Sulemaana Kantè and a Map of Selected Traditions of Ajami Literacy in West Africa

Having recently submitted my dissertation's written draft to my chair, I have had the pleasure of being able to dive into some digital map-making. While academics are used to simply pulling random maps off of Google for the purposes of PowerPoint, I realized that to clarify a few parts of my narrative and analysis for a more general audience, I needed to provide some images that would situate a number of the historical and modern places (cities, regions, empires, etc.) that I reference.

The following map comes from my dissertation chapter on the inventor of the N'ko script, Sulemaana Kantè, who lived from 1922 to 1987.

While best known for the alphabet that he created, he's most enduring contribution is in fact the thousands of Manding-speaking West Africans that today teach and promote his writing system as an orthography for Manding and, to a lesser extent, other African languages. Kantè, however, did not emerge from nowhere. Attending the Quranic school of his father, Kantè was educated just like millions of other West Africans Muslims since Islam's arrival in the region around the 10th century. He learned to read and write therefore not in his own language, but in Classical Arabic.

Just as the script of Rome was eventually co-opted for penning a number of other languages besides Latin (such as French, Spanish, English, German etc.), the Quranic tradition of Arabic literacy also lent itself to the development of a written tradition for a number of sub-Saharan African languages. Today, this tradition of writing local vernaculars in the Arabic script is commonly referred to in West Africanist research today as Ajami (from the Arabic ʾajam, عجم ‘non-Arab, Persian’).

The earliest evidence that we have of African-language Ajami literacy dates back to the mid-17th century when a scholar residing north of Lake Chad inserted Kanuri-language explanations between the Classical Arabic lines of the Quran. While the tradition may certainly be older, current records suggest that it was during the 18th century that more robust traditions of so-called Ajami began to emerge for a number of West African languages.

The map below lays out a number of the regions where significant textual documents in Hausa, Fulani and Wolof from the 18th or 19th centuries have been identified. In addition, it lays out a number Manding-speaking areas that were historically Muslim: the Jakhanke zone of southern Senegambia, the Jula network around Kong, and the Batè region of the Maninka-mori.

"The Emergence of Select Traditions of Manding, Wolof, Fulani and Hausa Ajami Literacy between the 18th and 20th centuries"

Today, the most robust documentation of Manding Ajami texts comes from the Senegambia region (see this book for instance). In the case of Jula, there are no major historical documents but my own research demonstrates that the practice still exists for at least some purposes. Kantè himself was from Batè. N'ko's success in the region essentially means that one does not find much use of the Arabic script for writing Manding today. That said, Kantè in a number of interviews before his death discusses having seen a number of Manding Ajami documents during his youth. I myself actually was shown a photocopy of one this past summer, though neither myself not my Manding-speaking friend and colleague were able to read it.

This map is hardly a record of all of the instance of West Africans using the Arabic script to write their language (see the map here for something closer to that), but it does lay out some of the places where specific West African Muslim intellectuals began to explicitly make justify efforts to read and write in their own languages instead of Classical Arabic.

Hope you like it!