SemanticAfrica© — Africa and the Semantic Web

Semantic Africa. Pullo (Fulani) woman spinning cotton. Labe (Guinea). Photo: IFAN 1950
Pullo (Fulani) woman spinning cotton. Labe (Guinea).
Photo: IFAN 1950

Semantic Web and Africa

Africa and the Semantic Web (aka Web 3.0, Web of Data) or SemanticAfrica© deals with the cultural heritage of the continent known as the Cradle of Humankind. Cultural Heritage (CH) is “the legacy of physical objects, environment, traditions, and knowledge of a society…”  (Hyvönen, 2012). The publishing of “Cultural Heritage  collections and other content on the Web has become one of the most successful application domains of Semantic Web and Linked Data technologies. After a period of technical research and prototype development, boosted by the Worldwide Web Consortium (W3C) Semantic Web Activity kickoff in 2001 and the Linked (Open) Data movement later on, major national and international CH institutions and collaboration networks have now started to publish their data using Linked Data principles and Semantic Web technologies. ». (id. ibid.) Hyvönen adequately delineates three fields of CH study:

  1. Tangible cultural heritage [i.e.] concrete cultural objects, such as artifacts, works of art, buildings, and books
  2. Intangible cultural heritage [or] phenomena such as traditions, language, handicraft skills, folklore, and knowledge
  3. Natural cultural heritage [namely] culturally significant landscapes, biodiversity, and geo-diversity


The purpose of the SemanticAfrica© website is the development of a prototype for the implementation of the Ontology Layer of the Semantic Web on Africa's Cultural Heritage. Initially the focus will be on:

  • The ethnolinguistic study of African societies, by and large
  • The Cultural Heritage of the Fulɓe (aka Fulani, Peul, etc.)

Gradually, the efforts will be geared toward crafting a blueprint for the creation of an African Knowledge Infrastructure, in compliance with the Semantic Web standards.

In so doing, SemanticAfrica© hopes —and expects— to carry on, embody and breathe a new and lasting life in the dreams and plans of pioneering intellectuals, writers, artists, (W.E.B. Du Bois, Carter G. Woodson, Amadou Hampâté Bâ, Zora Neale Hurston, Nicolás Guillén, etc.). Also, it will lift and merge works from the Analog era into the challenging, exciting and heuristic Web 3.0. Those sources are, among others:


Compared to the Current Web (Web 2.0, Web of Documents), the Semantic Web (Web 3.0, Web of Data) has a more complex and expensive architecture. That means a steeper learning curve, a higher entry barrier and an increased total cost of ownership. Typically, Semantic Web projects present the following challenges:

  • Abundant data collection steered by subject matter expertise
  • Computer programming and ontology modeling competence
  • Hardware, software and network connectivity expenditures

The African situation

It is well-documented that the Internet  is still, comparatively, an enclave in Africa. Some even argue that the continent itself is relatively isolated. Indeed, its has the thinnest digital communication network infrastructure worldwide. Not suprisingly, the research-oriented Web is embryonic. Lacking adequate funding, academic and research institutions whither, and libraries decline into obsolescence. In such an environment Semantic Web services are either scantily developed or altogether missing. Initiatives like SemanticAfrica depend on braodband access. They emphasize Open Source software and compliance with public standards in Web development projects and programs.…

The webAfriqa Portal

The webAfriqa portal celebrates its 20th anniversary this year. It ncludes: webAfriqa, webFuuta, webPulaaku, webMande, webCôte, webForêt, webGuinée, Camp Boiro Memorial, webAmeriqa, Afrixml/Semantic Africa, BlogGuinée.
Based on feedback and testimonials, mine is a modest but cohesive, cogent and relevant group of websites. Their collections offer full text of books and periodicals, as well as photos, audio, video and blog articles. As the sites' owner, researcher and publisher, I strive to cover Guinea (Conakry), —a country bereft of a library, archives and museum network infrastructure—, Africa and the Diaspora. Likewise, my Camp Boiro Memorial uniquely documents over half a century (from 1958 to today) of dictatorship and endemic human rights violations and political crimes committed in total impunity. Last, webAfriqa includes AfriXML dot net, i.e., the domain name and Uniform Resource Identifier (URI) of SemanticAfrica©. The plan calls for gradually converting into the Semantic Web. 


  • Build Taxonomies, Vocabularies, Content types, Metadata corpuses
  • Create the Classes, Objects and Properties
  • Write Web Ontology Language (OWL) Triples syntax (subject —> object —> predicate)
  • Generate Resources and Links (URIs, Linked Data SPARQL Endpoints) on the Linux VPS
  • Render Resource Description Framework (RDF/S, RDFa) Graph databases

The initial aim is to model two Cultural Heritage areas:

  1. History and ethnology of Africa, based in part on Murdock’s 1959 compendium for the latter. Built with the Taxonomy module, my Drupal database stores an Africa Vocabulary that encompasses 10 sub-vocabularies. Their nested hierarchy runs up to four levels deep, and they record a total of 6,231 Terms designating tribes, ethnic clusters, culture areas, nations and civilizations. Ontological modeling will allow to assess, correct and reorganize Murdock's decades-old classification.
  2. Fulɓe (aka Fulani, Peul) history, identity and heritage. Dubbed West Africa’s “Master Cattle Herders,” Fulɓe are one of the continent’s most ancient indigenes. Their pastoral nomadism and sedentary habitat span thousands of years and four of Africa’s five regions: northern, western, eastern and central. Fulɓe speak Pular/Fulfulde. The language's compound-name reflects its broad geographic distribution, ranging from the Atlantic Coast (Senegal) to the Nile River (Sudan). Like all natural languages, Pular/Fulfulde lends itself to Semantic Web study. That status is heightened in Pular/Fulfulde with an expansive noun-class system of up to 25 sub-systems. In comparison English and French have each only a pair of such grammatical determiners. Pular/Fulfulde noun classes regulate and shape the lexicon, the morphology, the syntax, the semantics, linguistic behavior, and, indeed, the oral tradition. For instance, displaying their respective genres and repertoires, the griots (Awluɓe), the popular bards and troubadours (Nyamakala) make optimal use of the noun-class system in their verbal shows. The ontology modeling will explore:
    • The cosmogony, based on the creed that Geno, the Eternal, made the world from a drop of milk. He then created the first man (Kiikala) and the first woman (Naagara). He adjoined them Ndurbeele, the master bovine, a hermaphrodite. It, in turn, procreated the original herd of 22 heads. Kumen, the esoteric pastoral initiation narrative, hints at various aspects of the cosmogony. A critic has compared its poetry to the most beautiful pages of the Bible. 
    • Cattle domestication and husbandry are polycentric inventions and distributed practices that spurred humans’ march into civilization. Proto-Fulɓe most likely took part in the former. Ever since, their descendants have carried the latter on. Hence, today, their pastoral foklore is broad and dyamic. Cattle-related activities and genres include ethnomedine, astrology, beliefs, rituals, superstitions, tales, proverbs, riddles, poetry, singing, music, etc.
    • The kinship system. Structural anthropologist Lévi-Strauss once quipped that the web of family ties, tribal relations and ethnic connectiions found in “primitive,” non-industrial societies, is no less puzzling than Einstein's cryptic E=mc2 equation. Unveiling the complexity of the Fulɓe kinship system is likely to validate that metaphore.
    • Kaydara, an epic tall tale and verbal art masterpiece. A philologist analogizes the pre-Christian and Arthurian Quest for the Holy Grail to the Journey of Hammadi, Kaydara's Hero.
    • Gimɗi, the Islamic Ajamiyya literary tradition. Composed from Mauritania to Adamawa (Cameroon), Ajamiyya heightens the vocation of Pular-Fulfulde as a written language. Dating back from the 17th century, its literary corpus demonstrates an elegant versification, an erudite and subtle language, and a national will of cultural assertion.

Subsequently, the lessons drawn from Fulɓe ontologies modeling will be gradually applied, mutatis mutandis, to all Africa; from Amazigh and Bantu to Yoruba and Zulu, and possibly every people in between.

Development and modeling environments:

In closing, the rationale for SemanticAfrica© lies in the incontrovertible truth that diversity —natural, biological, sociocultural— is essential to Earth and to humanity. Accordingly, by (a) uncovering further the continent’s extraordinary heterogeneity and (b) heightening it’s underlying unity and universal features, SemanticAfrica© seeks to contribute back to the Semantic Web and to participate in advancing the networked digital exploration of Cultural Heritage.

Tierno S. Bah

Partial Bibliography
Tim Berners-Lee, James Hendler and Ora Lassila. “The Semantic Web. A new form of Web content that is meaningful to computers will unleash a revolution of new possibilities.” Scientific American, May 2001
Tim Berners-Lee and Mark Fischetti. Weaving the Web : The Original Design and Ultimate Destiny of the World Wide Web by its Inventor. New York, NY : HarperBusiness, 2011.
Dean Allemang and James A Hendler. Semantic Web for the Working Ontologist : Effective Modeling in RDFS and OWL. Amsterdam/Boston, Morgan Kaufmann Publishers/Elsevier 2012, 384 pages
Eero Hyvönen. Publishing and Using Cultural Heritage Linked Data on the Semantic Web. Morgan & Claypool Publishers; 1st. edition, 2012, 160 pages
Grigoris Antoniou, Paul Groth, Frank van Harmelen, Rinke Hoekstra, A Semantic Web Primer (3rd. ed.). Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, xxi, 264 p. : ill.
Liyang Yu. A developer’s Guide to the Semantic Web. Heidelberg ; New York : Springer, c2011. xix, 608 p.
Sebastian Ryszard Kruk and Bill McDaniel, eds. Semantic Digital Libraries: Improving Usability of Information Discovery with Semantic and Social Services. Berlin: Springer, 2009. xvi, 245 p. : ill.
Michael C. Daconta, Leo Joseph Obrst and Kevin T Smith. The Semantic Web: A Guide to the Future of XML, Web Services, and Knowledge Management, 1st ed., Indianapolis, Ind.: Wiley Publishers, 2003, xxii, 281 p. : ill.
Stéphane Corlosquet, Richard Cyganiak, Axel Polleres and Stefan Decker. Semantic Web Publishing with Drupal. DERI Technical Report 2009-04-30.

Henri Lhote. “L'extraordinaire aventure des Peuls”. Présence Africaine : Revue culturelle du monde noir. Paris. Oct.-Nov. 1959. pp. 48-57.

WorldWide  Web Consortium
Dublin Core Metadata Initiative
XPontus XML Editor

Linked Open Vocabularies
Open Ontology Set Picker
Open Data in Linguistics