The lost script

It’s a writing system called Ajami, it’s a thousand years old, and a Boston University professor thinks it could help unlock the story of a continent

(Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff )
By Kenneth J. Cooper
January 10, 2010

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One day while he was living near Seattle, the Senegal-born linguistics professor Fallou Ngom forgot to close a window before a rainstorm passed through, and the next morning discovered the wind had blown some of his papers to the floor. On one of them, a sheet several years old, his late father had recorded a debt.

Ngom’s father was considered illiterate because he couldn’t read and write in the country’s official language, French. But like many Senegalese had for centuries, he wrote daily information in his native tongue using a modified form of Arabic script known as Ajami. Ngom was struck by the irony: Here was his “illiterate” father communicating with him years after his death, in writing.

Ngom realized that this was more than just a touching personal moment. It also represented an immense opportunity. Ajami script had been widely used across Africa for day-to-day writing in a dozen languages, and Ngom knew those writings had been largely overlooked in the official story of the continent - in part because so few historians could read them. How many other documents like this existed across the continent? How many had simply been missed, or ignored?

Within a year, Ngom shifted his research from French linguistics, his specialty at Western Washington University, to the handwritten script of his father. Today Ngom is director of the African Languages Program at Boston University, and is training the first generation of American scholars capable of reading Ajami.

What Ngom hopes is nothing less than to lay the groundwork for a reinterpretation of much of African history, using this widespread but little understood writing system to unearth new information about the daily life of Africans, the spread of Islam, the continent’s literary traditions, the Atlantic slave trade, and who knows what else.

Could one writing system have that much influence? Not all scholars of Africa agree that the impact of Ajami

studies will be so continental. Some say that since the script was used primarily to record everyday, local concerns such as business deals and cultural practices, it is unlikely to be the source of significant new revelations.

But for Ngom, what little is known about Ajami texts is reason enough to push deeper. To study Ajami, as he sees it, is to open the door to a different side of Africa, unlocking an oral tradition widely assumed to have vanished with its speakers, and offering an important corrective to the way Africa’s story has been told.

“What Ajami tells us about Africa is yet to be known,” Ngom says.

The study of Africa’s history, particularly the region below the Sahara Desert, has traditionally reflected not only the biases of its historians, but also the limits of the written sources available to them. Official African documents tend to be in the languages of the outsiders who held power - either the Arab invaders who began arriving on the continent in the seventh century, or the Europeans who colonized it starting about a millennium later. These outsiders were there to convert the locals, trade them as slaves, and mine their natural resources, and colonial writings helped justify those commercial and religious interests, portraying sub-Sahara Africa as lacking literacy, history, and civilization.

The African-American assertion of black pride in the 1960s brought new attention to African achievements in art, technology, and governance, with student protests forcing some revision of college history curriculums. But the assumptions behind the principal sources of African history have continued to shape scholarship, as well as broader perceptions of the continent. The documents preserved in African archives, for the most part, are still the ones written by its colonizers.

But they aren’t the only writings that were produced in Africa. Starting at least in the 10th century, African holy men who had converted to Islam and learned Arabic began to modify Arabic writing to enable them to spread the religion more easily. The resulting Ajami script - the name comes from the Arabic word for stranger - helped make Islam accessible to shepherds and other commoners who could not understand Arabic. In Koranic schools that espoused Africanized versions of the religion, Ajami displaced Arabic, to the displeasure of traditionalists.

The script became widespread across the continent’s north-central waist, the so-called Sudanic belt, and was adapted for uses far outside Islamic education. Traders would record business transactions in Ajami, while other people would write secular poems or compile medical encyclopedias of indigenous treatments. It was used to write about a dozen languages, including the Wolof spoken by Ngom’s father, in what today are nearly 20 countries. Though most of its uses were unofficial, some sultans corresponded with provincial administrators in the script, Ngom says, meaning that government records may exist in Ajami. By now, it has been used continuously for more than 1,000 years.

But officially speaking, it has also been widely ignored. Uncounted Ajami manuscripts squirreled away across the continent have gone untranslated, even unseen, by scholars. Even in African countries where it is still used, the script lacks government recognition. In French colonial archives from Africa, Ngom says, Ajami documents remain classified as “unreadable Arabic” - based on the mistaken notion that writing in African languages simply did not exist. Some of this misclassification may have even been intentional.

