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Kamusi, and the challenge of non-profit incubation

I’ve written in the past about the Kamusi project, an online Swahili-English dictionary built by experts and by volunteer contributors. When I last checked in with Dr. Martin Benjamin, the project’s founder, the project had little long-term funding, but was finding a way to stay afloat with text ads and sales of a novel Swahili clock, which began counting the hours from daybreak so that one o’clock is an hour past daybreak.

Evidently, Kamusi has had a conflict with Yale, which hosted the project. According to the Kamusi website, the project “has been ordered to remove all links to the sites that the project has relied on to raise revenue for project maintenance and improvement. Without these links, the project has no income source and cannot function; the project will have a negative account balance after outstanding debts are paid.” The site goes on to say that Kamusi is seeking answers from Yale as to whether they can make money from ads or mechandise sale in the future.

I don’t know the details of the situation – I was pointed to the change to the site by Ndesanjo Macha, who is a key figure in the Swahili online community. Ndesanjo mentioned that some members of the online Swahili community have been emailing Yale, offering their hope that Kamusi will be brought back online in the near future.

As someone who helps run a university-based online project, I can imagine the challenges Dr. Benjamin is facing. The Berkman Center, where Global Voices is based, has been endlessly supportive, spending hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars to help us navigate the bureacracy of Harvard Law School. While we’ve had pretty good luck approaching foundations and corporations for support, we’ve done very little of the sort of financing Kamusi was supported by. The last time I asked whether Global Voices could raise money online through PayPal, the answer seemed to be that we could raise money for the Law School as a whole, but there would be no guarantee that the funds would come to Global Voices – we decided not to pursue this form of fundraising until we had an independent legal entity. If we begin generating revenue from text ads or from Global Voices merchandise, I can imagine similar questions arising.

The Berkman Center is in the business, in part, of incubating projects that address problems and questions in the world of the Internet, media and online social practice. Creative Commons was born in part at the Berkman Center, as were PRX.org, Chilling Effects Clearinghouse, the Center for Citizen Media and others. As a result, we’ve had to do some thinking about the ways in which a university can and can’t support these projects.

Fundraising is a tough area – young projects need to use the University’s nonprofit status to raise funds… but it’s understandable that a university would want to ensure that this fundraising mostly supports research projects and never threatens the university’s tax exempt status. But it’s hard to imagine that selling Swahili clocks would threaten Yale’s tax status, and Kamusi is certainly tightly related to any research about linguistics. I’ve got high hopes that Martin Benjamin and friends are able to bring Kamusi back online… and that this situation helps spark some dialog for every university that helps bring new non-profit projects to life.

12 thoughts on “Kamusi, and the challenge of non-profit incubation”

  1. Ethan that why we started the Hacker Foundation. THF is essentially a umbrella non-profit for tech project that help people. As a register 501(c)3 we take donations and channel them into a “projects”.

  2. As someone who is learning Swahili at the moment, its sad to see this project in jeopardy. There are many times I didn’t have my tangible Kamusi at hand and I would use the online version. As Jeff says above can individuals help out somehow?

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  4. Thanks for this post, Ethan. We hope to have the situation resolved soon, at which point people will once again be able to access the Kamusi Project. I’ll let you know when we are back online.

    To answer Jeff Msangi’s question, I’m not sure what our loyal users can do to help, other than voicing their support in whatever way they think best. We’re stuck waiting for our administration to tell us what the appeals procedure is and when our appeal will be heard – it’s been almost 2 weeks since we invoked the university’s stated right to an appeal, and we’ve had no official reply of any sort.

    The frustrating thing here is that we are pretty clearly not in violation of any university policy. It all comes back to a memo written sometime between 1999 and 2003, in which an appropriate university official, after full legal review, granted the project the right to raise funds through commercial links on the site. We’ve been doing so ever since, and the university has been depositing the (very small) checks every month and harvesting a percentage of the funds raised in this manner, for about 7 years.

    However, someone who was not involved in the original determination noticed the links and decided that they must be a violation of a university policy. The policy, by the way, permits advertising in university journals, sports facilities, alumni magazines (rates available online – one full page ad per month at those rates would fund Kamusi at full strength and then some), drama programs, campus buildings, and even this: http://itunes.yale.edu . I am shocked, shocked to find advertising going on in this establishment.

    Now we are supposed to produce the memo from those many years ago, in order to prove that what we have done is authorized. This is basically impossible, since the project office was moved 5 or 6 times in those years and stale documents were deposited in the recycle bin each time. So we are working on a number of tracks to reinstate that original determination at the same time that we appeal the case on its merits.

