You Had Me at “Hamjambo”: Martin Benjamin ’90
Martin Benjamin ’90 seems sunny and relaxed,
but don’t let that fool you. His calm conceals a passionate
focus that he reveals only by degrees. Barefooted, and making himself
as comfortable as the stone benches across from Lerner Hall can
allow, he speaks about the work to which he’s devoted himself:
a Swahili dictionary called The Kamusi Project (www.yale.edu/swahili).
Martin Benjamin ’90 (left) with his research
assistant, Lawrence Luboka, in a remote village in Tanzania.
PHOTO: John F. Ho
The Kamusi Project, under the aegis of Yale’s
Council on African Studies, is a collaborative online Swahili dictionary,
edited and contributed to by visitors from all around the world.
Type “Kamusi” into the “translate” box at
the top of the Web page, press “Look up” and you’ll
see the word’s definition: “a reference resource containing
an alphabetical list of words with information about them,” along
with its Arabic root and a few sample sentences in English and Swahili.
Currently, there are more than 70,000 entries. “It’s
like Wikipedia … except we started six years earlier than
Wikipedia,” Benjamin says, and notes at least one difference:
For accuracy’s sake, “everything has to go through an
editor” — namely, Benjamin.
In 1994, Benjamin was an anthropology graduate student
at Yale, preparing to travel to Africa. Swahili is the most widely
spoken African language, with more than 50 million users in East
and Central Africa, yet the tools available for learning it were
hard to use. “I was using a dictionary,” Benjamin says, “and
it was just awful. The way Swahili is organized, and the way the
Swahili language works, you need to know what the stem is to be
able to find the word in the dictionary. You need to have a fairly
high level of knowledge. You can look up a word, and it says ‘go
see under this word’ and then you look up that word and it
says ‘go see under that other word’ and it would take
you three or four minutes searching through the dictionary before
you could get what you were looking for,” he says, his hands
waving in exasperation.
“And, when you found it, you would get a translation
from a project from the 1930s that was an updating of a Bible translation
project from the turn of the previous century that had been updated
for colonial purposes that had no contemporary relevance.” He
pauses for a breath. “And by that time you [would] have forgotten
what you wanted to say,” Benjamin says with a laugh.
Kamusi was never an easy project. The year that
Benjamin started his dictionary, 1994, was still the Dark Age of
the Internet. “There was no World Wide Web as we know it,” he
says. “There was no practical Web browser.” (Netscape
launched its first Web browser in December 1994.) Benjamin spent
his Christmas vacation getting his idea off the ground. “I
have distinct memories of typing in the first 3,000 words,” he
says. At the time, though, he “had no idea this would consume … more
than a decade of my life.”
Still, Benjamin was motivated. Swahili was a tough
language, but essential to his field work. “When I really
started using it, I was by myself, in a village, and if I wanted
to speak to anyone, I had to speak Swahili,” he says. Being
able to hold a conversation was critical; an anthropologist must
be able to speak to his or her subjects in their language if he
or she wants them “to give you honest answers and tell you
what’s on their minds or if you want to be able to disappear
as a fly on the wall.” It took Benjamin four years of study
and practical conversations at Yale and in Africa to learn the language.
Benjamin’s dictionary has morphed from a graduate
student’s noodling to a reference work of impressive size.
As his graduate adviser, Dr. Ann Biersteker, told The
Hartford Courant, “Both
Martin and I thought [that Kamusi] would be used by academics and
students. We were certainly not aware how many people … would
use it, and the enthusiasm it would receive.” For example,
the site receives about 10,000 unique visitors per week. The contributors,
like the readers, come from all around the world —the United
Kingdom, Kenya and Benin, for example. And Benjamin has begun collaborations
with organizations such as One Laptop Per Child (www.laptop.org)
to help spread Swahili’s accessibility. He also is working
with Wikipedia’s WiktionaryZ, a project that will import data
from Kamusi for its translating, multilingual dictionary.
Benjamin has taught anthropology at Wesleyan and
written for two of the Lonely Planet Swahili phrasebooks. This month,
he is relocating to Switzerland, where his wife, Veronica Savu,
has taken a post-doctoral research position at the École
Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne. Still, he’ll be taking
the project with him. He says that he needs to figure out whether
he’s going to continue devoting most of his time to Kamusi
or go back to Africa to work more specifically on anthropological
projects and treat the dictionary as a sideline.
Benjamin has received grants for the dictionary
from the Negauni Foundation, a charitable group. A Columbia classmate,
Warigia Bowman ’90, who started a safari company, Wildcats
Safaris, with her husband, also helped fund Benjamin’s work.
Sometimes other small grants trickle in. The money is tight — sometimes
tight enough to shut down the project. But then again, Benjamin
knows the work is important. “Every time we [Benjamin and
three programmers] embark on a little project, it ends up being
a lengthy diversion. So pretty much all my time is accounted for.”
And if anyone doubts what he’s saying, the
Kamusi Kam — filming dictionary edits live six hours a day
from Benjamin’s office — can put their minds at ease.
Rose Kernochan ’82 Barnard, Sana Saleh ’08