The N’ko Alphabet: Then and Now

Dianne White Oyler. The History of the N'ko Alphabet and Its Role in Mande Transnational Identity. Words as Weapons.
Dianne White Oyler. The History of the N’ko Alphabet and Its Role in Mande Transnational Identity. Words as Weapons. Cherry Hill, N.J. : Africana Homestead Legacy, 2005, 2007. xiv, 241 p. : ill., map

Dianne White Oyler
Dianne White Oyler

Dianne White Oyler’s article on the N’ko Alphabet   includes my contextual annotations and corrections. The paper appeared in 2001, four years before the same author’s book named The History of the N’ko Alphabet and Its Role in Mande Transnational Identity. Words as Weapons. I focus here on the article below, which Dianne wrote based on her fieldwork in Conakry and Kankan, back in 1994. As the saying goes one is entitled to one’s opinion but not to one’s facts, lest they are the “alternative facts”  per Ms. Kellyanne Conway now infamous TV statement. In this case, it is normal and routine  to study and even support cultural activism and language revival efforts around the world. However, does such an activity and commitment permit to publish fabricated facts or falsifications of the historical record? I don’t think so. Dianne correctly points out that “Sékou Touré’s archival documents, including personal papers and correspondence, were either destroyed or hidden after his death. Consequently, there are no currently existing archives of the First Republic and the papers that are hidden are inaccessible.” However, it is counterproductive to try to fill in that void with superficial documents and inaccurate information. Such a shortcut circumvents academic deontology. Worse, it ends up hurting the cause championed, here the N’ko Alphabet. And it lowers considerably the quality and the value of the output. That explains —but does not justify— why Dianne’s article “A cultural revolution in Africa:  literacy in the Republic of Guinea since independence” is replete  with errors and exaggerations. Again, I react contextually below on those shortcomings.
That said, and for the record, my track record in the Guinea national language debate dates back to the mid-1970s. I was then a young faculty in the Linguistics and African Languages department of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences. I also headed the Pular section of the Academy of National Languages, in close collaboration with a competent and elder deputy in the person of  the late Mamadou Gangue (a survivor of the “Teachers Plot”). The work environment was quite collegial, and I was great professional rapport with the head of the Sosokui section, the late Kanfory Bangoura.
In 1975 I wrote a lengthy descriptive and analytical paper titled “La politique linguistique du Parti démocratique de Guinée,” in Miriya, Revue des Sciences économiques et sociales, of which I was co-publisher with Bailo Teliwel Diallo. My article generated positive verbal comments from my colleagues, Yolande Joseph-Nöelle, for example, and from her husband, Senainon Béhanzin, the de facto intellectual guru of Sékou Touré
During the 2010 presidential election campaign, relying heavily on the Maninka electorate of Haute-Guinée, the RPG candidate, Alpha Condé, vowed his support for the ongoing N’ko campaign. He subsequently “won” the second round. But his regime did little to translate the promises into funded programs. Having managed to gain a second term in 2015, Mr. Condé does not give cultural activities the priority they deserve. His former deputy, the late Ahmed Tidiane Cissé, lamented the lack of governmental support for his ministry of culture.… In sum, N’ko has not fared  well under any of the three Maninka presidents of Guinea: Sékou Touré, Sékouba Konaté and Alpha Condé. Ditto for the heritage of each of the other 15 ethnic cultures of the country.
See also my article “The cultural policy of the PDG.” and “Are Fulɓe Disappearing? And Is Adlam Their Savior?
Overall, I was an active participant-observer of cultural life under the dictatorship of Sékou Touré. For instance, I was a prominent member of the National Film Censorship Commission (1971-1981). We screened, discussed, authorized or rejected movies imported for distribution around the country. Given the nature of the police-state the pro-bono function was not risk-free. Thus, in August 1978 Sékou Touré admonished the sub-commission I led was on the air waves of the Voice of the Revolution. For what reason ? We had signed our names for the approval of the film Midnight Cowboy. Unfortunately, the regime’s secrete police filed a report slamming the content of the R-rated movie. Subsequently, when I visited him with the late Zainoul A. Sanoussi, President Sékou Touré somewhat downplayed privately his public communiqué blaming us by name on the radio. It was a meager consolation for us, and particularly for our families and friends. They had been alarmed by the fact that Sékou Touré and the Bureau politique national of the PDG decided to disavow our official action so openly. They did not even watch themselves the incriminated movie, in the first place ! Although a screening session was held after the facts, in presence of Mamadi Keita, member of the Politbureau, and Senainon Behanzin, memer of the Central committee. The two officials acknowledged that despite its implicit sexual content, the film had artistic and substantive quality.… After all, it won the Motion Picture Academy Best Picture award for 1969.
Another record worth mentioning, from 1975 to 1977, I was, first co-host then sole host, of a radio show called “Voyage à travers la Guinée”. Still teaching at the University, I decide to explore radio-broadcasting. My mentor was veteran journalist Odilon Théa. We featured a different region  each week, presenting its history, culture, economy, touristic potential, etc. And we had fun preparing and airing the weekly (every Tuesday) program. For nearby Dubréka, I recall that we rented a cab and visited the town to collect information from residents. Later on, Marcelin Bangoura joined us. And, feeling confident in my performance, Odilon graciously bowed out and let me do the show alone. There too, an incident reminded of the peril involved in living and working under Sékou Touré. Having scheduled the town of Boffa (northwestern coast) I produced the show by going to the archives. There I dug out files about Nyara Gbèli, a mulatto female slave-trader. I aired selections of her biography and historical record. It turned out that Sékou Touré and all members of the Politbureau were tuned in. At the end the show, some were not please to hear about the slavery piece of the show. They suggested that I be summoned for explanations. Luckily, Sékou Touré agreed with those who opposed the idea, arguing that it would not be a boost to my confidence in exploring the country’s past. How did I know what happened in the higher echelon of the government? Well, Léon Maka, National Assembly president attended the meeting. His daughter, Madeleine, was a colleague and a good friend of mine at Voix de la Révolution. He told her about the discussion they had had. And she, in turn, shared with me, saying: “Tierno, careful! Last you were nearly dragged before Sékou Touré and the Bureau politique!”

Tierno S. Bah

Dianne White Oyler
A cultural revolution in Africa:
literacy in the Republic of Guinea since independence

The International Journal of African History. Vol. 34, No. 3 (2001), pp. 585-600


Guinea and Decolonization
The N’ko Alphabet
Guinea’s Cultural Revolution
The Role of Literacy in Cultural Revolution
Souleymane Kante’s Indigenous Approach to Literacy
The Contest: Sékou Touré vs. Souleymane Kanté


At independence most African nations attempted a process of decolonization in the three spheres of European imperialism: political, economic, and cultural. While progress in the political and economic arenas is apparent decolonization of the cultural area is much harder to define because European cultural impositions had usurped the areas of language, socialization through education, and technology from simple writing to electronic media. However, the approach of the Republic of Guinea to cultural decolonization can be analyzed in light of the more formal “Cultural Revolution” launched by its independence leader Sékou Touré in 1958 as a policy of the First Republic.

Erratum. — That program’s official name and acronym were “La révolution culturelle socialiste” and RCS, respectively. And it was not launched in 1958. To the contrary, it was declared ten years later at the improvised Conseil national de la révolution held in Kankan in 1968. — T.S. Bah

Touré’s objective was to validate the indigenous cultures that had been denigrated by the Europeans while at the same time creating a Guinean national consciousness 1. In other words, Touré launched a countrywide campaign to recapture indigenous culture by formally focusing on language and education. His specific intent was to validate indigenous culture by using maternal language education to achieve better control of European science and technology. This action, he believed, would lead Guinea into creating global economic partnerships within the modem world’s economy.

An unanticipated consequence of Touré’s campaign, however, was the cultural awakening of the Maninka speakers who consider themselves to be the direct descendants of the ancient empire of Mali. Although dispersed through the countries of West Africa (including Guinea, Mali, Mauritania, Senegal, Côte d’Ivoire, Niger, Burkina Faso, Benin, Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Nigeria), the Maninka speakers constitute roughly 40 percent of Guinea’s population. Many of them live in the region of Haute-Guinée, which makes up about two-fifths of Guinea’s territory.

