Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Kwame Anthony Appiah hatched a plan 25 years ago to compile a comprehensive work documenting African history from 3 million B.C. to modern times.
Back then, when the pair met as students at Cambridge University in England, CD-ROMs didn't exist and the personal computer industry was in its infancy. The Internet was a text-only network limited to the United States and used only by the government and universities. So they envisioned their project as a traditional encyclopedia.
In 1997, when they were ready to make good on their plan, the now-Harvard University professors were enchanted by the potential of the new electronic media. After being rejected by several businesses, they found support at Microsoft Corp. (For the record, Gates is not related to Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates.)
"We had 15 months to assemble the whole thing," Gates said last month at a software signing at CompUSA in Columbia.
The result is Microsoft Encarta Africana, a multimedia reference that brings to life the history of Africa and its people. "It is truly Afrocentric," Gates said.
In a switch from the usual sequence in the publishing business, the professors will use the information they collected for the Africana CD to create a book version in the fall.
Although Appiah said the program is aimed at schoolchildren and college students, most of the people who sought the authors' autographs at the store were over age 30. Many said they were making the purchases for younger family members.
"This [Africana] will be part of a reference. This is definitely for my children and grandchildren," said Jim Williams of Columbia.
Gates and Appiah aren't stopping with this version of the software. They plan an updated version next year.
Their Web site (www.africana.com) offers a glimpse of the treasures to be found in Africana, and lesson plans for teachers who want to incorporate Africana in their classroom instruction.
The professors are seeking foundation support for a Sunday school program they've dubbed Black to the Future, in which black churches in New York, Boston and Minneapolis will get computers and Internet access so that children can become familiar with the technology.
"We want to combine the teaching of religion with culture, tradition and history," Gates said. "And we need to make the technology available. Getting the machines will motivate the kids."
Gates hopes to draw people to technology through content such as Africana. "If all people see is shoot-'em-up games, they'll wonder why they should bother with the expense" of a computer, he said.