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Africa had its own writing systems!

Conventional history claims that Africa had no indigenous written scripts before the arrival of the Europeans. The continent had only an "oral" tradition, implying that Africa was a "historically illiterate" continent. But is this true? Not so, say the facts on the ground in many African countries! From Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs to Saharan rock art, to the ingenious modern syllabaries of the Vai and Bassa people of Liberia and the Bamum of Cameroon, Africa had its own written scripts before the Europeans arrived. Our Correspondent, Curtis Abraham, has returned from an interesting project in Cameroon where an indigenous African writing script, the Bamum, is being preserved. Here is his report.

HUMANKIND'S INVENTION OF the written word was indeed one of the greatest innovations in the history of our species. Not only did it forever transform communication and record keeping, it also altered the organisation of societies and changed the nature of state administration. However, when it comes to Africa a myth still persists that the continent and its various peoples are lacking in a legacy of the written word. Africa is instead demoted to the oral tradition status.

Nevertheless Ancient Egypt is an obvious and excellent example. And it is through Ancient Egypt that the Western world shares an important legacy with Africa: the emergence--over 5,000 years ago during the fourth millennium BC--in Egypt of a form of writing from which all modern scripts are genetically descended.

Egyptian hieroglyphics made up a formal writing system used by the Ancient Egyptians that contained a combination of pictographs (e.g. ancient or prehistoric drawings or paintings found on rock walls) and ideographs (a graphic symbol that represents an idea or concept) that later evolved into a phonetic (linguistic) script.

The process in which phonetic writing was born in Ancient Egypt is often called the "rebus principle", with the use of existing symbols such as pictograms purely for their sounds, regardless of their meaning, to represent new words.

Contemporary historians of Africa, archeologists, linguists and others have provided strong evidence that Ancient Egypt's culture grew from sub-Saharan African roots. In fact, from approximately the sixth to the fourth millennia BC, the Saharo-Sahelian peoples far to the south made seminal contributions down the Nile into pre-dynastic Egypt. And it is this south-north and north-south social interaction that is the precursor to cultural innovations like the writing system that developed in the land of the pharaohs.

Recent studies in population genetics are also bringing to light the dynamic cultural interaction between sub-Saharan Africa (Ancient Nubia) and Ancient Egypt. For example, in 1997, C. Lalueza Fox of the Universitat de Barcelona in Spain conducted mitochondrial DNA analysis of the remains of Ancient Nubians, inhabitants of southern Egypt and northern Sudan. Dr Fox concluded that there was indeed a south to north genetic flow following the Nile River Valley.

Further genetic research conducted by Dr Maria C. Terreros of the Florida International University and her colleagues (Dr Rene J. Herrera and Dr L. Martinez) in 2003 discovered close affinities between eastern sub-Saharan populations and those of Egypt in the phylogenetic trees (Phylogenesis is a term in Biology describing the sequence of events involved in the evolution of a species, etc).

This, Dr Maria Terreros and her colleagues suspect, may indicate the existence of gene flow along the Nile River--confirming more or less what Dr Lalueza Fox had earlier reported.

Egyptian hieroglyphics did not emerge like a phoenix from the ashes (although it might have had a single ingenious Egyptian inventor). It evolved from what experts call "highly codified African graphic systems", which, even if not phonetic, were a highly systematised and recorded, as well as communicated, information. Such systems--which included African rock art, geometric pottery motifs, cattle brands, weaving designs, scarification, and the like--existed not only in Upper Egypt but far to the south, which by the fourth millennium BC was engaging in robust exchanges with Egypt.

"Simply put, long before the emergence of Egyptian hieroglyphs, Africa had a wealth and diversity of graphic and plastic symbols that recorded and communicated information without being systematically related to language," says Professor Christopher Ehret, a University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) historian and one of the world's leading scholars in African history and African historical linguistics.

"Such systems--knotted cords, tallies, rock art, pottery designs, etc,--were precursors to writing, and are often referred to as 'proto-writing'. These systems are among those that might have provided graphic inspiration for Egyptian hieroglyphs," Prof Ehret adds.

Pictographic and ideographic symbols are also found in weaving and dyeing traditions. The most famous of these are found on bogolanfiniy a mud-dyed cloth traditionally made by Bamana women in Mali. The geometric designs and patterns have specific names and convey different levels of meanings.

Africa generally has a wealth of notable graphic systems includinggicandi symbols employed by the Kikuyu (Kenya), adinkra symbols among the Akan (in Ghana and Cote d'Ivoire), elaborate nsibida symbols among the Jgbo, Ibibio, and Ejagham (Nigeria), and cosmographic systems employed among the Dogon (Mali) and Kongo (Angola).

These graphic systems are still in use today and they are historically important not only in Africa but in the Americas as well, where they influenced the creation of diasporian systems of graphic imagery operated by peoples of African descent in places like Cuba, St. Vincent, Trinidad, Suriname, and even in the southeastern United States among the Gullah.

