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Senamirmir Projects: Interview with Ato Amha Asfaw


Senamirmir:   How did you get interested in software development?

Ato Amha Asfaw:   Software development is my job. I mean I am doing it to get my daily bread. But writing Amharic programs was different. My purpose primarily was to develop an Amharic word processor to type my poems with, share the poems with friends on the internet and make my books ready for publication. And I have done all three.

Senamirmir:   Can you tell us about Brana Software? Why was it named Brana?

Ato Amha Asfaw:   Well, "brana" is the main media on which most of our history was recorded. I thought it would be a nice way to recognize this writing media used by our ancestors.

Senamirmir:   If not all, most of your books' typesetting was done using Brana; however, it was not acknowledged attributed by those booksin the books. Why?

Ato Amha Asfaw:   I consider Brana to be like the papers and pencils we use. One does not acknowledge the kind of pencils and papers used to write a book.

Senamirmir:   Your latest software is "Baherae Hassab". What is the purpose of this program?

Ato Amha Asfaw:   Professor Getatchew Haile wrote a book called "Bahra Hassab". The book explains how learned men of the Ethiopian orthodox Christian church compute the moving fasts and feasts. The book also includes many tables to help users in finding the correct dates on which these fasts begin and end. A table that can be used to convert dates between European and Ethiopian calendars was also included.

However, one can make mistakes while using these tables. If for example your finger skips one line by mistake the result will be very wrong. Besides it takes time to search numbers on a table.

People who study Ethiopian literature and history spend a lot of time in converting dates from one calendar system to another. They would rather spend their time on actual research than converting dates.

That was why I wrote the program. Professor Getatchew Haile helped me a lot in choosing the important parameters that were included and in testing the program until all bugs are removed.

This program was dedicated to Professor Getatchew in appreciation of his life long work to advance our language and for inspiring me personally since my high school days.

With his permission (he already has given that permission) the program can be downloaded from and be used freely

Senamirmir:   Any current software development project that we should look for?

Ato Amha Asfaw:   I am working now on projects called ICE and ACE for the EPA. But I am sure you meant Amharic softwares. If that was the case, the answer would be: No, not really. Computing dose not excite me any more. Computing to me is like ditch digging or brick laying. It is something I do to pay the bills.

I wish I had studied subjects like Music, Art, Physics, Architecture or Linguistics. Life would have been more exciting.

Senamirmir:   Where can interested readers purchase or access your software?

Ato Amha Asfaw:   There is nothing to purchase. There is a catch however. Brana was written for windows 3.1. Many of the young Ethiopians may not even know that such a window had been in existence. I have no problem using it even on XP.

Anyway, one can download and use softwares or books I have written from the following address:

Senamirmir:   Now, to the general questions. What is the state of Ethiopic computing?

Ato Amha Asfaw:   As far as word processing is concerned, there are good programs on the market. To name a few: Agafari, fidel, WashRa, Addis Word etc ... They are in use in the publishing industry. Other than that I am not really convinced on the value of the use of computers by the general public. That does not mean computers should not be used in the academic world. Computer technology should be studied and researched upon in universities. As we get industrialized we need trained Ethiopians in the field.

Senamirmir:   Just to pick one simple application, we still don't have an Ethiopic email program despite the chronic need by many users. What is really wrong??

Ato Amha Asfaw:   This is something that comes with industrialization. When we make the computers the necessary softwares will come along with it.

Senamirmir:   What is your view of standards and standardization processes? It is safe to say that your participation in standardization efforts has been rather limited, why?

Ato Amha Asfaw:   It is good to have one standard Amharic font definition. However, I do not think it is necessary to have a standard keyboard layout. Standardizations have two problems.

  1. The software developers want their definition of things to be the standard. I am not blaming them. I understand that they have to protect their market.
  2. Most of the software developers are not good programmers. They lack the ability to design flexible programs that can be tailored to the need of the individual user. For example, one of the reasons they resist any standard other than their own is because they can not write programs that convert files written using their old fonts to the new standard. As far as I know the only person that attempted to do that was someone called Danel Yaiqob.
  3. I do not expect much from programmers of my generation. They have done a lot of good things; I am not trying to put them down. But the reality is, as a person gets older he/she looses the enthusiasm to learn and try new things. I believe the younger Ethiopians will be able to solve all these problems.
  4. As to my participation in standardization effort, I did participate once in Los Angeles. I chose later to leave the effort to people who have financial or political interest in the matter. I will give you an example. The Amharic speaking people have developed and modified the Ethiopian alphabet after inheriting it from Geez. If one finds in the alphabet table the letters "Je", "Che" or "Tche" The table can not be called Geez but Amharic. These politically motivated "Standardizers" call every character table by names such as "Tigrigna", "Gurgegna" (Which is correct to do so; since these tables contain special characters for that specific language.) except Amharic. When they come to Amharic they call it "Geez" or "Ethiopic". I even read a paper that called it "Saba".

Senamirmir:   As we speak now, there is a draft proposal on "Ethiopic Listing" from W3C's working group. Have you looked at it?

Ato Amha Asfaw:   No.

Senamirmir:   In general, what is the challenge for Ethiopic computing?

Ato Amha Asfaw:   As I wrote above the challenge is not in software development but the manufacturing of the hardware. With out controlling the hardware one can not be in control of the software design.

Senamirmir:   Does Linux has have any future in Ethiopia?

Ato Amha Asfaw:   I am sure it does. I just finished reading a paper presented by Selemon Teferra Abate presented to the international conference on Ethiopian Studies. The paper was titled "An Amharic Speech Corpus, for Large Vocabulary Continuous Speech Recognition.". The scientist used a library called HTK and an Amharic font called ethiop both made for the Unix/Linux environment. Since engineering and linguistics programs are developed for the Linux environment it will be necessary to use such an operating system.

Although I have used other versions of UNIX, I have never used Linux.

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