Though not often mentioned, interpreters played key roles in Africa’s colonization and especially in its exploration. How were Dr. Louis Leakey and his team able to carry out primate research in East Africa? How was David Livingstone able to spend years searching for the origin of the River Nile and survive? And why did Dr. Nelson Mandela dream of becoming a civil servant when he was a young man in South Africa?

Africa has 2,000-3,000 native languages, around 100 of which are used for communication between tribes. Most Africans know more than one, including a bit of the primary European language spoken in their region (e.g. French in the west, English in the south, Arabic north and east).

All over Africa government jobs are prized, and clerks are the everyday interpreters for foreigners entering the country. The U.S. Peace Corps and volunteers from other countries, often utilize the language skills of government clerks for their work. The job carries prestige and security, which induced South African President, Nelson Mandela, to want such a job when he was young.

Without African guides and interpreters, none of the explorers of Africa would have made it. Historical records left by explorers seldom mention much about their interpreters, but here is some of what we know:

·       David Livingstone, famous Scottish missionary, was the first European to journey across the width of Africa (mid 1800s). He depended on an interpreter and right-hand organizer from the Gallah tribe that he called Simon.

·       Archeologist Dr. Louis Leakey was born in Kenya in 1903, growing up speaking Swahili and Kikuyu. Because most of his investigations were around the Olduvai Gorge in Kenya, he didn’t need interpreters.

·       Dian Fossey, who worked with mountain gorillas in the Virunga Mountains, had two interpreters. The first, Sanwekwe, was a tracker for wildlife biologist and writer, George Schaller (1959), then for wildlife filmmaker Alan Root (1963), and finally for Dian Fossey at her first camp in Kabara, Congo (1967). When the Congo erupted into revolution, Dian moved to the Rwanda side and took with her a Belgian interpreter named Alyette DeMunck – born in Zaire and raised in the Congo.

In today’s world interpreters are formally trained. Skilled interpreters of African and 100+ other languages are available for hire at Dialog One. Be sure to contact us, if you are planning a trip to the African continent.