US Report: Microsoft helps huge Africa reference project

Microsoft is helping a group of Harvard University scholars realise a long-held dream by publishing a comprehensive reference work on all things African.

Microsoft Encarta Africana, to be released on CD-ROM in February, will catalogue the historical and cultural achievements of Africa and people of African descent from early prehistoric times to the present. The project, which also will be published as a single-volume book, is being edited by Henry Louis Gates Jr., chairman of Afro-American Studies at Harvard, who said it was the culmination of an idea first raised around the turn of the century by W.E.B. Du Bois.

"He had this idea that the quickest way to make political progress ... was to edit an encyclopaedia," Gates said at a presentation to editors. He explained that blacks had missed out on "the great movement to systematise knowledge about ourselves" that had characterised the enlightenment in the West.

While there are available reference works on Afro-American culture and on sub-Saharan Africa, experts said there is nothing as comprehensive as the project envisioned by Gates, who is working with his Harvard colleague, Kwame Appiah, and a team of researchers and writers. Gates said computer technology would allow editors to incorporate music, video and images in ways he never expected when he first began trying to get backing for the project a quarter-century ago.

Microsoft executives said the product would appeal particularly to the 1 million African-American households with personal computers as well as schools and libraries.

The software will join a growing line of reference works under the Microsoft Encarta name, including versions in the advanced DVD form. at.