. Then she grows dark and explains that in her family there are two major traumas: the hanging of her ancestor Rudolf Douala Manga Bell by the Germans witnessed by his son Alexander and the killing by Alexander himself of his own son. From there the lineage passed to Marilyn's father.

The history of Cameroon that is told by Marilyn Douala Manga Bell does not resemble the history of Africa that many of us, everywhere in the world, have studied at school. We know Colonial History, the history of sovereign powers that—according to different epochs—were pioneering, victorious, violent or lenient and would determine the fate of some distant anonymous and silent peoples. From the perspective of the school desks, the world is deformed into cartographic projections designed to allow us to view the world with ourselves at the center of the map and absorb information compressed into chapters, information boxes and hours of teaching dedicated to different school subjects. Our minds doze off, wedged between categories that over time have become so crystallized that we believe they are true.

In the book Orientalism1—considered fundamental for the history of postcolonial studies—its author Edward Said reveals the construction of otherness, the creation of people who can not be thought of and described by the so-called West for what they are, but only for the esotism to which they must correspond. His position refers to authors such as Frantz Fanon and Michel Foucault and with them denounces the dynamics of power and its violence. But it is Rasheed Araeen who calls to action, who has been shouting for decades that "we must rewrite history" regularly during the Dakar Biennial2 and from the pages of "Third Text", the journal he created3. It is not a matter of inventing history or of being revisionists, but of breaking down mental structures that prevent recognition of the true complexity of the world, freeing Africa from being a continent of orality and tradition and recognizing Africa with its rich history of protagonists, connections and contemporaneity4.

Wikipedia is the best place to rewrite history. An extremely powerful site which—unlike any past encyclopedia—has the edit button. Wikipedia is unlimited, it can document all the protagonists of the world and must present all topics from a neutral, balanced and source-based point-of-view. In the Italian version the articles are called "voices". It is a beautiful metaphor of the ability of Wikipedia to give a voice to history and to anyone's contribution, without distinction of race, gender, origin and residence. Wikipedia provides a different perspective than that of the school desks: there is no centre, knowledge is not trapped into subjects, each article can be connected to several categories and the presence of links allows the reader to move continuously between one item and another. The historiographical approach acknowledges the evolution of a concept and the different perspectives that have characterized it. Wikipedia is the ideal place to realize the dream of a postcolonial history capable of telling the world in a new and fairer way. It is with this vision in mind that I have started contributing to Wikipedia in 20065.

Get the Background Knowledge on Wikipedia and Move On

I just finished the presentation at a conference in Milan in Italy. I showed an excel file in which I built a map of the contemporary African art system by creating a database of all the artists involved in exhibitions and publications on this theme between 1966 (date of the first Festival mondial des arts nègres in Dakar, Senegal) and 2005 (date of the exhibition Africa Remix at the Centre Pompidou in Paris, France). I explained that the problem was that, for nearly half a century, exhibitions of contemporary African art were made repeating the spirit of “this is the first exhibition of contemporary African art". The whole system seemed trapped into the need to provide background information. Then I showed the bibliography of the journal Africa e Mediterraneo, which I edited on the historiography of contemporary African art6 creating the structure of the bibliography on Wikipedia in Italian and asking scholars to complete the list collaboratively7. It was the first time that at a conference, instead of explaining what contemporary African art was, I talked about what I really do. After the presentation a gentleman of a certain age chased me in agitation and said "I want to give you 100,000 euro and you can do whatever you want". It was March 2006 and that's more or less how it went.

The gentlemen chasing me at the conference was the president of Moleskine Foundation (at the time called lettera27 Foundation) and founder and former owner of Moleskine company. Shortly after our meeting he invited me to join the advisory committee of his foundation and in March 2007 I was hired by him as a consultant to work as scientific director of WikiAfrica. WikiAfrica project was launched in October 2006 by the foundation in collaboration with Wikimedia Italia8; I’ll take the place of the anthropologists Marco Aime and Stefano Allovio who created a list of entries and assigned the role of editorial staff to a small team of researchers9 at the very beginning of the project. The list of items focused on Africa and looked like the glossary of a course on African studies. Looking back now, perhaps they were not wrong in trying to improve these articles on Wikipedia in Italian10, but since I am more interested in contemporary production, that list seemed to me like crystallizing an entire continent in a space-time bubble. Perhaps say this would be like if talking about Italy we focussed on Giulio Cesare and the Colosseum. By becoming the scientific director of WikiAfrica, I decided to interrupt the paid editing on the list of articles and start following three approaches.