In spite of these facts, Ancient Egypt was, and still is to some extent, seen not as an African civilization but one belonging exclusively to the Mediterranean world and the Near East.

The traditional view was that Egypt, despite being geographically in Africa, was not of Africa! This notion was formulated and perpetuated by European and North American scholars during the 19th and early 20th centuries.

The racist inference behind this was that Africans were incapable of creating a civilisation like that of Ancient Egypt. Therefore, Egypt was a non-African entity more closely akin to "civilised" Europeans.

So the myth still persists that Africa and Africans are lacking in a legacy of the written word. That Africans had made little or no historical contribution on a global scale when it came to the written word. Africa is instead demoted to the oral tradition status. But this simply isn't true.

"Every modern script is descended genetically, in some way (if only indirectly or slightly), from the ancient Egyptian script tradition," says Dr Konrad Tuchscherer, associate professor of history and director of Africana Studies at St John's University in New York, and co-director of the Bamum Scripts and Archives Project at the Bamum Palace in Foumban, capital of the Bamum Kingdom in Cameroon.

"While the descendants of Cuneiform died out, Egypt gave rise to Proto-Sinaitic scripts (which gave rise to alphabetic writing) and the modern likes of Hebrew, Arabic, and the Roman script," Dr Tuchscherer continues. "The only modern script without a traceable connection to Egypt is the much more recent Chinese script (and those East Asian scripts descended from it)."

While the world's earliest physical evidence for writing has been traced to Egypt, it is not certain--and may forever be impossible to identify--whether Egypt or Mesopotamia was "first". The most objective statement to make in terms of understanding the origins and relationships of modern scripts is, therefore, to state that their earliest known common ancestor is Ancient Egyptian.

Dr Tuchscherer adds: "Africa has contributed to the world many rich traditions of writing and graphic symbolism, from ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs and Saharan rock art, to the ingenious modern syllbanes and alphabets of the Vai and Bassa of West Africa. With such a long and distinguished history of writing, it is unfitting that a myth persists of Africa as a 'historically illiterate' continent.

"The irony of the myth is that the Egyptian system from North Africa inspired scripts such as Hebrew and Arabic, and indirectly scripts such as Greek, Roman and Cyrillic. In fact, all modern scripts, except Chinese and its offshoots are descended from the Egyptian."

Contemporary scientific investigations are even beginning to put the African continent at the centre of the development of the written word. It had been previously believed by scholars that Cuneiform represented the earliest form of phonetic writing, that is to say writing that represents segments of speech, and that it was originated in ancient Mesopotamia (modern day Iraq) by the Sumerians. However, over the past decade a team of German archaeologists led by Dr Gunter Dreyer of the German Archaeological Institute have discovered that the world's earliest examples of writing were not from the "Fertile Crescent" but from Africa, an estimated 500 miles south of the Nile Delta and dating to the 33rd century BCE!

Despite Dr Dreyer's remarkable discoveries in southern Egypt, popular scientific publications such as the National Geographic (see for example "Cuneiform calendar from Nimrod", July 2003) and celebrity popularisers of science like the Pulitzer Prize-winning author, Jared Diamond, who devotes an entire chapter of his book to the evolution of writing, claim that Cuneiform is "history's oldest writing system".

The influence of the Ancient Egyptian writing system went far beyond the African continent.

And there are even instances where these Egyptian-inspired scripts have returned to the African continent. For example, the Phoenician script was descended from, and inspired by, Egyptian writing (the Phoenician alphabet was itself inspired in part by the proto-Canaanite script, itself descended from the Egyptian system). But the Phoenician script was to return to the African continent when Phoenician merchants established the colony of Carthage during the first millennium BC on the coast of what is today Tunisia. This writing evolved from Punic, the now extinct variety of the Phoenician language, and into the writing of the Saharan peoples.

The Tuaregs

Elsewhere, the Tifinagh Script used by the Tauregs of the Sahara is a 2000-year-old descendent of the Phoenician script. Tifinagh literally means "the Phoenician letters". It is a consonantal alphabet with about 40 geometric letters. It is an ancient script. Saharan rock engravings found throughout the Sahara Desert, from southern Morocco and Algeria to Mali and Niger bear this out.

According to Dr I uchscherer, the script is still taught and learned in an unrestricted fashion by children, women, and men across the Sahara and the Sahel. In recent years, the script has been standardised, computer software has been created, and the print media has started using it.

As early as the sixth century BC, two other important scripts arrived in Africa. In North Africa, Aramaic, an offshoot of Phoenician, and the successor to Assyrian Cuneiform, arrived, with the Persian occupation of Egypt.