Errata. — (1) Ms. Oyler shows here the first sign of her sole reliance on verbal informants at the exclusion of available written sources. Thus it is plain wrong for her and her informers to state that Sékou Touré did not anticipate a “Maninka cultural awakening.” Actually, he was an hands-on president who exhausted himself micro-managing every aspect of social and, indeed, family and personal life. Accordingly, it’s just valid to speak of a social movement like the N’ko, that he would not have predicted, and more or less tolerated.
(2) In percentage the Maninka demography comes second to the Fulɓe (Peul, Fula, Fulani) in Guinea. The former stands at approximately 35% of the population while the Fulɓe actually hold 40%. Given their respective size, the two groups weigh heavily in the political sphere. — T.S. Bah

The Maninka cultural revolution that began within Touré’s larger “Cultural Revolultion” continues today in the Second Republic of Lansana Conté, which began in 1984. The cultural revival of the Maninka language, its oral literature, and its connection to the heroic/historic past has been juxtaposed to any official policy of creating a Guinean national consciousness since 1958.

Note. —Guinea’s quest for “national consciousness” in the wake of the independence declaration stemmed from the heritage of all 16 ethnic communities, not that of the Maninka alone, especially in the first decade of the republic. Take for instance, the various musical traditions — either from sizable groups, like the Kisi of Forest Guinea with the Kebendo danse and song (see my review of Sia Tolno’s My Life album, or fom minorities, such the Koniagui (Unyëy) of Koundara with the rhythm Sampacthe. Everyone  contributed and enjoyed the celebration of the birth of the new nation. Alas, the euphoria lasted no more than two years!
— T.S. Bah

This article specifically addresses Guinea’s internal revolt against European cultural imperialism as evidenced in the issues of language and literacy that have dominated the political landscape in post-1958 Guinea 2.

Note. — This passage reads like a militant statement. But it lacks a specific to lend it credence. Where, when, how, and who staged the so-called revolt? How was it actually expressed? — T.S. Bah

It further addresses the concept of maternal language learning that became central to decolonization, and particularly the policy Sékou Touré developed and implemented with the support of UNESCO—the National Language Program (1968-1984) 3.

Erratum. — Beginning in the late 1960 UNESCO assisted the cultural policy of the Sékou Touré regime. However, the first illiteracy campaign was supported by the government of Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, Shah of Iran, in 1964-66. — T.S. Bah

More importantly, however, the article documents one result of Touré’s program that has acquired a life of its own outside government control, a grassroots literacy movement that centers on an alphabet called N’ko. The dissemination of N’ko shows the growth of a literacy movement that is currently spreading across international boundaries throughout West Africa. A salient aspect of the issue of language and literacy was the involvement of Souleymane Kanté (1922-1987), a Maninka-speaking “vernacular intellectual” who invented the N’ko alphabet in 1949. Souleymane Kanté was born in Soumankoyin-Kölönin about thirteen kilometers from Kankan. He was the son of the famous Quranic school teacher Amara Kanté. When Souleymane had finished his Quranic school education, he could read and write Arabic and translate Islamic texts. After his father’s death in 1941, Kanté left Guinea for Côte d’ Ivoire to make his fortune as an entrepreneur in a more cosmopolitan urban setting. Becoming an autodidact there, he read extensively, learned other languages, and became renowned as a scholar.

Guinea and Decolonization

Under Sékou Touré’s leadership, the Republic of Guinea ended political imperialism in 1958 when 95 percent of the voters cast a “No” vote in a referendum addressing the country’s wish to join the “French Community.” Thus began a real struggle for autonomy in the political, economic, and cultural spheres of national life.
At that time the reality of political independence meant indigenous leadership; in Guinea’s case, it also meant an inexperienced leadership. Sékou Touré’s experience offers a salient example of the under-preparation of emerging African leaders.

Note. — There is no such thing leadership preparation for independence. Colonialism meant hegemony, domination, exploitation, racisme, alienation. The colonizer did not —and would never— intend to genuinely associate the colonized in power-sharing. Read Albert Memmi’s Portrait du Colonisateur. — T.S. Bah

Possessing an eighth grade, French-style colonial education, plus a bit of training supplied by French communist trade unionists, and the experience of ten years in governmental service, Touré deliberately created an eclectic form of government that drew upon the strengths of his equally eclectic education. In the Cold War period Touré chose the political path of African Socialism and the diplomatic path of nonalignment. The type of government he called “positive neutralism” allowed him to open Guinea to all manner of foreign investment without committing himself to any specific ideology 4.
Inherent in the political independence of Guinea, however, was the problem of a revenue shortfall; France had withdrawn both its economic aid to Guinea and also its trade partnership. At the same time, Guinea lost its trade connections with many of France’s trading partners, especially among France’s NATO allies.
Guinea’s sister colonies within French West Africa (AOF) continued to trade with her unofficially, however.
As a Third World country producing raw materials to supply the First World industrial complex, Guinea produced many of the same products as other Third World nations that were constantly being encouraged to increase production. One result was a decrease in Guinea’s share of the world market, forcing the new nation to find alternative markets. With its doors closed to Western capitalist markets, Guinea became a trading partner with the Eastern bloc nations. Trade with Second World nations, however, exacerbated Guinea’s economic shortfall, as these nations were unable to purchase Guinea’s raw materials with foreign exchange, substituting instead manufactured goods. They then sold Guinea’s raw materials on the world market, thus gaining foreign exchange that improved their own economies to the detriment of Guinea’s. Although Guinea received Second World technology, she never did receive the support system that would have allowed her to maintain and expand upon that technology.

Today Guinea is one of the poorest nations in West Africa.

In the cultural sphere of Guinea’s national life, Sékou Touré opted to keep the French language; all documents would be written in French in the Roman alphabet, Guinea’s official language. It seems that Touré chose the colonial language with an eye to national unity in order to avoid the conflicts that would arise over choosing one of the twenty ethnic languages as the country’s official language.
French also served Guinea in the international marketplace where buyers and sellers were not likely to learn an African language. Guinea also continued to use the French system of education. However, university training for Guineans was now sought in First and Second World countries. Students received scholarships in the United States as well as a “free” education in the Soviet Union.

Although Touré had earlier implied that Guinea would be an Islamic state after independence, he imposed religious toleration instead in a country of Muslims, Christians, and African traditional religions; this eclecticism became one method of promoting national unity.

Note. — Since the above assertion provides no reference to  written sources, or to verifiable quotes, it appears pretty much groundless.
— T.S. Bah

Nevertheless, in the years following Guinea’s political independence, a large segment of Guinea’s Maninka-speaking population has tried to return the cultural initiative to African hands by utilizing an indigenous alphabet created by an indigenous scholar and cultural leader named Souleymane Kanté. While Sékou Touré, a Maninka-speaker himself, had encouraged Kanté in this initiative, he preferred not to allow the use of the writing system known as N’ko as a national language/writing system. Ultimately, though, Kanté’s research and promotion of learning in the maternal languages may have directly influenced Touré, who had addressed the issues of indigenous languages/writing systems as a way to reclaim African culture by implementing a National Language Program (1968-1984).

