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Tech tale of a language activist

Language is fundamental to human connection and communication, but remains a barrier, writes GLENN STEIN, founder of Aweza language initiative.

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As a privileged South African, I had the opportunity to spend my gap year in Argentina as a Rotary Exchange Student. Becoming fluent in Spanish opened a whole new universe of possibilities for me and continues to enrich my life to this day. But it wasn’t the actual learning of Spanish that made me come to appreciate language, rather the extent to which I suffered in my first four months, before I had any meaningful grasp of the language..

The constant day to day struggle, from the moment I woke up until I went to sleep, just to understand and be understood. That period was one of the most difficult of my entire life and I came extremely close to calling it quits and coming home to Cape Town on multiple occasions. 

But thanks to the strong support structure I had there (caring host families and a Rotary Councilor — who barely spoke English), as well as an incredibly supportive mother who made this whole experience possible for me, I found the personal resilience to push through. And I’m glad I did. Despite experiencing these struggles daily, I was still grounded in the context of privilege, safety, and security. The majority of those around the world and in South Africa who experience similar such struggles on a day to day basis are not.

Upon my return to South Africa in 2009, still fresh from this experience, I was for the first time incredibly aware of how the difficulties I faced as a foreigner in Argentina, were a daily reality for millions of South Africans who weren’t meaningfully exposed to English growing up. 

Consider what it must be like as a high school student from the Eastern Cape coming to Cape Town in the hopes of receiving a better education. Regardless of how smart they are, the language barrier will more often than not be the reason that they struggle and in many cases fall behind or fail. 

Or consider a pregnant woman visiting a clinic and not being able to understand the basic, but crucial, questions the healthcare practitioner is asking them. In such commonplace cases, misdiagnosis occurs far too often and in some cases a security guard (often a male) is brought in to act as an interpreter which is completely undignified for the patient, leading to them losing faith and trust in the public health system.

Such issues plague socio-economic development in South Africa, yet not enough is done to resolve it.

In 2013, after years of obsessing over these realities, I decided that I would dedicate my life to language activism. I embarked on a journey to leverage myskills and experiences in the world of digital product engineering, to address these issues. This journey led me to found Aweza, a tech-based initiative that would go on to build a family of mobile apps and websites geared towards democratising access to education and healthcare services for those who don’t speak English as a first language.

Most notably (and closest to my heart), I recently began the pilot of our flagship project in collaboration with the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, AwezaMed. 

AwezaMed is a mobile app that addresses communication and language barriers between medical professionals and patients in South Africa. The app allows medical professionals to speak to patients in their mother tongue, using speech recognition and text-to-speech synthesis. The current focus is on women’s sexual and reproductive health, and is at the end of its first year of a two-and-a-half-year pilot. 

The feedback thus far has been incredibly encouraging. Doctors say that it allows them to feel like they can speak their patients’ language and build stronger trust between them, as well as improving their ability to diagnosis more accurately. 

The journey to this point has been incredibly difficult, to say the least, but the feedback has made it worthwhile. It has invigorated me to keep going and explore gearing the app towards disaster relief. AwezaMed has been entirely self-funded up to this point, because I genuinely believe in the project and the impact it is already having and can have in future. I’m now hoping to find donors and collaborators to help with its expansion.

But here’s the thing: we don’t all have to dedicate years of our lives building a language startup, to be a language activist. In fact, all one needs to do is embrace learning a language as a way of better connecting with the people around us for whom English is not their mother-tongue.  

Unfortunately, I cannot yet claim to be a fluent or even intermediate isiXhosa speaker. But equally, I cannot understate the difference and impact that learning just a few key greetings and phrases has had for me. It’s very obvious to me that if every white South African made the effort to learn a few phrases in an indigenous South African language, and got over the fear of sounding like a fool initially, South Africa would be a much better place.

*Glenn Stein is the founder and creator of AwezaMed, a mobile app that addresses communication and language barriers between medical professionals and patients in South Africa.

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Cape Town not so calm – if you’re a driver

Cape Town drivers lose on average 162 hours a year to traffic jams, so will need some tech and a few tips to stay calm

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Cape Town drivers lose, on average, 162 hours a year stuck in traffic jams, and the city is ranked 95th out of around 200 cities, across 38 countries surveyed globally, in terms of congestion issues.

That’s according to the latest INRIX 2018 Global Traffic Scorecard, which is an annual analysis of mobility and congestion trends. The study provides a data-rich evaluation of information collected during peak (slowest) travel times, and inter peak (fastest point between morning and afternoon commutes) travel times. Together they provide a holistic account of congestion throughout the day, delivering in-depth insights for vehicle drivers and policy-makers to make better decisions regarding urban travel and traffic health.

Of the further five South African cities surveyed:

  • Pretoria drivers lose, on average, 143 hours a year stuck in traffic jams, ranking as the 64thmost congested city
  • Johannesburg drivers lose an average of 119 hours annually, ranking 61st
  • Durban drivers lose 72 hours, ranking 141st
  • Port Elizabeth drivers lose 71 hours, ranking 75th
  • And Bloemfontein drivers lose 62 hours, ranking 165th

If these hours sound horrific, spare a thought for the poor drivers in Colombia’s capital city of Bogotá who lose, on average, a whopping 272 hours a year stuck in traffic jams!

On average, drivers’ commutes increase by roughly 30% during peak versus inter-peak hours. And the reality is that congestion issues aren’t going away anytime soon. Not here in SA, or anywhere else in the world. So what can we, as drivers, do to make the situation easier to cope with on our daily commute?