The first approach is to finance original research released under the Creative Commons attribution share-alike licence (CC BY-SA)11; this license automatically allows the use of texts, images and reproductions of images; in case a document is already in the public domain this prevails and the license does not limit its rights. The CC BY-SA license is very easy to use on texts, publications and images and quite simple to explain to multiple authors. In 2007 Wikipedia still has the GFDL license which is replaced by the Creative Commons attribution share-alike in November 2008. This is an epochal change because it greatly simplifies the copy and paste on Wikipedia of texts produced by authors and cultural institutions12. In 2011 I further developed this approach in the project "Share Your Knowledge: Creative Commons and Wikipedia for cultural institutions"13 in which we involve about 100 international institutions14 and focus our attention on open licenses as a premise for a collaboration with Wikipedia.

The second approach is to advocate Wikipedia’s use. We organize a series of events and produce materials to invite people to contribute to Wikipedia by improving content of the encyclopedia related to Africa. We distribute postcards and notebooks at the ASA conference (the African Studies Association, the largest African studies conference in the world)15, the ACASA conference (the Art Council of the African Studies Association, specialized in the arts and with some of its greatest museums among its members)16, the ECAS conference (the European Council for African Studies)17, the Dakar contemporary art Biennial18, the Book Fair of Cape Town19, the Festival of African cinema in Milan and Verona20, the Festival of literature in Manua (Festivaletteratura)21, the Frankfurt Book Fair22, etc. We involve artists, writers and international intellectuals23 in enriching Wikipedia with their knowledge and we do it within what we call a “WikiAfrica Workshop”, an event during which we modify Wikipedia live with the involvement of a wikipedian editorial staff24 that improves the articles while the speakers are present25. The name “WikiAfrica” is not functional: it is convenient to use it outside Africa, but in Africa it is much more relevant to talk about Wikipedia, since most people do not have the slightest idea about what Wikipedia is26.

The third approach is to move WikiAfrica to Africa. In 2009 I started a negotiation with the Africa Centre in South Africa with which I worked as a consultant. A difficult task: as in the case of the online encyclopedia EcuRed27 created in Cuba as a different and independent project from Wikipedia, people and institutions on the African continent want their own Wikipedia, they don't want to contribute to the Wikipedia of others (and with “others” I mean “western hegemons”). They want to break away from the eighteenth-century Western enlighteners (on whom the very concept of encyclopedia depends), they want independence, but they also want centrality: content takes second place with respect to the legitimate ambition of being "creators" (in the sense of "God") of a new knowledge provider. This is an ideological debate, in which I support Wikipedia as an existing tool that is visible, powerful but also open (which means open to forking, the way EcuRed was created in Cuba).

After endless discussions, in 2011 I finally convinced the Africa Centre to become a promoter of WikiAfrica and they nominated Isla Haddow-Flood for the project28. In 2012 I received a grant from the Orange Foundation to create a WikiAfrica space in Cameroon within the art center doual'art and to support the local organization of Wiki Loves Monuments29; I also started a feasibility study examining the idea of providing the information necessary to complete the cycle of primary education in the languages used by the different education systems on Wikipedia (which will become later on the project Wikipedia Primary School)30. Over time, Isla becomes very passionate about the Wikimedia movement; I also manage to involve in the activities of WikiAfrica the legendary Florence Devouard—a very active wikipedian and first president of Wikimedia Foundation after its founder Jimmy Wales—and eventually in 2016 we start the “Wiki in Africa”31 an association in South Africa, that collaborates with new people and organizations all over the African continent and beyond.

I wanted to stop working for the Moleskine Foundation. For this reason in 2010 I gave WikiAfrica a quantitative milestone: 30,000 contributions for Wikipedia and Wikimedia projects by 2012. The quantitative milestone created a good end for the show: it produced a measurable impact. The continuity of the project is already guaranteed by the involvement of new institutions and people, regardless of whether the Italian foundation decides to continue with WikiAfrica.