Notes. — (1) The above paragraph is too general and vague. How does the expression “large segment” translate numerically, statistically?
(2) It is hypothetical to write Souleymane Kanté “may have directly influenced” Sékou Touré’s language policy. Adverse, one can argue, the former did not inspire the latter. In the absence of any evidence from the author, I am enclined to think that Guinea’s adventurous linguistic initiatives had little to do with the efforts of Souleymane Kanté.
T.S. Bah

The N’ko Alphabet

According to informants, Souleymane Kanté created the N’ko alphabet both in response a media-based challenge 6 that Africans have no culture because they have no indigenous system of writing, and because of his growing realization that foreign writing systems could not fully express the meaning of such tonal languages as Maninka, his maternal language. Kanté responded to the allegation that “Africans have no culture” by creating an alphabet that would transcribe the twenty languages of the Mande language group as well as other tonal languages.
Thus, in his role as a “vernacular intellectual,” 7 Kanté campaigned against ignorance and illiteracy by providing a writing system that would allow his countrymen to acquire knowledge without having to depend upon outside interpretation. According to informants, he expressed the idea that Africans needed to learn their own maternal languages first, because learning in a second or third language often obfuscated the cultural meaning of the text 8. The potential for indigenous literacy would enable illiterates to read and write, even though they had been excluded from the colonial education system. Kanté devoted four years (1945-1949) to research and application, trying to write the Maninka language first in Arabic script and then in the Roman alphabet. In both cases he found that foreign alphabets could not transcribe all the tones produced by the spoken Mande languages. While still living in Cote d’Ivoire, he thus embarked on an entirely new project—the creation of a writing system that would reflect the specific characteristics of Mande languages, especially their tonality. The result was the N’ko alphabet. Having developed the alphabet, he called together children and illiterates and asked them to draw a line in the dirt; he noticed that seven out of ten drew the line from right to left 9. For that reason, he chose a right-to-left orientation. In all Mande languages the pronoun n- means “I” and the verb ko represents the verb “to say.” By choosing the name N’ko, “I say” in all Mande languages, Kanté had united speakers of Mande languages with just one phrase.

Furthermore, all Mande speakers share the heroic past recounted in the tale of Sundiata, an epic of Mande history—reflecting the cultural dominance of men of valor who say “N’ko,” the clear language of Mali (Niane, 1989:87) 10.
After Souleymane Kanté had perfected his alphabet, informants recall his becoming absorbed in creating reading materials in the N’ko script. Kanté’s lifelong passion then became the production of N’ko texts to highlight knowledge that should be written in the maternal language. Kanté worked assiduously after returningt o his native Guineai n 1958. He translated and transcribed Islamic texts and also works of history, sociology, linguistics, literature, philosophy, science, and technology. Then he wrote textbooks for teaching the N’ko alphabet, and, like Samuel Johnson and Noah Webster before him, he created a dictionary for the written form of the Maninka language. There are no dates for the translations of any of the above mentioned texts. Other than the fact that religious works were translated and transcribed first, informants are not aware of the order in which other texts were renderedi n N’ko. After hand-writing these texts, an arduous task in itself, Kanté would then create copies to give as gifts to teachers, thus encouraging N’ko literacy within the Mande community. Teachers then made these texts available to students, who in turn reproduced additional books by copying them.
Consequently, Kanté directly touched the lives of many of those who became literate in N’ko, and he was the prime mover of a type of cultural nationalism that gave people the pride of sharing a language that could stand in words and script alongside any other.

Guinea’s Cultural Revolution

When Sékou Touré called upon all Guineans to return home to help build the new nation after Guinea achieved independence in 1958, Kanté returned from Côte d’Ivoire to a new social order 11.

From the 1940’s through the 1960’s, Guinea was in the process of reinventing itself politically and culturally at the local, regional, and national levels 12.

In the midst of this cultural upheaval, nationalist leaders professed a desire to shed colonial trappings and to tap into their heroic/historic African past. Since the ethnic groups within Guinea’s national borders had never before been joined together, a nationalist rhetoric was developed that sent mixed messages about loyalty to the past. Harking back to the grandeur of an African heritage, however, also tempted each group to focus their allegiance internally rather than to a greater Guinean nationalism. At the national level, the Partie Democratique Guineen (PDG) agitated for a Guinean “national consciousness,” 13 while local ethnic groups continued the cultural re-identification process that had begun in the mid-1940s 14.

The Maninka speakers of Haute-Guinée, for example, had established the Union Manden in 1946 as a voluntary mutual aid association organized around a linguistic, ethnic, and regional base 15. That action kindled interest in the glorious Mande past.

This mutual aid association had been founded by such Maninka speaking political activists as Sékou Touré and Framoi Bérété. The association had also served as a regional political party with the ability to launch candidates in national elections, something the Maninka speakers had been unable to do in the 1945 elections.

Despite the desire of the Union Manden to give national expression to Mande discontent, it never developed beyond its regional, cultural base 16.

The conflict between Guinean nationalism and regional, ethnic/cultural nationalism continued to manifest itself throughout the First Republic, particularly in the implementation of the National Language Program (1968-1984).

The Role of Literacy in Cultural Revolution

Souleymane Kanté introduced Sékou Touré to the idea of maternal language literacy and education in 1958 17. Although Sékou Touré had praised the Mande styled alphabet, he rejected the idea of its becoming the national alphabet of Guinea 18 because he believed it could not improve written communication among Guinea’s ethnic groups, and he knew that it would also obstruct communication with the outside world 19.

Nevertheless, Touré rewarded Kanté’s scholarly achievement by honoring him with a 200,000 CFA gift from the Guinean peoplefor indigenous excellence 20. But he still refused to support or promote the alphabet unless Kanté could prove that more than half the population of Haute-Guinée used the technology 21. Touré further requested that Kanté and his family return to his home country 22.

Answering the call, Kanté went to the area of Treicheville in Abidjan, where he was met by a military truck sent overland by Touré to collect the Kanté family 23.

The Kanté family moved to Kankan where Souleymane Kanté then became a merchant who taught N’ko on the side 24. Interestingly, however, the alphabet preceded Kanté’s arrival in Kankan; many of the initial students of N’ko had been merchants who had carried the new alphabet with them along trade routes throughout Mande-speaking West Africa 25. Informant family members reminisced that Souleymane had visited them in Guinea, and that they had visited him in Côte d’Ivoire. He had taught them the alphabet, and they in turn had taught their neighbors.

Although Sékou Touré had rejected Kanté’s Mande-styled alphabet as the national alphabet, he did eventually accept the concept of maternal language education 26.

Touré is reported to have introduced Kanté to his national education minister, Barry Diawadou, and to his minister of national defense, Fodéba Keita 27.

Touré excluded Kanté from policy making sessions, however, as he worked together with his minister of ideology and information, Senainon Béhanzin, to produce the model for a maternal language program that would accommodate Guinea’s multilingual society 28. Touré’s final proposal was then submitted to the rank and file of the PDG membership at the cell level within villages and urban districts 29.

One informant from Haute-Guinée had participated as a member of the party cell at the village level voting on the proposal for teaching in the maternal language. A teacher who had also been involved in standardization the Maninka language in the Roman alphabet, this informant explained that in 1958 Guinea was struggling to regain its political, economic, and cultural independence. The country chose to free itself culturally through a National Language Program: Congress established a National Education Commission to formulate government policy, and teachers were called upon to contribute to the effort in two ways-to standardize their specific, spoken language in the Roman alphabet and to translate into the national languages modem scientific knowledge that had been written in French. Finally, the government intended to use its publishing house, Imprimerie Patrice Lumumba, to print textbooks for the project 30.

Informants who had participated in implementing these educational reforms reminisced about the rationale behind the new policy. Literacy acquisition in French had been discarded as too complicated a procedure, as students would have had to learn both a new alphabet and a new language. The process would be simplified if people first learned a new alphabet to which they could apply the familiarm aternall anguage 31. The government established two autonomous agencies to deal with the National Language Program, the Institut de Recherche Linguistique Appliquée (IRLA) and the Service National de l’Alphabétisation (SNA) 32.
Eight of the twenty different languages spoken in Guinea were selected on the basis of the numbers of people using them as a primary or secondary language:

Maninka, Susu, Pular, Kissi, Guerzé (Kpelle), Tome (Loma), Oneyan, and Wamey.