Change of mindset

Stressing about the unavoidable, the inevitable, and all the things that are out of our control – like congestion caused by accidents, faulty street lights, or bad weather – is a waste of energy. We should try finding ways of using that time in our cars more productively, to create a less tense, more positive experience. Learning to change our perspective about this challenging time, and associating it with something enjoyable, can drastically alter our reaction to and engagement with it. Rather than expending all our energy on futile anger and frustration, we can channel our focus on things that relax or energise us instead.

Just one more chapter

Being stuck in traffic usually aggravates us because it feels like a huge waste of valuable time. But like a wise man once said, time you enjoy wasting is not wasted time. Listening to a podcast or audiobook can not only be entertaining, but also educational, which is a brilliant use of your time. Ifyou think of your car as a ‘learning lab’, a mobile university of sorts, and your time spent inside as away to exercise your brain and grow intellectually, you may even find yourself wishing for bad traffic so you have an excuse to carry on listening to your podcast or audiobook.

Tame your inner Hulk

Pulling up a playlist of your favourite, feel-good songs can do wonders to combat stress levels. Downbeat music has been proven to have a mellowing effect on drivers. Making a quick switch to downbeat music shows measurable physiological improvements, with drivers calming down much sooner, and making fewer driving mistakes. So the next time you feel your inner Hulk emerging, crank up the volume on your favourite tunes.

The power of ‘caromatherapy’

There are numerous studies on aromas and their impact on human emotion, behaviour, and performance. Researchers have found that peppermint can enhance mental and athletic performance and cognitive functioning, while cinnamon may improve tasks related to attentional processes and visual-motor response speed. A study from Kyoto University in Japan revealed that participants reported significantly lower hostility and depression scores, and felt more relaxed after awalk through a pine forest. It makes sense then, to incorporate some ‘caromatherapy’ into our lives. There are plenty of off-the-shelf car diffusers available, or you could add a few drops of essential oil to DIY felt air fresheners. Citrus scents like orange or lemon can provide a boost of energy, while rosemary can relieve stress and anxiety. Take care not to hang anything that might obstruct your field of vision though, and always make sure to test out essential oils at home first, in case a scent makes you dizzy or overly relaxed, which could affect driving focus.

Contemplate your navel

The mind is a powerful thing, and simply willing yourself to relax might be the most effective method of all. While we don’t recommend meditating while driving due to safety reasons, breathing exercises can help you stay focused and feeling calm. One useful practice is the one-to-one technique – breathing in and out for the same count with the same intensity. Deep, measured breaths facilitate full oxygen exchange, helping to slow down the rate of your heartbeat and stabilise blood pressure, as opposed to shallow breathing, which doesn’t send enough air to the lowest part of your lungs, causing you to feel anxious and short of breath. Just always keep your eyes on the road, and take care to ensure you’re not so busy counting breaths that your concentration is compromised.

Not all those who wander are lost

Some of our best ideas come in those moments where we’re alone with our own thoughts, able to really reflect on the ideas we have without having something immediate that needs our attention. Allow your mind to wander, and do a little brainstorming. Alternatively, use the time to simply day dream. Remember, downtime is not dead time. It is both necessary, and important for your mental health. Use this time as an opportunity to take care of yourself.

In-built vehicle tech

“As we spend more and more time commuting, cars are being designed to accommodate longer periods behind the wheel,” says Kuda Takura, smart mobility specialist at Ford Motor Company of Southern Africa. “Ford uses human-centric design to deliver vehicles that are inviting, accommodating, and intuitive. For example, our SYNCT infotainment system offers nifty, hands-free functions, like allowing drivers to listen to their texts, change music or climate settings, and make phone calls easily with voice control. Our range of driver-assist technologies, like Adaptive Cruise Control, Pre-Collision Assist with Pedestrian Detection and Semi-Auto Active Park Assist, are also designed to take some of the stress off city driving. If our lifestyle means that we might be spending more time in our cars than we do on holiday, then we should make sure we make the most of that time.”

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Vodacom exits Africa biz services

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Vodacom Group has sold Vodacom Business Africa’s operations in Nigeria, Zambia and Cote d’Ivoire to Andile Ngcaba’s Synergy Communications. The two entities are in the process of concluding the acquisitions, which are subject to the approval of the regulatory authorities within these markets.

Vodacom says the transaction supports the Group’s enterprise strategy in Africa, which has been refocused to grow and strengthen its core business. It will no longer directly service global enterprise customers in these three markets but will rather continue to operate as a pan African telecommunications networks provider through local relationships, like the one with Synergy Communications. 

This acquisition represents a significant milestone in Synergy Communication’s quest to be a leading provider of cloud and digitally based services in key markets across sub-Saharan Africa and provides key additional assets in its build out of a regional footprint. Synergy Communications currently has operations in Botswana, Malawi and Mozambique.

Andile Ngcaba, Chairman of Synergy Communications said: “This is an exciting landmark transaction for Synergy Communications, providing us with additional momentum in the delivery of our strategy as a pan-African enterprise digital Services Provider. Synergy Communications will partner with major global cloud providers and deliver platform-based services to both multi-nationals and local enterprises.”

Shameel Joosub, CEO of Vodacom Group, said: “Vodacom has a clear vision for strengthening our position as a leading pan-African business and will work with local service providers like Synergy Communications to grow in these markets. Crucially, Vodacom is not exiting any of the territories related to this transaction and remains focused on continuing to deliver exceptional service to our global and multinational clients in these markets through long-term commercial agreements. 

“To support the sustainable growth of pan African digital economies and building connected societies, Vodacom will, via local service providers, continue to service clients in each market. We seek to leverage the collective strengths of Vodacom and Synergy Communications to meet the changing requirements of clients across each of these markets.”

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