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African Writing Systems

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Mandombe script
Writing is a means by which people record, objectify, and organize their activities and thoughts through images and graphs .

Writing is a means to inscribe meanings that are expressed through sounds. Further, writing provides an aspect of historicality. [1] This means that writing facilitates the proper recording and transmissions of events and deeds from one generation to another.

Most of the worlds written script originated from the Semitic script. The Greeks converted the Semitic script into what was to become the 'English script' of the western world. Arabic and Hebrew retained the basic format of the Semitic script, employing vowel characters and not letters. Chinese script developed uniquely.

It is rather interesting to note that no alphabet is known to have ever been formed by Europeans.

We are very familiar with the African Egyptian hieroglyphic script and the African Ethiopian Geez script, which date as old as 3000 BC and 500 BC years respectively.

However forgotten by no coincidence are many other ancient African scripts that are unique and expressive in their own ways. Scripts created and used for hundreds of years from Sudan to Nigeria. It appears that one of the main reasons why these great African script were lost in the sands of Historical time, is the direct mechanism of the colonial operation.

Colonialism was internationally justified on a premise that the African was less than a human, this stamped by the infamous 1865 'Code Noir'. [2] To this goal, all evidence of African advanced skills would have been suppressed, books destroyed and higher skills silenced.

In a time when only the Nobles of the West could read and write, if a slave, who was portrayed as an animal (still written in the US constitution as 3/5ths a human in the 'three-fifths clause' [3]) could read and write in his native language with advanced skill, it would be impossible to maintain his being less than human.

Here we look at some of the great forgotten scripts of the African continent.


Contents

Ethiopic Script

Ethiopic Script

Ethiopic is an African Writing System designed as a meaningful and graphic representation of knowledge. It is a component of the African Knowledge Systems and one of the signal contributions made by Africans to the world history and cultures. It is created to holistically symbolize and locate the cultural and historical parameters of the Ethiopian people. The System, in its classic state, has a total of 182 syllographs, which are arranged in seven columns, each column containing 26 syllographs. Ethiopic is a knowledge system because it is brilliantly organized to represent philosophical features, such as ideography, mnumonics, syllography, astronomy, and grammatology. [4]

Egyptian Script

Egyptian Script

Sudan Script

Meroitic script

By the third century BC a new indigenous alphabet, the Meroitic, consisting of twenty-three letters, replaced Egyptian script. The Meroitic script is an alphabetic script originally derived from Egyptian hieroglyphs, used to write the Meroitic language of the Kingdom of Meroë/Kush. It was developed sometime during the Napatan Period (about 700 - 300 BC), and first appears in the 2nd century BC. For a time, it was also possibly used to write the Nubian language of the successor Nubian kingdoms. The Meroitic script is very similar to the Egyptian Writing System. It was used by the Meroe people, a civilization of the Sudan. The system is written from right to left, unlike the Egyptian system which can be written right to left, left to right, and vertically. [5]


Afan Oromo script

Afan Oromo script

It is the language by more than 25 million Oromo and neighboring peoples in Ethiopia and Kenya. Older publications refer to the language as "Galla", a term that is resented by Oromo people and no longer used.


Bassa Script

Liberian Bassa script

HISTORY of the Bassa Script, 500+ BC (Liberia, West Africa)

Many people today are unaware of the genius of the African. Although they might admit to a complex verbal language structure, it may come as quite a surprise to many that African people have a multitude of written languages. In Liberia the Bassa people have a written script. The Kpelle, Gola, Lorma, Grebo, Vai and Kissi also are known to have their own written language. Most of these scripts have diminished over time, as a result of abandonment.

Had Hanibal visited Liberia in 500 B.C., particularly Kpowin(Tradetown) and Bassa Cove, he would have witnessed the Bassa script in use. The script is called Vah by the Bassas, which is translated to the phrase: To throw sign. Not to be confused with the Vai ethnic group, who also have their own written script as mentioned above. Vah was initially the throwing of sign or signals utilizing the natural environment. Teeth marks would be left on leaves and placed in a discrete location for the intended reader. Messages where also carved in the barks of trees. Eventually this evolved into a complex written language. During the era of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, many Bassas avoided slave traders by utilizing Vah(Bassa Script). During the colonial, and on through to the neo-colonial period in Africa, a decline in the usage of Vah script caused by external cultural forces, almost brought this written portion of the Bassa language to extinction.