“One of the reasons the documents have not been available has to do with colonial politics and the suspicion in which these documents were held, because the colonizers couldn’t read them,” says Jennifer Yanco, US director of the West African Research Association, based at BU. “During the colonial era, a lot of people hid their libraries.”

So the documents were buried, Yanco says, or concealed in false adobe walls. She says African scholars have discovered many, and recognized them as Ajami, in Nigeria, Ghana, and Mali. Many are religious, she says, but not all: Some of the documents are lineages, travelogues, and records of events.

Ngom says he knows of no African universities that teach Ajami to students. “It’s just a colonial tradition. There are only a few countries where African languages are taught,” he says; and when they are taught, it is done in Latin script. John Hutchinson, Ngom’s predecessor as director of the African Languages Program, cites just one other university anywhere with an Ajami program: the School of Oriental and African Studies, part of the University of London, which teaches Hausa Ajami.

Still, Ajami is starting to make headway in some corners of academia. Some African scholars who, like Ngom, learned Ajami on their own, have been translating and publishing Ajami texts, according to Yanco and Bruce S. Hall, a history professor at Duke University who focuses on Mali. Those Africans outnumber the handful of professors at American universities doing similar work. For the last five years, Ngom has been plodding away at his research on Ajami literature in Senegal.

The BU program, several specialists say, offers more instruction in Ajami than any other traditional institution of higher education. Under his leadership since 2008, the African Languages Program has been a pioneer in offering instruction in both Ajami and Latin scripts. This year, about 30 BU students are learning Wolof, Hausa, or Pular. Most are graduate students in other departments - such as anthropology, history, or health - who will undergo five years of language training, supported primarily by grants from the US Department of Education. In the future, the program plans to teach Swahili and Amharic, the language of Ethiopia, in Ajami.

What nobody knows yet is what kind of information might be out there. Ngom’s hopes are high. He says he has already found an information-rich genealogy written in Ajami that goes back to the 12th century, and that other Ajami texts include Islamic edicts, business records, eulogies, letters from rulers, legal documents, and poems. From more recent times, he says, “You also have political satires, criticisms of colonial governments and traditional leaders.” Content of that last sort drove Ajami underground.

“I haven’t read one-tenth of one-thousandth of what’s out there,” Ngom says. “We’ve got a long way to go, but it’s exciting.”

Others are less optimistic about Ajami’s potential to change the study of the continent. “Ajami may well have been set aside for the mundane tasks of life,” says James McCann, a BU historian who specializes in Ethiopia. He says the writings probably focus on “the texture and movement and rhythms of local life,” such as marriages, debts, business transactions, and social issues.

Hall of Duke University says the Ajami documents are vastly outnumbered by standard Arabic texts authored in Africa by Africans which are, with philanthropic help, slowly being cataloged, preserved, and translated in Timbuktu. The many thousands of ancient documents found in the onetime center of higher learning in Mali include some in Ajami.

“How much is there to learn about history, per se? I don’t know,” Hall says. “I don’t think they’re going to provide chronicles of events. I don’t think they’re going to provide diaries of particular individuals, or military or political histories.”

But Hall suggests that Ajami texts can at least reveal much about the script’s original purpose - to spread Islam. “There’s a lot there to learn, I think,” he says. “We don’t have a great sense of how these ideas were diffused and how Islam spread among nonelites.”

Ngom, who is Muslim, argues that the script was far more than a tool of religious conversion, also providing a important way for Africans to record their culture and the details of their lives safely out of view of Arab Muslims and European colonists. “The average village Joe” writing in Ajami, he says, would have felt free to cover topics left out of African texts in standard Arabic because they were blasphemous under traditional Islam, such as indigenous use of amulets to ward off dangerous spirits. “Ajami does contain things from Arabic literature, but the reverse is not true,” he says.

In talking about Ajami’s potential to change our picture of Africa, Ngom makes a comparison to how the Western estimation of Arab society, at first considered backward and barbarous, went up once the outsiders learned to read Arabic and could grasp the Arab contributions to mathematics, science, geography, and literature.

Language can loom large in the interpretation of history of a place and a people, even as it can carry personal messages, like alerting a son to paying his late father’s debt. One by one, Ngom says, those kinds of communications accumulate into a larger story, and perhaps one never before heard.

“From Senegal to Tanzania, if you want to know how people think, how people heal, how they farm - their way of life,” he says, “you have to read their own literature.”

Kenneth J. Cooper, a former national editor of The Boston Globe, is a freelance journalist.