Scholar Leads African Language Learning Project to Recover Lost Knowledge

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by Kenneth J. Cooper

BOSTON

 

From his small office near the Charles River, Dr. Fallou Ngom can envision the rewriting of much of African history, including the slave trade. He knows, though, that he can’t do it alone.

 

Ngom, who was born in Senegal, is beginning his second year as director of the African Language Program at Boston University, where graduate students are learning to read and write five African languages in a modified form of Arabic script.

 

The writing system known as Ajami, from the Arabic word for stranger, is not traditionally used in language and African studies programs at other universities. Ngom has set out to teach the script so scholars can translate a massive amount of unread African texts, some dating to the 10th century. He expects they will provide new information and indigenous perspectives about the continent’s history, whose recording has been shaped by travelogues and colonial archives in European languages and Arabic.

 

“We are the first here in this country to teach our students in the African languages that have Ajami script,” says Ngom, 38. “Our hope is to be able to train the first generation of scholars who have access to this literature and at least bring up the voices of those who have never been heard — those about whom history has been written but have not yet given their side.”

 

Ajami originated as a means to spread Islam across the midsection of Africa just below the Sahara Desert, from Senegal and Nigeria in the west to Ethiopia and Kenya in the east. Later uses were more secular — history, genealogy, traditional medicine, and poetry. Today, some shopkeepers use Ajami in their business records.

 

This year, about 30 BU students are learning Wolof (Senegal), Hausa (Nigeria) or Pular (Guinea) in both Ajami and the Latin script used to write English. The center also plans to teach Swahili (East Africa) and Amharic ( Ethiopia) in Ajami. 

 

 

Ngom says speakers of those and other African languages centuries ago modified the Arabic script, adding special marks to indicate sounds not made in Arabic. He compared it to putting a tilda above the letter “n” to make the “ñ” in Spanish.

 

“Swahili was actually first written in Ajami language,” Ngom says. “You go to Zanzibar, you’ll find a lot of Ajami Swahili.”

 

Not many texts written in Ajami are found in academia, though. Ngom blames scholarly varieties of “Arab racism…and European racism,” which falsely assumed that “the African has not written anything, and, even if he did write something, it must not be interesting.” Some scholars, he says, have dismissed Ajami writings as “unreadable Arabic.”

 

Ngom came to Boston University in 2008 as director of the African Language Program and an associate professor of anthropology from Western Washington University, where he taught linguistics. His doctorate from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign is in French linguistics. He speaks more than a half-dozen languages.

 

He became drawn to learning more about Ajami after an incident in 2003 redirected his research. Ngom inadvertently left a window open in his home in Bellingham, Wash., and found that a windy rainstorm had blown some papers to the floor. On one sheet, his late father had recorded — in Wolof Ajami — a debt.

 

The conscientious son tracked down the creditor in Senegal and paid him. Ngom then reflected on how his father, because he could not write French, was considered illiterate. He set out to uncover Ajami writings that remained unread.

 

“Basically, Ajami would force a rewriting of various aspects of African history, of interactions between Africans and the West, and interactions of Africans in the east (of Africa) and Arabs,” Ngom predicts. “That’s also going to affect our understanding of the trans-Atlantic (slave trade) because there is still information that is not known.”

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