Each either was or would become a lingua franca in its region or sub-region. Although Mande languages were widely used in all four regions, the Maninka form was selected to be the dominant language to be taught only in Haute-Guinée. According to the National Language Program, an illiterate adult Mande-speaking family in Kankan would be taught the Maninka language written in the Roman alphabet; adults would be taught at work while children would be taught at school. Likewise, a Pular-speaking family living in Kankan would have the same experience; even though they were non-Mande speakers, the language of instruction would be Maninka 33.
Financial constraints delayed the immediate implementation of the National Language Program 34. The regional education directors for Haute-Guinée believed that the infrastructure did not exist for a massive assault on illiteracy; despite the government’s commitment to provide free public primary education, it had failed to anticipate the additional funds necessary to generate materials written in the newly formulated and standardized national languages 35. Teachers themselves had to finance the standardization of the national languages by giving their time to the endeavor. In 1965 Touré applied for and received UNESCO funding for a maternal language education program called “Langue Nationale,” which the government implemented in 1967 36. UNESCO sent experts to assist the Guinean government in standardizing local languages in the Roman alphabet 37. Although the preparation for the National Language Program had begun in 1959, the actual campaign for adults did not begin in 1967, and in 1968 the campaign entered the schools. Both programs were associated with Sdkou Touré’s larger social program, “La Révolution Culturelle Socialiste.” 38
The reforms implemented in 1968 consisted of two coexisting educational tracks—one for schools and one for adults and school leavers. From 1968 to 1984 students in the public elementary schools were taught all subjects in the maternal language 39. During the First Cycle, in grades one through three, the language of instruction was the maternal language 40. At grade four, they were introduced to an academic course in French, which they continued each year through grade six. Academic subjects were still taught in the maternal language. In the Second Cycle, affecting the lower secondary grades seven through nine, students continued the program with an academic course in French and with the maternal language as the language of instruction. To advance to the upper secondary level, students had to pass an exam, the Brevet Elémentaire du Second Cycle Technique. During the Third Cycle, students experienced a change in the language of instruction, and the language of instruction at the lycée gradually became French 41. To be admitted to the university level—the Fourth Cycle—students had to pass the exam for the Baccalauréat Unique.

In 1973 the Ministry of Education added a thirteenth grade that bridged the third and fourth cycles, and exams were administered at the end of the thirteenth level 42. The second track consisted of adults and school leavers who were given the opportunity to acquire literacy (alphabétisation) by attending literacy programs in the maternal language before or after work either at their places of employment or at schools after the normal school day 43.

In preparation for the 1968 implementation of the National Language Program, each ethnic group was charged with standardizing the spoken language into a written form in the Roman alphabet. Educators in Kankan, the capital of Mande-speaking Haute-Guinée, looked for people who possessed a rich vocabulary and who were generally well informed who could participate in translating the diverse curricula into the maternal language.

It was then that the committee invited Souleymane Kanté to participate in the standardization process 44. They considered him an expert because while inventing the N’ko alphabet he had spent years trying to find the best way to write the Mande languages in the Roman alphabet. Kanté agreed to participate unofficially in the project.

Souleymane Kanté’s Indigenous Approach to Literacy

Although Souleymane Kanté assisted the government with the standardization of his maternal language, Maninka, he did not abandon his own literacy program.
Kanté disapproved of Touré’s National Language Program because it depended upon a foreign alphabet and on foreign constructions. In fact, he held that if there were to be a cultural revolution that drew upon the African past, then African cultural forms should be its foundation. Kanté’s goal was to control Mande and modern knowledge through the use of a Mande language and literacy program. He thus offered an indigenous alternative to the official National Language Program. The two literacy initiatives, he believed, were not mutually exclusive.
Touré’s state-funded literacy campaign dominated the formal education scene, drawing upon the existing infrastructure, its curricula and its personnel. Kanté is remembered as having taught N’ko in the marketplace. He had taught the members of his own extended family and had recommended that others do the same 45. The “each one teach one” policy was actually a recommendation for each person to teach at least seven others. Informants recalled that Kanté attracted many followers by demonstrating N’ko at social functions, such as funerals,  where he opened his Qur’an written in N’ko and read the Word of God 46. Kanté suggested that everyone should learn N’ko and that those who refused would later regret their error. Kanté’s literacy movement slowly gained support as it operated on the fringes in an informal educational environment that paralleled Touré’s state system. Kanté’s movement possessed no infrastructure, enjoyed no financial assistance, had no texts except the ones students copied for themselves. The engine that powered the movement was a person’s desire to repossess Mande culture by controlling knowledge through Mande language and literacy.
Teachers were the key to this grassroots movement. Some teachers were drawn from the existing state-funded pool of personnel. Others were businessmen and workers who taught N’ko at their businesses or in their homes. Most in the N’ko teaching force contributed their time without remuneration. In some cases the students’ families gave gifts to their teachers at the end of the service in order to help support the teacher or the school. The process of learning N’ko took about four months. Each N’ko teacher could teach three groups per year. In the beginning,  students were mostly adults, who later saw to it that their children were also educated in N’ko. Armed with a blackboard, a tripod, and a piece of chalk, the N’ko teachers employed a methodology similar to that of Quranic school—memorization, imitation, and utilization. Students would congregate at the compound of a teacher where they would copy the alphabet on slate or paper and then would use oral recitation as a tool for memorization and reinforcement. The teacher conducted the class, but students, regardless of age, had the responsibility for leading the recitations. Students who were quick and adept were recruited as assistants and eventually became teachers themselves. Students copied the texts that Kanté had translated and transcribed to produce personal or family copies. Those who became N’ko literate were well equipped to read the literature Kanté had generated, were able to communicate with others literate in N’ko, and could keep records and accounts for their businesses. Some students undertook the task of recording the oral histories of older members of their families to preserve in writing first-hand knowledge 47.

The Contest: Sékou Touré vs. Souleymane Kanté

An informal competition over the recasting of Mande culture developed as Sékou Touré and Souleymane Kanté seemed to wrestle with each other for the number of Mande speakers in Haute-Guinée who acquired literacy in the maternal language.

Maternal language literacy was the goal, but the choice of alphabet seemed to become a personal issue. Touré appeared to have the advantage because his program was heir to the already existing state program. His selection of the Roman alphabet was prudent because the alphabet was already used throughout much of the world, and local typesetting existed and was in place. While a few maternal language textbooks were published, the translation and publication of other works in the maternal languages never materialized 48. Kanté worked at a disadvantage. From the standpoint of infrastructure and funding, he lacked resources, and N’ko required an innovation in typesetting that was not locally available. Yet he continued to produce handwritten translated texts in the N’ko alphabet. These translations systematically spread throughoutt he Mande-speaking community as students hand copied them so as to have their personal copies for reading and teaching.

The two Mande-speaking competitors had developed opposing teaching methodologies. Sékou Touré imposed the Roman alphabet upon children and adults through the state-supported literacy program. The concept of a National Language Program had been supported by the PDG rank and file. But some educators observed that the program had a negative effect on learning French as an international language of diplomacy and economics 49. Because the educational system was universal only at the elementary level, students who failed the exams at the end of the Second Cycle never had the opportunity to continue French language instruction. In addition, adults who were acquiring literacy through the program never had the opportunity to learn French because they were limited to the maternal language. The goal was national literacy, and children and adults were becoming literate in the maternal language, limiting them to regional participation. By using the educational process in this manner, the government had effectively restricted the numbers of participants in the national arena, and, by so doing, restricted access to full knowledge of the French language itself.
On the other hand, Souleymane Kanté had attracted students by focusing upon Mande culture. Adults and children learned the alphabet voluntarily because it was culturally important to them. Having learned the alphabet, students used it for correspondence and business, and they amassed handwritten translations of religious, historical, and modem scientific texts. The significance of N’ko literacy led to a personal understanding of a wide variety of knowledge. Learning N’ko became a form of self-improvement because it was not promoted as the acquisition of knowledge for advancement in the political or economic structure of the nation. Touré had clung to a limited vision—that of the European—conceived nation-state that while striving for a Guinean national consciousness could not leave the designated borders of the Guinean nation. Kanté’s arena had been regional; he created a Mande consciousness that eventually drew together Guinea’s resident Mande speakers of Haute-Guinée and Guinée Forestière, and, more importantly, ultimately connected all the Mande speakers in West Africa.
Although Touré’s motives cannot be wholly known 50, in formants have characterized his relationship to Kanté based on conversations with either or both men and through the events the informants themselves witnessed.