Between 2010 and 2012, about 100 volunteers and organizations are involved in producing over 30,000 contributions for Wikipedia and Wikipedia projects. To be more precise, we produced 32,457 articles, images and items32 with the collaboration of a team of people who did extraordinary work by activating institutions, uploading content, reorganizing the administrative repository of Botswana to upload it on Wikipedia in Italian, Polish, Dutch and on Wikidata33.

The quantitative milestone allows to define an impact of WikiAfrica. The fundamental problem of how to create and improve the really meaningful articles of Wikipedia, and how to define those, still remains to be solved.

The Tree Structure of Wikipedia

One of the most common problems when writing a new article on Wikipedia is to make sure that the article will not be deleted 20 seconds after you have created it. This problem is deeply rooted in the issue of notability, i.e. what the community considers relevant34. Notability on Wikipedia is supported by the sources, but also by the ability to find other articles within Wikipedia that allow us to understand the value of that new contribution. When you write an article you need to be able to connect your articles to other relevant and well developed articles. Content on Wikipedia have a progressive nature: to increase the number of specialised articles, it is necessary to refer to existing articles, but the more generic the articles are, the more difficult they are to write. A lot is being done to involve new contributors on Wikipedia, but to survive on Wikipedia you have to adapt to the system and you are likely to resemble the current contributors35. Furthermore, Wikipedians are not simply people who contribute to Wikipedia, but volunteers who enjoy doing so: this means that they will not necessarily write articles about what readers need, but they will write articles about things that interest them. Given their immense number, what their readers find on Wikipedia is extremely important and making comprehensive documentation accessible on Wikipedia means generating an impact on the global perception of the world.

In 2013 I start working at the University of Applied Sciences and Arts of Southern Switzerland (SUPSI) as a researcher, and I start the “Wikipedia Primary School” project through a collaboration between my university and the University of Cape Town (supported by the Swiss and South African national research agencies and following the feasibility study I carried out in 2011 when I was still working for the Moleskine Foundation)36. With this project we improve 100 articles on Wikipedia in English, selected from the topics of the South African primary school curriculum (history, geography, technology, education, etc). We ask scholars to review the articles37 and we test different methodologies to improve the texts. The most effective approach is to involve Wikipedians supporting them with suggestions and bibliographical material. The best contribution of the so-called experts (researchers and university professors) is the indirect review: exactly as if it were the assignment of one of their students, with their red pen the experts correct a digital print of an article of Wikipedia and insert their recommendations to improve the text. The review is released under the CC BY-SA license and then uploaded on the discussion page of the corresponding Wikipedia article; in this way—by staying out of Wikipedia—the expert can be recognized as an expert. If the intervention were done directly on Wikipedia, the expert would become a Wikipedian and his contribution would be evaluated not on the basis of his professional authority, but exactly as the contribution of any other Wikipedian who has to cite external sources.

The research demonstrates that articles based on a national curriculum are notable. The national curricula perfectly correspond to the nationalist approach of Wikipedia38: they are an official list from an authoritative source39. But the research also shows another issue: if the objective is to improve the quality and quantity of articles, people and institutions can contribute in different ways40, not necessarily by becoming wikipedians41.

The Encyclopedia Not Anyone Have to Edit

Wikipedia exists and is sustained by the data already available and accessible on the internet - and you want me to spend my limited resources to "change" it? Ntone Edjabe, 10 July 2008

It is 2017 and I have the feeling of being a door-to-door encyclopedia salesman. With stoic resilience (which borders on dullness) I have been trying for more than ten years to convince Ntone Edjabe to contribute to Wikipedia every time I met him. Even now, in his house in Cape Town in South Africa, in front of a large wall of vinyl records, he repeats the same thing: Wikipedia is not his problem, he will use it if he needs it and he knows very well that Wikipedia is irrelevant for the topics he really cares about. It is not his job to improve it, others can do it; he is interested in expression, writing, research, and Wikipedia is not something he has to take care of, or something he has the time or the interest to work at.

