Lodahl's blog: Spelling in Malawi

16 February 2015

Spelling in Malawi

This weekend I was contacted by my good friend Ove Larsen, from the organization FAIR, that are currently working in Malawi to prepare computers for use in high schools. Computers that are disposed in Denmark, but which can easily be used by students in the third world. The message was about compiling a spellchecker in LibreOffice for the language Chichewa, which is the main language in Malawi. Malawi is on the UN top-10 list of least developed countries, and there exists no official dictionary.

The starting point was an old American priest who many years ago manually typed 50,000 words into an RTF-file.

Benjamin Bach, who is also in Malawi on behalf of FAIR, first made a prototype, as Esben Aaberg quickly formed into a useful dictionary.

Dictionaries are parts of the efforts to make information technology more relevant and accessible. Open source is absolutely fundamental, and schools in the projects enjoying the results and expressed great enthusiasm for, among many others; Ubuntu, Wikipedia and LibreOffice. The latter is now officially supported in the examination at secondary schools.

The inquiry from Malawi was passed to our local expert, Esben Aaberg, who after a few hours of work got the dictionary to work. Unfortunately dictionaries can not be registered without the language been known by LibreOffice. Instead, Esben "cheated" by using a language code from another language. Of course we need the language Chichewa registered, but here and now, it works after all.

About FAIR

Every year hundreds of thousands of computers are discarded here in Denmark. Computers that are discarded because they are not fast enough, don't have enough capacity etc. We buy new computers because we want something that is faster and more modern, with new features and functions. And they are rarely broken ... In the third world such a computer is as good as a new one!

Schools, educational institutions, health care, etc. in developing countries have a great need for this technology to become part of the information society globally. Information technology is an important prerequisite for development within democracy, education and health.

About FAIR: http://www.fairdanmark.dk/en/
About Malawi: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Malawi
About Chichewa (Nyanja): http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chewa_language


Anonymous said...

Great to hear about better Chichewa support in LibreOffice. This is a great effort.

However, it is also important not ot reinvent the wheel but to join existing projects. There had been quite substantial work on a Chichewa spell checker for LibreOffice by Edmond Kachale, Kevin Scanell and Soyapi Mumba. Please get in touch with them.

You find their efforts here:
and the new project:

Please also add your effort here to the list. Chichewa is already listed there:

Thanks a lot!

Ben Jao Ming said...

Thanks for the reference to Kachale, Scanell, and Mumba's extension. The intention has always been to contact them about their work.

None of what we're working on will be available as an extension in the immediate future. The word list for the spell checker is quite comprehensive, but it is also ~40 years old and needs updating. So for now, this extension is only used by a selected audience to help update it, and we will get in touch with other Chichewa experts on the matter! We are also hoping there will be a wider effort to bring Chichewa to the Linux desktop.