It appears that in the 1960s Touré had hoped to isolate Kanté from his work by coopting him into the National Language Program. Kanté would not abandon his own work, however, and continued teaching the N’ko alphabet and translating texts into N’ko. Informants relate that Kanté wrote out texts by hand and used a Renault duplication machine capable of producing books of ten to twenty pages. In 1971 when the machine broke down, he journeyed to Conakry to ask the government for financial assistance in establishing a larger-scale print shop capable of duplicating works such as the N’ko version of the Qur’an 51.

In Conakry, Al-Hajj Kabiné Diané helped Kanté as much as he could by printing small runs at this Arabic printing press 52. Touré did nominate Kanté to the Conseil Islamique National (charged with defending Islam and its principles in Guinea) 53, but Kanté declined the appointment, saying that the committee meetings would interfere with the time he needed to translate texts into N’ko 54. Making his home in Conakry in the early 1970s, Kanté continued to write documents by hand; then he took them to Al-Hajj Kabiné Diané for printing 55. Kanté sold the printed manuscripts for a small sum in order to promote further literacy in N’ko in all segments of the community 56.

His family and friends reported that the relationship between the two men continued to deteriorate until Sékou Touré’s death in 1984. Thus, from the late 1970s through mid-1980’s, Kanté was forced to leave Guinea on several occasions and to reside in neighboring countries under the threat of being arrested or killed by Touré’s government 57.

During this self-imposed exile, Souleymane Kanté continued to translate works into N’ko and to compile a text of Mande healing arts 58.

Sékou Touré’s National Language Program from 1968 to 1984 had produced people who were literate in their spoken maternal language.

Under the leadership of Lansana Conté, the Second Republic implemented a new language program: French became the single national language and the language of literacy.
Although maternal language radio programs occurred during the Touré regime, the new government has systematically supported learning in the maternal languages by producing radio and television programs of cultural and news content spoken in only three of Guinea’s maternal languages—Susu, Maninka, and Pular.

After his return home to Guinea in 1985, Souleymane Kanté lived in Conakry teaching his alphabet until his death from diabetes in 1987 59.

Statistics on the number of adults and children who know how to read and write N’ko have not been established.

Under Kanté’s direction, his disciples established the Association pour l’Impulsion et la Coordination des Recherches sur l’Alphabet N’ko (ICRA-N’KO) in 1986. ICRA-N’KO was officially sanctioned by the government in 1991 as a non-governmental organization (NGO) 60. Only since then has the group actively begun to compile statistics based on the current number of students enrolled in N’ko classes. Each teacher turns in a list of students to the local ICRAN’KO association, which records the numbers and sends them on to the Service National d’Alphabétisation to be included in the year’s literacy statistics.

By looking at the numerical fragments, it can be seen that the number of students in N’ko classes had steadily increased from 1989 to 1994; however, it is not possible to say whether or not this was the result of an increase in the number of students or the result of better record-keeping.

A literacy survey of Kankan I conducted in 1994 presents the first literacy statistics for the city 61. Canvassers interviewed each household about the languages spoken and about the alphabets used to transcribe those languages. One would expect a competitive percentage of those who were able to read and write the Maninka language in the Roman alphabet after sixteen years of Touré’s National Language Program.

The results of the survey are enlightening because they show that only 3.1 percent of the 128,000—plus indigenous inhabitants (men, women, and children above the age of five) knew how to read and write in French, while 8.8 percent knew how to read and write N’ko 62.

Other figures show that among the people of Kankan, 8.5 percent could read Arabic and 14.1 percent could read and write French. The “langue nationale” appears to have been discarded, while the N’ko alphabet appears to be blossoming.

Kanté’s N’ko seems to have become more widely accepted in Kankan. Thus the ultimate advantage seems to lie with Kanté’s approach rather than Touré’s.


Since independence the Maninka speakers of Guinea have struggled against what they perceived to be Western cultural imperialism in the area of language and literacy. As a conflict within the nation-state, it reflects the ongoing struggle for autonomy. Being literate in N’ko has become an important part of the current Mande cultural revival because the possession of N’ko signifies the reclaiming of the area’s cultural integrity.

The N’ko alphabet has offered Maninka speakers a renewed capacity to make culturally significant choices, and they seem to have chosen N’ko as an indigenous alternative to the education of language/literacy promoted by the Western-influenced Mande speakers who have controlled government and religion since Touré’s time.

Persons seeking to learn N’ko have steadily created enthusiasm and support for learning the alphabet, which has spread from Mande-speaking Kankan both to other Mande speakers throughout Guinea and also to Mande speakers residing in neighboring states.

* This article is based on the research in Kankan, Republic of Guinea in 1991, 1992-1993, and 1994, with the assistance of a Fulbright Dissertation Research Scholarship for 1992-1993 and a West African Research Association Fellowship for the summer of 1994.