I have been involving Ntone Edjabe in any possible Wikipedia-related project because he is one of the most respected African intellectuals in the world; he is the founder of Chimurenga magazine and in 2007 he started "Chimurenga Library", a selection of magazines that "influenced knowledge in Africa"42. This is a new and very interesting research, extremely relevant to support Wikipedia with new articles and references: it sheds light on a series of significant publications and produces a list of primary sources making them more readily available. For this reason I convince the Moleskine Foundation to give Chimurenga an economic contribution within the WikiAfrica project, asking that the research result be released under the CC BY-SA license. I am really convinced that financing original research with a free license is an extremely effective way of producing sources: it increases the space of critical analysis (even outside universities and not only in the so-called "west") and it offers material that can be modified to feed Wikipedia and others.

Honestly at the time I thought of Chimurenga Library as an investment for the future: they work on their project and maybe one day this content, thanks to the open license, will eventually be uploaded on Wikipedia. Unlike me, the Moleskine Foundation interpreted the project in a much more pragmatic way: Chimurenga had to create the articles within the Chimurenga Library project and then had to upload them on Wikipedia. I expected Ntone—so deeply opinionated and focused on his specific way of working—to categorically refuse to deal with Wikipedia. And instead, to my great astonishment, after some discussions, Ntone agreed to manage the uploads and he assigned the editing to Liepollo Rantekoa, a Chimurenga collaborator. Liepollo—who sadly passed away very young in 2012—was a pioneer in contributing to Wikipedia and her experience changed my approach to contributions within the WikiAfrica project and forced me to look for other ways of contributing to Wikipedia43.

What happened when Chimurenga uploaded its content was a far worse disaster than I expected. Liopollo inserts an open license on the Chimurenga website (it was the GFDL license because this was the license used by Wikipedia at the time) and all the articles created on Wikipedia were either deleted or proposed for deletion44. But the real problem was the experience: asking Chimurenga to directly create and edit articles on Wikipedia meant to set aside the esteem and true international recognition of this organisation and to require them to start over from scratch. At the very moment you enter Wikipedia you have to start all over again and the Wikipedians seem to forget that English is the official language of many nations that are neither Great Britain nor the United States.

Asking Chimurenga to upload articles from the Chimurenga Library on Wikipedia was a mistake. Paradoxically, asking Chimurenga's collaborators to contribute directly to the encyclopedia has undermined the very role of Chimurenga as an independent and authoritative source and has largely delegitimized its work of research and critical analysis. The articles were "saved" mainly thanks to the intervention and support of an experienced Wikipedian. But in reality any Wikipedian could have used the material made available by Chimurenga, could have saved the African institution's working group from a substantially negative experience and would have carried out the uploads much more effectively and quickly, and maybe would have even enjoyed it.

Scholar Mark Graham clearly showed that broadband Internet access is an objective obstacle in contributing to Wikipedia45. In many countries of the world even when the Internet is available the connection is not necessarily stable, the cost to connect can be very high, computers are often shared, and sometimes the electricity goes out. The entire experience of participating online is profoundly different from that of users who have a stable connection with a flat rate and their personal computer.

A second problem is the reasons why people approach Wikipedia. The great intellectuals and the most advanced scholars do not want to devote their time to background knowledge: they want to experiment with their own language, they want to express themselves freely and write what has not yet been written. Researchers who are more committed to a specific topic tend to cite themselves and to provide a perspective that corresponds to their vision or only to their specific subject area; they have trouble providing a balanced overview of a topic (teachers seems to do much better because they are used to presenting a topic from different points of view and to citing many scholars). Furthermore the vast majority of people is far more interested in talking about themselves (their musical group, their institution, etc), instead of contributing to universal knowledge.


Most people in the world do not know Wikipedia. If they use it, they do not necessarily realize it is Wikipedia; they do not contribute to its content and they do not know they can (and not necessarily it is really possible to contribute where they are). But Wikipedia content reaches an incredibly large number of people and it has an impact on the way we all acknowledge the world.

For me, content is the most important thing about Wikipedia. I do not care who uploads it: what I find most necessary is that Wikipedia articles are always more capable to better represent “us”, all citizens of the world. Producing better content on Wikipedia is never wasted time: it is certainly an encyclopedia rooted in Western eighteenth-century enlightenment, but with an open license which will always allow forking and the creation of new and different things anywhere in the world.

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