Dr. Flo Darvin Lewis in the 1900s would re-discover the script in South America. Bassas that were sold into slavery now living in Brazil and the West Indies; kept the tradition of writing alive, passing it from generation to generation. Through his travels, Dr. Lewis was astonished to find out that he, being a Bassa himself, knew nothing of any such writing amongst his people back in Liberia. This discovery put Dr. Lewis on a determined path to learn, teach and revive the script in Liberia. Lewis attended Syracuse University and earned a doctorate in Chemistry, where he was known as the African Prince. Dr. Lewis returned to Liberia by way of Dresden, Germany where a company manufactured the first printing press for the Bassa alphabet. In Liberia, he established an institution for learning Vah. Among his students were, former Senator Edwin A. Morgan, Counselors Zacharia Roberts and Jacob Logan. Fear, mis-trust, sabotage and colonial thinking Liberians would lead to Dr. Lewis’ untimely death; leaving an open legacy yet to be completed. [6] [7]

Vai Script

Vai script

West Africa 1819

The actual origins of this script are enmeshed in mythology. This script said to be invented by inspiration by Momolu Duwalu Bukele at about 1819. Some suggest that he developed this script from coming into contact with the Bassa Liberian script in his sojourns. [8]

Mende Script

Mende script

Sierra Leone


Nsibidi Script

Nsibidi script

The Nigerian Nsibidi is an indigenous adaptable and fluid writing system of two dimensional signs, three dimensional forms of pictographs and ideographs and pantomimed gestures. It originated as an esoteric form of knowledge understood by a select group of people mostly members of a secret society in Southeastern Nigeria which some sources link to the Ejagham and later spread to Efik, Igbo, Ibibio, Efut, Annang and Banyang speaking areas.

Some of the signs of the Nsibidi spread to the Caribbean and Brazil during the slave trade.


Edo/Benin Script

Edo script

Edo script

Benin and Edo people of southern Nigeria have developed a chromatographic system of writing. That is a writing based on different color combination's and graphs. Aba Abhuluime of Nigeria brought the chromatographic writing system to our attention. The system is also called quantography or pictography. This system of color writing and tradition needs to be further investigated. According to Mr. Abhuluime, there is a published work entitled "African Science: The Art of Colour Writing" by Aba Ota in 1999. We hope to provide additional information on color writing in the future. Source: http://afrikafriend.4bb.ru/viewtopic.php?id=1344&p=2

Tifinagh Script

Libyan Tifinagh script

Libya


Bamun Script

Cameroon Bamun script

Cameroon, West Africa

Kukakui Script

Kikakui script

Sierra Leone


N'ko Script

Nko script

Guinea

Mandombe Script

Mandombe script

Republic of Congo

Shumom Script and Print Press

Shumom script

Shumom Script and Print Press of Cameroon

The Shumom people are the people of Cameroon in West Africa. Their country is located between Nigeria in the West, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon and Congo Brazzaville in the South and Chad and Central African Republic in the North. Within Cameroon, the land of the Shumom people is located in the northern part. It is a land of massif plateau and mountains, valleys and vast forested land, a part of the great equatorial forest of West and Central Africa. Foumban is the administrative capital of the district.

In the beginning of the 20th century or perhaps earlier, the people of Cameroon were able to accomplish one of the most remarkable African achievements of the century: the invention of a self-sustaining and self governing writing system and a Bronze cast printing set device to document the histories of the people. Sultan Ibrahim Njoya, whose father was killed resisting the German invaders, led the invention. The invention that started in the late nineteenth century (1895 or 1896) was completed by the beginning of the 20' century in 1903. By the time of the Germans arrival, the writing system was in use in conjunction with the Bamum language, which is a tonal language, which means the meanings of a word will vary depending upon the tone with which the sound of the word is uttered. The system went through seven stages of development. The first stage had over five hundred pictographs and the last stage has had only 35 syllographs, graphs designed to represent all the phonetic and tone sounds in the Bamum language of the Shumom people.