    Probably more information than you need on this petty internal kerfuffle – but since the site has been blocked, there is no easy way to let our users know what is going on. Things should be resolved soon, if the university ever decides to address the appeal with a fraction of the urgency that the Swahili community has been expressing about seeing us get back online.

    I’ll keep you posted.


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  6. The closure of the Swahili Kamusi Hai is a very regrettable incident. I sent a number of Emails to people at Yale like President, Chair of Alumni, African Department; I don`t really know how an American University works but just picked them from the website. Why don`t a few of you just join??

    What I wrote was this:
    I would like to draw your attention as a staff member active in African affairs to a regrettable development on Yales internet presence.

    I just noticed that the Internet Living Swahili Dictionary has been blocked on the Yale server for some administrative problems.

    This online dictionary and community has been for me my first contact to Yale.

    I was. indeed, quite positively surprised that your university has such an impressive site and provides such an important service internationally.

    For Swahili as a growing African international language your site has grown to be a major focus world wide. I have also been quite impressed how this programme managed to continue even after formal funding had obviously ended.

    As I understand from the communication on the “Internet Living Swahili Dictionary has been taken offline”-screen the problem seems to be of some administrational nature.

    I am surprised that such obstacle can come in the way of a unique Yale academic achievement and I would be disappointed if this obstacle should continue to block this important venue.

    I could not really imagine so far that for one of the better American Universities a really important Africa related site should not matter any more.

    I hope you are the right person to adress about this problem. As I am not familiar with Yale I just have to guess it from your website.

    Kind regards

    Ingo Koll
    Hauptstr. 42
    D 21460 Bliedersdorf,

  7. Could someone say a bit more about the history of the Swahili clock? Is it a Muslim tradition? I think the Muslim (and Baha’i) “day” starts at sunset with 12 hours of darkness, then 12 hours of light. It is intriguing why the darkness is first, and then light follows: Is this supposed to be symbolic in some way paralleling human consciousness?

    It also gives an exact meaning to the phrase “mid-day” and “mid-night”.

    BTW, the price on the clock is now $25.


    Also, has the Kamusi project found a new home yet? How much webspace does it need?


    And, why is it called the Kamusi project? Kamusi is in central Nigeria. I don’t think Swahili is widely spoken there.

  8. An update – the Kamusi Project is now back online at its new home, http://www.kamusiproject.org

    Here’s the full announcement:

    It is with great excitement that we are able to unveil the new home of the Kamusi Project under the auspices of the World Language Documentation Centre.
    The Kamusi Project is back online at our new address: http://www.kamusiproject.org

    The WLDC (www.thewldc.org) will offer the Kamusi Project a home where we can thrive and grow. The project will benefit greatly from the support of an organization devoted specifically to the goals of language documentation. At the same time, the WLDC gives the project the autonomy and flexibility necessary to manage such a complex and diverse project.

    Though the new kamusiproject.org site is mostly functional, some places are still a bit rough, with some pages and functionality yet to be activated. We are hard at work finishing the transfer, which involves tens of thousands of pages and numerous complicated computer scripts. However, we welcome you to visit and use the resources as we finish moving in to our new home. (If you find something broken, please let me know the specifics at martin /at\ kamusiproject /dot\ org)

    Finally, a mention about financing. We’ve made the leap to the WLDC without the benefit of any current funding, and no money in the bank. (And with enormous thanks to the Negaunee Foundation for clearing our previous debts, so that we’re starting with a zero balance instead of deep in the hole.) We have a number of plans in the works to put the project on the path to sustainability, and we will soon be launching a kick-off campaign to raise funds for the project. If you wish to help, please consider yourself invited to make a donation at http://www.kamusiproject.org/how_to_help before we start the formal campaign! Accounting and financial oversight will be provided by the WLDC as a registered non-profit organization in the UK.

    I’m looking forward tremendously to developing the Kamusi Project and the upcoming Pan-African Living Dictionary Online (PALDO) under the wing of the WLDC. And I’m thrilled to announce that, after a two month hiatus, the Kamusi Project is once again open for business!

    Martin Benjamin
    Kamusi Project Director

  9. Paulo Renato Costa barbosa

    dear mister Martin.Iam from Brazil,I live in a city named porto alegre capital city of Rio Grande do sul state.Iam studying Kiswahili by myself.I want to know where I can take Swahili classes.I am eager to learn but I need help.thank you very much.asante sana

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