1. In the same year in the British colony of Nigeria, Chinua Achebe also validated indigenous culture by writing his classic novel, Things Fall Apart (1958).
2. It is difficult to divorce the broader issues of Guinea’s “Cultural Revolution” from ethnic ones, however, particularly the view that during the Touré and Conté periods (1958-1984 and 1984 to the present, respectively), Maninka speakers may have been progressively disfranchised from the nation’s political process. Touré did not empower all Maninka speakers but gave preference to the ones from his own area of Faranah. Conté is a Susu speaker who has systematically alienated the Maninka speakers since taking power in 1984. However, his support of the Maninka based grassroots literacy movement might be an attempt to change this.
3. Sékou Touré’s archival documents, including personal papers and correspondence, were either destroyed or hidden after his death. Consequently, there are no currently existing archives of the First Republic and the papers that are hidden are inaccessible. With regard to the personal relationship between Sékou Touré and Souleymane Kanté, interviews provide some insights.
4. André Lewin, La Guinée: [Que Sais-je?] (Paris, 1984), 67.
5. By 1990 there were approximately 16 million speakers of the 20 languages classified as Mande, radiating out from the Mande heartland across the borders of ten West African countries. The Maninka speakers of Guinea reside in the region of Upper Guinea adjacent to the Mande heartland, which lies just across Guinea’s border with Mali.
6. Informants explained that Kanté accepted a 1944 challenge posed by the Lebanese journalist Kamal Marwa in an Arabic-language publication, Nahnu fi Afrikiya [We Are in Africa]. Marwa argued that Africans were inferior because they possessed no indigenous written form of communication. His statement that “African voices [languages] are like those of the birds, impossible to transcribe” reflected the prevailing views of many colonial Europeans. Although the journalist acknowledged that the Vai had created a syllabary, he discounted its cultural relevancy because he deemed it incomplete. Personal Interviews 08 in Karifamoriah, 46 in Kankan, and 70 in Conakry, 1993. To protect the identity of the informant or informants, interview citations include only the interview number, date, and location. The informants are equally divided between N’ko practitioners and those outside the N’ko community, some of whom have never heard of the alphabet. All interviews took place with the author and research assistant in in Guinea unless otherwise indicated. Interviews were conducted randomly as informants were available, or as travel arrangements could be made I have in my possession the audiotapes in Maninka and the written translations in French.
7. See Steven Feierman’s stimulating use of the term in Peasant Intellectuals: Anthropology and History in Tanzania (Madison, 1990).
8. Group Interview 18, 5 April 1993, Balandou, Guinea. Kanté emphasizes the integration of local knowledge with foreign knowledge by preserving both in the maternal language in a script that he himself creates. For that reason, one should characterize him as a vernacular intellectual.
9. Interviews 62 (14 July 1993) and 70 (18 July 1993), in Conakry, and Interview 09, 11 March 1993, Kankan. Souleymane Kanté’s experiments, reinforced by his acquisition of Arabic literacy as an Islamic scholar, were responsible for the selection of this right to left orientation. It might also have been a political statement rejecting African deculturation by Europeans.
10. Interview 70, 8 July 1993, Conakry. It is evident that this informant associates Kanté with his own ethnic pride in the heroic/historic Mande past as descendants of the ancient kingdom of Mali.
11. Odile Goerg, “La Guinée,” in Catherine Coquery-Vidrovitch with Odile Goerg, L’Afrique Occidentale au temps des Français Colonisateurs et Colonisé (c. 1860-1960) (Paris, 1992), 365.
12. R.W. Johnson, “Guinea,” in John Dunn, ed., West Africa States, Failure and Promise A Study in Comparative Politics (Cambridge, 1978), 38.
13. Defined by Victor Du Bois as “a feeling among the citizens of the young republic that their destiny is somehow linked to that of other peoples with whom in the past they have never shared a sense of kinship or identity.” Du Bois, “Guinea,” in James S. Coleman and Carl. Rosberg, Jr.,e ds., Political Parties and National Integration in Tropical Africa (Berkeley, 1964), 199.
14. Ibid., 186.
15. Ruth Schachter Morgenthau, Political Parties in French-speaking West Africa (Oxford, 1964), 224.
16. Jean Suret-Canale, La République de Guinée (Paris, 1970), 144.
17. In Interview 60, 9 July 1993, in Conakry, the informant said that as a Mande speaker himself, Sékou Touré sincerely admired Kanté’s invention but that he was a political man wanting to promote national unity. In Interview 80, 20 July 1994, in Conakry, a personal friend of Touré said that the latter wanted to support N’ko but that the other members of the Political Bureau, and his cabinet, did not.
18. Choosing Mande as the national language or even institutionalizing the Mande-styled alphabet for orthography would have caused dissension between Mande speakers and the other ethnic groups in Guinea. Furthermore, while Mande speakers could write the Mande language in N’ko, Susu speakers could write the Susu language in N’ko, and Pular speakers could write the Pular language in N’ko, they would not be able to read each other’s texts; although the script was the same, the languages would not be mutually intelligible. The former regional director of education in Kankan commented that the rejection of Kanté’s alphabet was divisive among the leaders of Touré’s government. Interview 64, 64, 15 July 1993, in Conakry.
19. Interview 09, 11 March 1993, in Kankan; Interview 60, 9 July 1993, in Conakry; Interview 68, 7 July 1993, in Conakry; Interview 80, 20 July 1994, in Conakry; Interview 59, 28 June 1993, in Kankan; and Group Interview 84, 15 August 1994, in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire.
20. In Group Interview 43, 18 May 1993, in Kankan, one informant stated that Sékou Touré had promised Souleymane Kanté that he would build a school for N’ko.
21. Interview 51, 22 June 1993, in Djankana; Interview 59, 28, June 1993, in Kankan.
22. There is some confusion about the manner in which this occurred. Some informants have said that Sékou Touré sought out Souleymane Kantd in Abidjan after hearing about the alphabet through the grapevine. Interview 51, 22 June 1993, in Djankana. Others insisted that Souleymane Kanté went on his own to Conakry to present the alphabet to Touré. Interview 59, 28 June 1993, in Kankan. One informant claimed to have taught Sékou Touré N’ko, after which Touré told the informant to invite Kanté to visit him in Conakry. Interview 80, 20 July 1994, in Conakry. Regardless of who initiated the interview, informants concur on the rest of the story. In Interview 81, 9 August 1994, in Conakry, the informant reasserted the claim that the informant in Interview 80 had in fact taught N’ko to Sékou Touré, but that Sékou abandoned his studies when the political arena heated up. In Group Interview 84, 15 August 1994, in Abidjan, we visited the house where the Kanté family shared a room and spoke with neighbors who witnessed the military truck moving the family back to Guinea.
23. Interview 51, 22 June 1993, in Djankana.
24. According to the informants in Group Interview 08, 8 March 1993, in Karifamoriah, at the time only Maninka-speaking long-distance traders were merchants in Abidjan. When the exploitation of the Sefadou diamond mines in Sierra Leone began, many of these merchants carried the ability to write and teach N’ko with them into the new marketplace.
25. Prior to independence, many Guineans were dispersed throughout West Africa. Some were employed by the French as bureaucrats, teachers, or as railroad transportation workers. Others, such as a large number of Maninka speakers, were dispersed along West African trade routes. For example one informant’s father had been the railroad station-master at Bobo Dioulasso, Burkina Faso, in 1944. Interview 07, 6 March 1993, Kankan; Niane, Sundiata, 93.
26. Sékou Touré, “Débat culturel: Le Chef de l’Etat sur les langues africaines,” Horoya 2889, 25-31 Octobre 1981, 13-16.
27. Interview 68, 17 July 1993, in Conakry.
28. Interview 64, 15 July 1993, in Conakry.
29. Johnson, “Guinea,” 55. In Touré’s attempt to reconnect to the African past, he organized the party structure to imitate the organization of village councils. The system appeared to consult the common man on every major government decision. Ideally, the idea originated at the cell level and gained acceptance as it moved to the high-ranking leaders of the Bureau Politique National (BPN). In this case the idea originated at the top and was presented for approval to the Comités d’Unité de l’Education. Du Bois describes the organization of the PDG in his political commentary, “Guinea,” 200-205. UNESCO, The Experimental World Literacy Programme: A Critical Assessment (Paris, 1976), 26-30.
30. Interview 34, 10 May 1993, in Kankan, and Interview 55, 24 June 1993, in Kankan.
31. Interview 64, 15 July 1993, in Conakry; Interview 60, 9 July 1993, in Conakry; and Interview 55, 24, June 1993, in Kankan.
32. Interview 66, 16 July 1993, in Conakry. The informant was a Directeur Régional de l’Education in Kankan.
33. Mohamed Lamine Sano, “Aperçu Historique sur l’Utilisation des Langues Nationales en République de Guinée,” unpublished paper (1992), 3-4.
34. Interview 64, 15 July 1993, in Conakry.
35. UNESCO, World Literacy Programme, 42.
36. Interview 64, 15, July 1993, in Conakry.
37. UNESCO considered its program separate from the government’s national campaign. Interestingly enough, the UNESCO funds were not used for a pilot project in Haute-Guinée. The program targeted 3,500 illiterate and newly literate industrial workers in Conakry and 75,000 illiterate farmers living in lower Guinea (the Susu language), middle Guinea (the Pular language), and the forest region (the Kissi, Guerzé, and Toma languages). UNESCO, World Literacy Programme, 42-43.
38. Interview 64, 15 July 1993, in Conakry; Group Interview 46, 19 June 1993, in Kankan; and Interview 55, 24 June 1993, in Kankan. See Ministère du Domaine de l’Education et de la Culture, La Reforme de l’Enseignement en Republique de Guinée Novembre 1958-Mai 1977 (Conakry, 1977), 6-8.
39. Kamori Traoré, “Guinée,” in Alfâ Ibrâhîm Sow, ed., Langues et Politiques de Langues en Afrique Noire: l’Experience de l’UNESCO (Paris, 1976), 265.
40. Interview 60, 9 July 1993, in Conakry.
41. Ministry of Education and Culture, Cultural Policy in the Revolutionary People’s Republic of Guinea (Paris, 1979), 36.
42. Ibid., 9-10.
43. Interviews 34 and 55, 10 May 1993 and 24 June 1993, respectively in Kankan were with one informant.
44. Interviews 34 (10 May 1993) and 55 (24 June 1993), in Kankan.
45. Souleymane Kante’s recommendations were that each person should teach seven other people. Group Interview, 08, 8 March 1993, in Karifamoriah. In Interview 05, 3 March 1993, in Kankan, the informant said that the instructions were to teach the family, so he taught all of his children.
46. Interview 60, 9 July 1993, in Conakry.
47. Those who were literate in N’ko were spoken of as preserving for posterity the oral histories of elders. Interview 05, 3 March 1993, in Kankan.
48. Secretariat d’Etat à l’Idéologie-Service National d’Alphabétisation, Sori ni Mariama (Teheran, n.d.) and Académie des Langues Conakry, Maninkakan Sariya, Grammaire Maninka 2e et 3e cycle (Conakry, 1980) are examples of texts produced for the literacy program.
49. Interview 66, 16 July 1993, in Conakry.
50. According to this informant, the government could not fight the N’ko alphabet directly. It was necessary to formulate a political strategy to eliminate N’ko, either to isolate the creator so that he would abandon it or to exile him so that the population would forget about it. Interview 59, 28 June 1993, in Kankan. In Interview 68, 17 July 1993, in Conakry, the informant stated that the government used Kanté in the National Language Program because he was the only one who could translate all of the necessary terminologies.
51. A local merchant, Sékou Diané, is remembered as having given Souleymane Kanté money to buy this machine in Abidjan. Interview 29, 3 May 1993, and Interview 49, 20 June 1993, in Kankan; Interview 68, 17 July 1993, in Conakry.
52. Interview 82, 10 August 1994, in Conakry. El Hadj Kabiné Diané was a prominent businessman from Kankan who also owned a business in Conakry and was a part of the National Islamic Council.
53. In Interview 09, 11 March1 993, in Kankan, the informant established the date as 1973.
54. Interview 62, 14 July1 993, in Conakry.
55. Ibid.; and Interview 32, 8 May 1993, in Kankan.
56. Interview 32, 8 May 1993, in Kankan.
57. Interview 80, 20 July 1994, in Conakry, the informants described Touré as being troubled by leadership problems he was experiencing with Guinea’s intellectuals. In Interview 59, 28 June 1993, in Kankan, the informant told a story he heard from Souleymane Kanté: The government had supplied Kanté with transportation to Romania for treatment of his diabetes in 1974. Assisting the Guinean government, th e Romanian government institutionalized Kanté in a psychiatric facility, where an attempt was made on his life by lethal injection. Kanté refused the treatment and escaped death. Kanté convinced the doctors to release him, since, in the end, his condition itself was a death sentence. Later in Conakry he met the person who had been the Guinean ambassador to Romania at the time of his incarceration, wh o thought that Kanté was deceased. Interview 31, 8 May 1993, in Kankan, Interview 62, 14 July 1993, in Conakry and Group Interview 46, 19 June 1993, in Kankan.
58. Interview 31, 8 May 1993, in Kankan, Interview 51, 22 June 1993, in Djankana; Interview 62, 14 July 1993, in Conakry; Interview 59, 28 June 1993, in Kankan; Group Interview 30, 4 May 1993, in Bamako. Group Interview 84, 15 August 1994, in Abidjan, the informants recalled that Kanté told them that he had returned to Côte d’Ivoire in political exile and said that Touré was jealous of his invention. Theye estimated that he spent eight years with them in Côte d’Ivoire, two years in Bouake and six in Abidjan, interspersed with trips to Bamako.
59. Interview 62, 14, July 1993, in Conakry.
60. Interview 68, 17 July 1993, in Conakry, and Interview 69, July 18, 1993, in Conakry.
61. Literacy Survey of Kankan, 4 August 1994. There are no complete literacy statistics at any level. The numbers represented in the survey offer a beginning point at which literacy statistics can be assessed and can be later measured in percentages. I conducted another Literacy Survey of Kankan in July 2000. When I have finished entering the data, I will be able to determine growth in the numbers who are literate in N’ko over the last six years.
62. The literacy survey showed that 14.1 percent of the population knew how to read and write French, 8.5 percent of the population knew how to read and write Arabic, 8.8 percent of the population knew how to read and write [the Maninka language] in N’ko, and 3.1 percent of the population knew how to read and write [Maninka] in the Roman alphabet [Langue Nationale].

