Are Fulɓe Disappearing? And Is Adlam Their Savior?

The answer to the questions in this blog’s title is flatly and emphatically No! First, Fulɓe are not about to disappear, because they are one Africa’s most distributed and populous nations. Second and consequently, the “new” Adlam alphabet cannot be their rescuer. Yet, entitled “The Alphabet That Will Save a People From Disappearing,” a paper published in The Atlantic Magazine presents Adlam as the would-be-savior of the Fulbe/Halpular Civilization. I could not disagree more and object stronger.

Kaveh Waddell, The Atlantic Magazine
Kaveh Waddell, The Atlantic Magazine

But I congratulate the Barry brothers for getting a write-up on Adlam in The Atlantic, a major US publication. Unfortunately, the author of the article, Kaveh Waddell, focuses on the digital technology aspects of Adlam (Unicode, Social media, computers, operating systems, mobile devices, etc.) And he does so at the expense of the history and culture of the Fulɓe (See also Fulɓe and Africa). Such a glaring omission defeats the very —and curious—idea of Adlam coming to save Fulɓe/Halpular populations from disappearing!

Before outlining some of the many points of contention, and for the sake of clarity, I should sum up my experience, which spans +40 years of teaching, research, and publishing on the Fulɓe and their  language. I majored in linguistics and African languages, and graduated from the Polytechnic Institute G. A. Nasser of Conakry, Social Sciences Department, Class of 1972 (Kwame Nkrumah). I then taught linguistics and Pular there for 10 years (1972-1982). And I concurrently chaired (from 1973 to 1978) the Pular Commission at Guinea’s Académie des Langues nationales. With my deputy —and esteemed elder—, the late Elhadj Mamadou Gangue, I did field research in the Fuuta-Jalon, inventorying dialects, meeting literati and artists, collecting data.… In 1978, President Sékou Touré sent an original visitor, Adam Bâ, to the Academy. A Pullo from Benin, Mr. Bâ wanted to offer his new Pular alphabet. In addition to the letters, he also had invented a new vocabulary for greetings, leave-takings, titles, ranking, trade, etc. In a nutshell, he was—seriously—asking us to learn a new version of our mother tongue! After listening to his pitch and debating the worthiness of his proposal, we filed back an inadmissibility (fin de non-recevoir) report to the authority.
In 1982 I won a competitive Fulbright-Hayes fellowship and came to the University of Texas at Austin as a Visiting Scholar. My selection rested mainly on my sociolinguistics essay in which I laid out a blueprint for the study of esthetic discourse and verbal art performance in Fuuta-Jalon. I focused on three communities of speech-makers: the Nyamakala (popular troubadours), the caste of Awluɓe (or griots, i.e. court historians and royal counselors) and the Cernooɓe (Muslim scholars, masters of the ajami literature).

That said, here are some of my disagreements and objections from the article.

Students learn to read and write Adlam in a classroom in Sierra Leone (Courtesy of Ibrahima and Abdoulaye Barry)
Students learn to read and write Adlam in a classroom in Sierra Leone (Courtesy of Ibrahima and Abdoulaye Barry)
  1. The title of the paper vastly misrepresents the situation of the Fulbe/Halpular peoples. Indeed, those populations —who number in tens of millions— are in no danger of vanishing at all. Therefore, there is no ground for the journalist to claim that Adlam alphabet will rescue the Fulɓe from a hypothetical oblivion. After all, they are one of Africa’s most ancient and dynamic people. Again, to the best of my knowledge the Fulɓe/Halpular do not face an existential threat or the probability of extinction!
  2. The article refers to the Arabic alphabet 11 times. But it doesn’t say anything about the Pular/Fulfulde Ajamiyya traditional alphabet. Yet, the founders of that writing system achieved significant successes in spreading literacy and educating the faithful, from Mauritania and Fuuta-Tooro, on the Atlantic Coast, to Cameroon, in Central Africa, with Fuuta-Bundu, Fuuta-Jalon, Maasina, Sokoto, etc. in between. They developed an important literary corpus and left an impressive intellectual legacy. Some of the brilliant ajamiyya authors include Tierno Muhammadu Samba Mombeya (Fuuta-Jalon), Usmaan ɓii Fooduye (aka Uthman dan Fodio) founder of the Sokoto Empire, Sheyku Ahmadu Bari, founder of the Diina of Maasina, Amadou Hampâté Bâ, etc.

For a partial anthology see  La Femme. La Vache. La Foi. Ecrivains et Poètes du Fuuta-Jalon

3. Ajamyiyya had the backing of the ruling aristocracy in theocentric Fuuta-Jalon (1725-1897). Moreover, it conveys the dogmas, teachings and writings of Classical Arabic in a deeply religious society. That’s why individuals were motivated to write in their language. They acknowledged what Tierno Samba Mombeya famously summarized in the Hunorde (Introduction) of his landmark poem “Oogirde Malal” (circa 1785):

Sabu neddo ko haala mu'un newotoo Nde o fahminiree ko wi'aa to yial.

