Unearthing a Long Ignored African Writing System, One Researcher Finds African History, by Africans

Not only is this a fantastic story about language and culture and colonialism, it’s also a great example of how a talented PR writer used journalistic storytelling strategies to turn a scholarly study into an appealing narrative. We start with a very specific, very personal story about a man returning home for his father’s funeral.

A note in Ajami, a modified Arabic script, from Fallou Ngom’s late father opened the door to a lifetime of discovery in African language and history.

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“That’s when I realized: we’ve been told that these people are illiterate, and they’re absolutely not,” says Ngom, a Boston University College of Arts & Sciences professor of anthropology.

Ngom needed to know more. He applied for a postdoctoral fellowship in 2004 to travel to West Africa and dig into this surprising writing system. Tellingly, it was BU’s West African Research Association that granted Ngom’s postdoc—albeit years before he would join the University’s faculty.

He found this modified Arabic script everywhere. Shopkeepers kept records with it and poets wrote sprawling verses in it. Ngom discovered religious texts, medical diagnoses, advertisements, love poems, business records, contracts, and writings on astrology, ethics, morality, history, and geography, all from people who were considered illiterate by the official governmental standards of their countries. —Boston University