In Memoriam D. W. Arnott (1915-2004)

D.W. Arnott. The Nominal and Verbal Systems of Fula
D.W. Arnott. The Nominal and Verbal Systems of Fula

This article creates the webAfriqa homage and tribute to the memory of Professor David W. Arnott (1915-2004), foremost linguist, researcher, teacher and publisher on Pular/Fulfulde, the language of the Fulbe/Halpular of West and Central Africa. It is reproduces the obituary written in 2004 par Philip J. Jaggar. David Arnott belonged in the category of colonial administrators who managed to balance their official duties with in-depth social and cultural investigation of the societies their countries ruled. I publish quite a log of them throughout the webAfriqa Portal: Vieillard, Dieterlen, Delafosse, Person, Francis-Lacroix, Germain, etc.
The plan is to contributed to disseminate as much as possible the intellectual legacy of Arnott’s. Therefore, the links below are just part of the initial batch :

Tierno S. Bah

D. W. Arnott was a distinguished scholar and teacher of West African languages, principally Fulani (also known as Fula, Fulfulde and Pulaar) and Tiv, David Whitehorn Arnott, Africanist: born London 23 June 1915; Lecturer, then Reader, Africa Department, School of Oriental and African Studies 1951-66, Professor of West African Languages 1966-77 (Emeritus); married 1942 Kathleen Coulson (two daughters); died Bedale, North Yorkshire 10 March 2004.

He was one of the last members of a generation of internationally renowned British Africanists/linguists whose early and formative experience of Africa, with its immense and complex variety of peoples and languages, derived from the late colonial era.

Born in London in 1915, the elder son of a Scottish father, Robert, and mother, Nora, David Whitehorn Arnott was educated at Sheringham House School and St Paul’s School in London, before going on to Pembroke College, Cambridge, where he read Classics and won a “half-blue” for water polo. He received his PhD from London University in 1961, writing his dissertation on “The Tense System in Gombe Fula”.

Following graduation in 1939 Arnott joined the Colonial Administrative Service as a district officer in northern Nigeria, where he was posted to Bauchi, Benue and Zaria Provinces, often touring rural areas on a horse or by push bike. His (classical) language background helped him to learn some of the major languages in the area — Fulani, Tiv, and Hausa — and the first two in particular were to become his languages of published scientific investigation.

It was on board ship in a wartime convoy to Cape Town that Arnott met his wife-to-be, Kathleen Coulson, who was at the time a Methodist missionary in Ibadan, Nigeria. They married in Ibadan in 1942, and Kathleen became his constant companion on most of his subsequent postings in Benue and Zaria provinces, together with their two small daughters, Margaret and Rosemary.

From 1951 to 1977, David Arnott was a member of the Africa Department at the School of Oriental and African Studies (Soas), London University, as Lecturer, then Reader, and was appointed Professor of West African Languages in 1966. He spent 1955-56 on research leave in West Africa, conducting a detailed linguistic survey of the many diverse dialects of Fulani, travelling from Nigeria across the southern Saharan edges of Niger, Dahomey (now Benin), Upper Volta, French Sudan (Burkina Faso and Mali), and eventually to Senegal, Gambia, and Guinea. Many of his research notes from this period are deposited in the Soas library (along with other notes, documents and teaching materials relating mainly to Tiv and Hausa poetry and songs).

He was Visiting Professor at University College, Ibadan (1961) and the University of California, Los Angeles (1963), and attended various African language and Unesco congresses in Africa, Europe, and the United States. Between 1970 and 1972 he made a number of visits to Kano, Nigeria, to teach at Abdullahi Bayero College (now Bayero University, Kano), where he also supervised (as Acting Director) the setting up of the Centre for the Study of Nigerian Languages, and I remember a mutual colleague once expressing genuine astonishment that “David never seemed to have made any real enemies”. This was a measure of his integrity, patience and even-handed professionalism, and the high regard in which he was held.

Arnott established his international reputation with his research on Fula(ni), a widely used language of the massive Niger-Congo family which is spoken (as a first language) by an estimated eight million people scattered throughout much of West and Central Africa, from Mauritania and Senegal to Niger, Nigeria, Cameroon, Central African Republic and Chad (as well as the Sudan), many of them nomadic cattle herders.

Between 1956 and 1998 he produced almost 30 (mainly linguistic) publications on Fulani and in 1970 published his magnum opus, The Nominal and Verbal Systems of Fula (an expansion of his PhD dissertation), supplementing earlier works by his predecessors, the leading British and German scholars F.W. Taylor and August Klingenheben. In this major study of the Gombe (north-east Nigeria) dialect, he described, in clear and succinct terms, the complex system of 20 or more so-called “noun classes” (a classificatory system widespread throughout the Niger-Congo family which marks singular/plural pairs, often distinguishing humans, animals, plants, mass nouns and liquids). The book also advanced our understanding of the (verbal) tense- aspect and conjugational system of Fulani. His published research encompassed, too, Fulani literature and music.