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Centuries later, just before the birth of Christ, the Aramaic alphabet would inspire the creation (outside of Africa) of the Hebrew square alphabet, which would be employed by Jews across ancient North Africa (some of the oldest documents in Africa are in Hebrew). Some of these Jews, such as Berber Jews, used Hebrew characters to write Berber languages, such as the ancestor language of modern Tamasheq.

During the sixth century BC, another two important scripts arrived in Africa. The first was the Sabaean or Sabaic consonantal alphabet that came from the Arabian Peninsula to ancient Ethiopia around the area of modern Eritrea, and which was carried by settlers from southwest Arabia.

"This alphabet would be transformed into a distinctly Ethiopian or Ethiopic 'syllabo-alphabet' by Christian Ethiopians in the fourth century AD for writing the language Ge'ez," says Dr Tuchscherer.

"After the death of Ge'ez as a spoken language, and even after its continued use as a liturgical language of the Ethiopian Christian church by the 15th century, the Ethiopian script was adapted to write Amharic as well as a host of other Ethiopian languages.

"Tifinagh and Ethiopian, both around 2000 years old, have the distinction of being the two longest surviving script innovations born in Africa," Dr Tuchscherer adds for good measure.

There are other examples from Africa of graphic systems that were invented or evolved independently, possibly devoid of outside influence.

And, as with every other continent, the peoples, cultures, and civilisations of Africa never existed in a vacuum and, thus, some African scripts were influenced by other scripts both within and outside the continent.

"The emergence and spread of writing in Africa, as throughout the world generally, has been characterised by a balance between two phenomena: independent invention and stimulus (or idea) diffusion," explains Dr Tuchscherer.

"Certainly Africa has had its geniuses who created and discovered new ways of thinking and doing things. This statement challenges a negative myth about Africa, which asserts that African peoples and cultures are primordial, timeless, and entirely independent from one another."

Perhaps nowhere else on the African continent is this interplay between independent development and outside influence more prominent than in the spread of scripts in the West Africa region starting from the early 1800 through the first half of the 20th century.

The Vai Script was the first to appear in Liberia in 1832 or 1833. The Vai Script has the distinction of being one of the few indigenous ones in Africa. It was heavily influenced by Cherokee Indian syllabary (North American missionaries in Liberia were experimenting with the Cherokee syllabary as a model for writing Liberian languages).

But not only did the Vai Script inspire that of the Bamum Script in Cameroon, but several other syllabaries (including the Kpelle of Liberia, the Mende of Sierra Leone, and the Toma/Loma of Guinea and Liberia) within a century's time and in close geographic space within the West Africa region.

The emergence of such scripts in West Africa during that period depended on several key factors. Social conditions had to be open to the idea of adopting a written script. This would have been influenced by contacts with other African communities that had a script tradition. Such community contacts would have been of a religious, political or business nature.

Yet another important factor is that the person or persons who initiated the creation of a new script (or who helped make it a success) would have been of prominent standing in that community, such as a chief or king.

The Bamum script

One of these modern-day indigenous scripts is that of the Bamum of Cameroon. The Bamum script, in its earliest form, was created in 1896, which was before the arrival of the first whites in the Bamum kingdom. The Bamum script first existed in a pictographic form. Shortly after the turn of the century, however, it developed into a syllabary, a set of written symbols that represent (or approximate) syllables, which make up words.

Its modern form, referred to as A-ka-u-kuy is still used today. It has letters for writing and numerals for counting. And it contains 80 syllabic characters (10 of these characters are numerals which are also used as letters).

Legend has it that the king of the Bamum, Sultan Ibrahim Njoya, was inspired by a dream to create an original form of writing for the Bamum. More plausible, however, is that the Bamum script originated from various contacts with peoples and/or religions that already had script traditions.

For example, Islam and the Arabic Script may have had a role to play in the invention of the Bamum Script. Sultan Ibrahim Njoya is said to have travelled to the north of his country where he had contacts with Islamicised Hausa and Fulani Muslims.

A major preservation project is now under way at Foumban, capital of the Bamum Kingdom in Cameroon, to protect and keep for prosperity the Bamum scripts and various manuscripts found throughout the Bamum Kingdom.

The Archives du Palais des Rois Bamum (APRB), which is located at the Bamum Palace at Foumban, houses the largest and most important collection of writings inigenous African scripts anywhere in sub-Saharan Africa. And it is this collection that has prompted the Bamum Scripts and Archives Project, which began in 2006 and will continue through 2016 and pehaps beyond.

Dr Tuchscherer and the co-director / archivist of the project, Nji Nchare, are looking after over 13,000 images of photographed material. This is one of the most important cultural preservation projects ever undertaken in Africa and there is absolutely nothing else like this collection on the continent.

"All this work to preserve the script is because of the [current] Bamum king, E1 Hadj Sultan Ibrahim Mbombo Njoya, who has overseen every aspect of the project since its inception," says Dr Tuchsherer. The project has already made numerous scientific discoveries within the archives.