King Njoya opened a school in Fumban where many are trained to become literate and promote leaming in their own language. Several manuscripts and documents were produced, including the histories, laws and customs of the people and their neighbors. Two systems of writing were taught at the school: the Royal and the popular scripts. Tragically the most important documents are taken away by colonial masters out of Cameroon and they are housed in the French and British Museums. The Germans and later the French did not want to see the flourishing of a literary tradition among the Bamums. Not only they killed or exiled their leaders; they also violently banned the use of Shumom, thereby condemning the people to colonial dark age.

The remarkable accomplishments of the Cameroonians is in line with the long and glorious traditions of the inventions and use of writing systems, perhaps beginning with the hieroglyphics of the Ancient Egyptians whose earliest pictographic writing now dated to be 3400B.C.

The Shumom writing system was invented and used in such a participatory democracy where all the members of the society are asked by the king to participate in the project. King Njoya, the able and visionary leader, ordered his constituency to contribute symbols for the writing system. In so doing not only he succeeded in ensuring a wide range of ideographic ideas to choose from, but he also paved the way for eventual acceptance of the system by the whole nation. This process combined with mythology would place the system as permanent cultural asset and legacy of the people.

King Njoya mythologized the invention of the Shumom writing system as follows:

"When King Njoya was asleep one night he had a dream. A man came and before him saying: 'Oh King, take a wide, flat piece of wood and mark on it a man's hand. Then wash the board and drink the water.' The king took a plank and made a mark as the man directed, and handed it to that man who also made a mark thereon and returned the plank to the King. In the dream there were many people sitting around, all schoolboys, and they had paper in their hands. They all made marks thereon and passed on what they marked to their neighbors.

"When it was daylight the King took a wide plank and marked thereon a man's hand. He then washed the plank with water and drank it, as the man in the dream directed. The King now summoned many of his courtiers and told them to mark out many things and to give names to all these things so that the result would be a book. In this way man's speech could be inaudibly recorded.

"Njoya asked whether the populace would be able to understand this silent speech. His courtiers replied: 'No, if things are done as you wish, no one will be able to interpret these marks.' Njoya asked whether it would not be as well to carry out his suggestions, and they replied: 'It is no use, no one will understand the meaning of these marks.' Njoya said to them: 'Go, sleep and ponder over the matter till it become clear.'

"The next day he summoned all his courtiers again and asked them, saying: 'What now do you think about this matter, this book business?' They replied that if he did as he suggested no one would be able to interpret the marks. Njoya said he agreed with them, and told them to leave the matter with him and he would try, and if the problem were too much for him he would abandon it. Nevertheless his courtiers were to make many signs, all different, and to bring them to him. He also made many signs.

"The King now collected all these signs, and called in Moma and Isiah (two Mohammedan Mallams) to help him plan. Five times he consulted with these two and by then he understood enough. When Njoya consulted with them again the problem was solved. Then he called together many of his courtiers and taught them the signs. Many people learned and King Njoya was very pleased."2

King Njoya's magnum opus in the royal script ran to 1,100 pages and its replica is now with the Pitt-Rivers Museum of Oxford. The published text regarding the writing system was the combined works of MDW Jeffreys and Madam Dugast of France in 1950 under the title: L'Ecriture des Bamum and it was published in France.

King Njoya had also successfully surveyed and produced a map of his nation. This is also a remarkable feat by itself. Just imagine the natural and progressive development of the people of Cameroon without the rude and violent and destructive intervention of European colonialism!


Ref:

Controversy

When many of these scripts were re-discovered, the African historian discoverers were again by no coincidence quickly labeled to have been the formulators of these ancient scripts, and a propaganda tale was spread in all cases that these scripts were invented recently by each discovering researcher in an amusingly identical fashion of them setting out to create these written languages De Novo just to prove that Africans too could create written language, and in all cases they were 'coincidentally' described to have meditated or been aided by visions to carry out this daunting task. This bemusing fallacy has been debunked as evidence of ancient use of these scripts have been found in all cases.