In addition to Fulani, Arnott also worked on Tiv, another Niger-Congo language mainly spoken in east/central Nigeria, and from the late 1950s onwards he wrote more than 10 articles, including several innovative treatments of Tiv tone and verbal conjugations, in addition to a paper comparing the noun-class systems of Fulani and Tiv (“Some Reflections on the Content of Individual Classes in Fula and Tiv”, La Classification Nominale dans les Langues Négro-Africaines, 1967). Some of his carefully transcribed Tiv data and insightful analyses were subsequently used by theoretical linguists following the generative (“autosegmental”) approach to sound systems. (His colleague at Soas the renowned Africanist R.C. Abraham had already published grammars and a dictionary of Tiv in the 1930s and 1940s.)

In addition to Fulani and Tiv, Arnott taught undergraduate Hausa-language classes at Soas for many years, together with F.W. (“Freddie”) Parsons, the pre-eminent Hausa scholar of his era, and Jack Carnochan and Courtenay Gidley. He also pioneered the academic study of Hausa poetry at Soas, publishing several articles on the subject, and encouraged the establishment of an academic pathway in African oral literature.

The early 1960s were a time when the available language-teaching materials were relatively sparse (we had basically to make do with cyclostyled handouts), but he overcame these resource problems by organising class lessons with great care and attention, displaying a welcome ability to synthesise and explain language facts and patterns in a simple and coherent manner. He supervised a number of PhD dissertations on West African languages (and literature), including the first linguistic study of the Hausa language written by a native Hausa speaker, M.K.M. Galadanci (1969). He was genuinely liked and admired by his students.

David Arnott was a quiet man of deep faith who was devoted to his family. Following his retirement he and Kathleen moved to Moffat in Dumfriesshire (his father had been born in the county). In 1992 they moved again, to Bedale in North Yorkshire (where he joined the local church and golf club), in order to be nearer to their two daughters, and grandchildren.

Philip J. Jaggar
The Independent

Fulani Proverbial Lore and Word-Play

D. W. Arnott first published this paper in 1957 under the title “Proverbial Lore and Word-Play of the Fulani” (Africa. Volume 27, Issue 4, October 1957, pp. 379-396). I have shortened it a bit for web search engines.
Only the summaries are posted here, pending publication of the full text of the document.
See also: In Memoriam  Professor D. W. Arnott (1915-2004)
Tierno S. Bah


The wit and wisdom of the Fulani, as of other African peoples, are expressed most characteristically in their proverbs and riddles. Their proverbs are amply illustrated by the collections of H. Gaden and C. E. J. Whitting, and a selection of riddles appeared in a recent article in Africa by M. Dupire and the Marquis de Tressan. But there are other types of oral literature—both light and serious—which various writers have mentioned, without quoting examples. So Mlle Dupire refers to formes litteraires alambiquées and ritournelles des enfants Bororo, and G. Pfeffer, in his article on ‘Prose and Poetry of the Fulbe,’ speaks of jokes and tongue-twisters. The aim of this article is to present some examples of these types of proverbial lore and word-play—epigrams, tongue-twisters, and chain-rhymes—which were recorded, along with many more riddles and proverbs, in the course of linguistic research during a recent tour of the Fula-speaking areas of West Africa, and to consider their relation to proverbs and riddles. These types of oral literature are of course by no means peculiar to the Fulani, and a number of the examples here quoted may well have parallels in other languages of West Africa or farther afield. But an examination of such pieces in one language may perhaps contribute something to the general study of this kind of lore.

Proverbes et devinettes peules

Bien que les proverbes et les devinettes soient l’expression la plus caractéristique de l’esprit et de la sagesse des Peuls, il existe d’autres types de littérature orale—des épigrammes, des phrases difficiles à prononcer et des rimes enchaînées — qui partagent certaines particularités avec eux.
Les devinettes ne sont pas basées sur un jeu de mots, comme la plupart des devinettes anglaises, mais sur un jeu d’idées ou d’images (généralement visuelles, mais quelquefois auditives, ou une combinaison des deux), la comparaison de deux phénomènes qui se ressemblent par leur situation, leur caractère ou leur comportement. Quelquefois la devinette est posée en termes généraux et celui qui veut la résoudre doit trouver la particularité appropriée; mais ordinairement une particularité est donnée et celui qui cherche à résoudre la devinette doit choisir correctement ses traits saillants et trouver un autre objet ayant les mêmes traits.

De même, certains proverbes énoncent un principe général, mais la grande majorité, tout en donnant un exemple d’un principe général, sont exprimés en termes d’une situation particulière. Leur application à d’autres situations entraîne un procès de comparaison analogue à celui associé avec l’invention et la solution de devinettes.

Les épigrammes, comme les proverbes, sont des considérations aphoristiques sur la vie, mais elles sont plus longues et plus compliquées. Elles consistent en un rapprochement de plusieurs phénomènes ayant des caractéristiques générales en commun qui sont habituellement disposés par trois ou par groupes de trois ; les caractéristiques générales peuvent être décrites ou rester implicites, tandis qu’un troisième type classe plusieurs objets apparentés en catégories nettes.

Ces épigrammes ont une structure formelle typique et diverses autres particularités qui les distinguent du langage ordinaire, et qu’ils partagent dans une mesure plus ou moins grande avec les proverbes et les devinettes — une légère anomalie grammaticale, une régularité cadencée et certains procédés stylistiques, tels que la répétition des phrases parallèles et l’assonance basée sur l’utilisation de suffixes identiques.

La structure de la langue peule se prête à de telles assonances et également à la ‘ jonglerie ’ verbale de phrases difficiles à prononcer, tandis que la subtilité de celles-ci égale l’ingénuosité des rimes enchaînées. Ces dernières consistent en un enchaînement d’idées où le dernier mot de chaque ligne évoque le thème de la ligne suivante. Elles montrent également quelques unes des particularités stylistiques et autres, déjà constatées dans les épigrammes, les proverbes et les devinettes. Ainsi, les divers types de littérature orale peule, dont certains sont frivoles et d’autres sont sérieux, sont rapprochés par ces caractéristiques communes comme des éléments intimement liés d’une seule tradition littéraire.

D.W. Arnott

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?


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

Promotion du Pastoralisme Fulɓe (Peul)

L’association Tawawaangal Pastoralisme a organisé une journée de réflexion sur le pastoralisme et le Pulaaku, le 21 mai 2016 à Versailles.

Les tables rondes furent menées par des  spécialistes du pastoralisme chez les Fulɓe, avec accent sur le Jelgooji (Burkina Faso), les Woɗaaɓe (Niger, Nigeria). Parmi les conférenciers :

  • Sandrine Loncke
    auteure de Geerewol Musique, danse et lien social chez les Peuls nomades Woɗaaɓe du Niger et réalisatrice du film “Dance with the Woɗaaɓe
  • André Marty
  • Yassine Kervella-Mansaré
    auteure de Veuvage féminin et sacrifices d’animaux dans le Fouta-Djalon (Guinée). Traditions en changement et de Pulaaku. Le code d’honneur des Peuls
  • Anaïs Leblon, anthropologue
  • Cedric Le Bris, responsable du service de la coopération internationale, Département des Yvelines

Le modérateur est Alfa Umar Ba Konaré, psychologue clinicien et chercheur sur les Fulɓe.

L’éminent Professeur Jean Boutrais rehaussa  l’évènement par sa présence.

Première table-ronde

Mme Hadiatou Diallo-Baldé, organisatrice de la rencontre
Mme Hadiatou Diallo-Baldé, organisatrice de la rencontre

Karvella Mansaré Yassine, chercheuse, auteure
Karvella Mansaré Yassine, chercheuse, auteure
Le modérateur et certains conférenciers. De gauche à droite : Sandrine Loncke, Alfa Umar Ba Konaré, Yassine Kervella-Mansaré, Anaïs Leblon
Le modérateur et certains conférenciers. De gauche à droite : Sandrine Loncke, Alfa Umar Ba Konaré, Yassine Kervella-Mansaré, Anaïs Leblon

 Troisième table-ronde / Forum