For example, Dr Tuchscherer, Nji Nchare and their colleagues have uncovered many previously unknown pharmacopoeia which are now being studied by traditional scholars such as Zakari Nkepou, widely considered to be the most important and famous healer in Foumban for his ability to understand the writings of the earlier generation.

Some of this traditional knowledge was lost from the time of King Njoya (who died in exile in 1933). The researchers have recovered a treasure trove of maps of the palace and the Bamum Kingdom written in the Bamum script which dwarf the earlier collection in the palace.

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"We are translating these documents and books as the Bamum have much to contribute to world knowledge," says Dr Tuchscherer. "Some of the scientific information was lost by later generations, so re-learning' this material is very important and traditional healers are already benefitting from this.

"Having a literate history to refer to is important, as we have found in a variety of ways. I have already mentioned science and health. In terms of maths, teachers in our schools are experimenting with and teaching mathematical concepts. And documents we have translated on Bamum history have been consulted to settle historical disputes about lineage and ancestry.

"Most recently we had a case about a seating arrangement in the palace for a festival and two parties believed they had a certain right to sit in a more esteemed place. We had a record for that which settled the dispute."

The researchers have also discovered farming calendars, some of which are elegantly designed in circular form with artistic illustrations of the cosmos. They have identified books dealing with mathematical concepts, building on the Bamum tradition of number writing.

"Very few people appreciate the fact that the Bamum are one of the few peoples in history who invented their own original number writing system," says Tuchscherer.

"The fact that people don't pay as much attention to a number writing system as a phonetic system to transcribe language has perhaps something to do with the belief--especially in the Western world--that the alphabet is above all else the key to humanity and culture. As a result, the fact that the Bamum have this very interesting and original system for numeration is often overlooked."

Book of love

Dr Tuchscherer and Nji Nchare have even discovered an African-styled Kama Sutra, which is known as the Lerewa Nuu Nguet, roughly translated as the "Book of Love". The book was created by King Njoya in 1921, and the researchers are presently planning the publication of their edited version of the lost volume which is due out in 2012.

The small leather-bound book with elaborate leather stitching--measuring a mere 13.4 cm length by 10 cm width--is today housed in the Bamum Palace. It is a detailed study of the human body and the physical and psychological relationships between men and women.

It was completed 90 years ago at the direction of Sultan Ibrahim Njoya, the then king of the Bamum Kingdom, in the royal palace in Foumban, and it is the earliest known written account from Black Africa devoted to the arts and science of sex and love. The book explodes Western stereotypes regarding sexual relations in Africa.

The techniques the book describes, as well as the relationship advice it dispenses, are based on both accumulated cultural wisdom--recorded, at the direction of Njoya, from nobles and other subjects--as well as the intimate insights of the famous king himself.

Nji Nchare and Dr Tuchscherer recently completed a bounded guide to the Bamum Palace Archives, which is thousands of pages long and in multiple languages and scripts. It is currently housed in the Bamum Palace. This will be available online for consultation some time this year.

According to Nji Nchare, the Bamum king and all the Bamum people have developed a special love and admiration for Dr Tuchscherer, who is the only known outsider ever to live in the Bamum Palace.

"He inspired us through his dedication to saving our culture. He was able to make the whole community work together for a common goal, the Bamum script project," says El Hadj Sultan Ibrahim Mbombo Njoya, the current Bamum king, who recently decided to educate his eldest son in the United States, at St John's University (one of America's leading Catholic universities whose main campus is in New York City).

Dr Tuchscherer is currently writing a book entitled Black Scribes that explores the history of the written word in Africa from Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs to modern West African alphabets.

In 1998, the African-American writer, W. Bruce Willis, published his book, Adinkra Dictionary--A Visual Primer on the Language of Adinkra, which helped greatly in bursting the myth that adinkra (a writing system invented by the Akan people of today's Ghana and Cote d'Ivoire) is just symbols, and not a writing system. Willis provided evidence in the book to prove that ages ago the adinkra system was used as a means of written communication by the Akan people.

But as time went by, successive generations of the Akan (buffeted by many factors, including constant migration after the fall of Ancient Egypt, war, conquest, colonialism) neglected this writing system and thus unwittingly helped in reducing it to what is now called "adinkra symbols".

Willis insists in his book that in those bygone days, the Akan people really understood the messages written in the adinkra system when the so-called "symbols" were put together to form sentences, much like the Chinese and Japanese do with their writing systems today.

All of which goes to support the view that contrary to conventional history, Africa had its own writing systems long before the Asians and Europeans arrived on the continent with theirs.

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Title Annotation:Africa
Author:Abraham, Curtis
Publication:New African
Geographic Code:60SUB
Date:Aug 1, 2011
Words:3704
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