Miɗo jantora himmude haala pular I compose in the Pular language
Ka no newnane fahmu nanir jaɓugol. To let you understand and accept the Truth.
Sabu neɗɗo ko haala mu’un newotoo Because  the mother tongue helps one best
Nde o fahminiree ko wi’aa to ƴial. As they try to understand what is said in the Essence.

How has History rewarded Tierno Samba and the pantheon of ajamiyya scholars? Alfâ Ibrâhîm Sow has best captured their invaluable contribution. He wrote:

« If, one hundred-fifty years following its composition, the Lode of Eternal Bliss (Oogirde Malal) continues to move readers of our country, it’s chiefly because of the literacy vocation it bestows on Pular-Fulfulde, because of its balanced, sure and elegant versification, its healthy, erudite and subtle language, and the national will of cultural assertion that it embodies as well as the desire for linguistic autonomy and dignity that it expresses. »

4. “Why do Fulani people not have their own writing system?” M. Barry wondered. Actually, they do have it with Ajamiyya. By applying their curiosity and creativity they first reverse-engineered the Arabic alphabet by filling the gaps found the original Arabic graphic system. Then they took care of giving the letters descriptive and easy-to-remember Pular names. That didactic and mnemonic strategy facilitated the schooling of children.

5. Again, it is amazing that age 14 and 10 respectively, in 1990, Ibrahima and Abdoulaye Barry began to devise an alphabet. But it was a bit late for many reasons. I’ll mention only two:
Primo. Back in 1966  UNESCO organized a conference of Experts (linguists, teachers, researchers) for Africa’s major languages in Bamako (Mali). Pular/Fulfulde ranks in the top ten group of African idioms. The proceedings from the deliberations yielded, among similar results for other languages, the Standard Alphabet of Pular/Fulfulde. Ever since, that system has gained currency and is used the world around. It covers all aspects of the language’s phonology, including the following consonants, —which are typical and frequent, but not exclusive to Pular/Fulfulde:

  • ɓ,  example ɓiɓɓe (children), ɓiɗɗo (child)
  • ɗ, example ɗiɗo (two, for people), ɗiɗi (two for animals or objects)
  • ƴ, example ƴiiƴan (blood)
  • ŋ, example ŋeeŋeeru (violin)

The respective decimal Unicode equivalents for the above letters are:

  • ɓ
  • ɗ
  • ƴ
  • ŋ

All modern text editors and browsers are programmed to automatically convert those four codes into the aforementioned Pular/Fulfulde letters.

As a Drupal site builder and content architect, it happened that I filed last night an issue ticket on the Platform’s main website. In it I requested  that —just like in Drupal v. 7— Fulah (Pular/Fulfulde) be reinstated among the  options on the Language Regionalization menu. So far the latest version of Drupal (v. 8) does not include it.

Secundo. Launched as an experiment in 1969, the Internet was 21 years old when Adlam got started in 1990. Ever since, the Digital Revolution has moved to integrate Unicode, which today provides covers all the world’s languages.

6. In 1977, as linguistics faculty at the Social sciences department of the Polytechnic Institute of Conakry, I attended the event. The speaker was none but the late Souleymane Kanté, the inventor of N’Ko. But today —forty-years later— and despite all efforts, the Nko  is still struggling. It is far from delivering its initial promises of  renaissance of the Mande culture area.
President Alpha Condé’s electoral campaign promises to support the N’Ko have been apparently forgotten. And President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita of Mali doesn’t seem to even pay attention to the N’Ko. Is it because he prides himself of being a French literature expert?

Conclusion?

No! There is no end to any debate on language, literature, culture. An alphabet is not a gauge of cultural and linguistic development. Let’s not forget that both literacy (letters) and numeracy (numbers) are required for scientific research, administration, shopping, etc. Consequently,  the emphasis on creating new alphabets is, in my view, outmoded. It is sometimes more economical to just borrow from either near or far. Western Europe did just that with the Arabic numbering system. And in this 21st century, Unicode meets all —or most— written communication needs. Luckily, Pular/Fulfulde has been endowed with a Standard Alphabet since 1966. Let’s use it and let’s not try to reinvent the wheel.

Tierno S. Bah

Tierno Siradiou Bah

Author: Tierno Siradiou Bah

Founder and publisher of webAfriqa, the African content portal, comprising: webAFriqa.net, webFuuta.net, webPulaaku,net, webMande.net, webCote.net, webForet.net, webGuinee.net, WikiGuinee.net, Campboiro.org, AfriXML.net, and webAmeriqa.com.