Today, West Africa is typically described by reference to a linguistic divide between Anglophone and Francophone Africa. “Oh, he’s from Senegal, He speaks French” is a typical way of categorizing West African immigrants here in the US. On this view, the local languages of Africa are simply a bunch of tribal “dialects” without a written tradition. This view is wrong for a number of reasons. First, while the region’s countries use French as the official language of government and education, indigenous African languages remain the mother-tongues of essentially the entire region. They are not dialects of French but are languages in their own right that typologically distinct from the former colonial language. Second, many of these languages were indeed written prior to colonization through a connection with the tradition of scholarship that stems back to Islam’s arrival in the region more than 1,000 years ago.
The majority of Islamic scholarship carried out through the various Koranic schooling systems in West Africa was and continues to be carried out in Classical Arabic. That said, for a number of major West African languages there exists a tradition of Ajami, which is a commonly used term to refer to the use of the Arabic script to write in sub-Saharan African languages. Western scholars have become increasingly interested in Ajami practices and texts in recent years as both a new archival source and as a narrative that counters the idea of Africa being on the oral side of a great literacy divide. For certain West African lingua francas like Hausa, spoken primarily in Nigeria and Niger, Ajami practices were quite wide-spread and remain so today. In the case of Manding varieties however the practices have seemed more limited.
Manding is a linguistic term used to refer the closely related and largely mutually-intelligible varieties of a language and dialect continuum in West Africa (see the map below) that includes varieties such as Bamanan in Mali, Maninka in Guinea and Jula in Burkina Faso and Côte d’Ivoire. In the Western Manding varieties of Guinea-Bissau and the Gambia, Ajami practices appear to be rather well-established. In the case of Eastern varieties such as Bamanan and Jula however Ajami practices have been as rather limited. Indeed, the last Western evidence of Jula Ajami for instance stems from a French colonial linguist, Maurice Delafosse, in 1904. My own recent experience & research however suggests that Jula Ajami may have just been invisible to particular scholarly communities.
During the Peace Corps I lived and worked in a Jula-speaking region of Burkina Faso for two years. Two summers ago I returned to the area for unrelated research & to visit old friends and decided at the same time to ask about potential Ajami practices. Having learned the Arabic script with Burkinabè friends during the Peace Corps, I was skeptical that I would come across much. One market day as I made the rounds around the town-center to say greet friends, I happened upon some friends that I knew to be proficient in Arabic from their ties to the local mosque and Koranic school. Having greeted them and been offered a seat I decided to inquire about this idea of using Arabic letters to write in Jula. Had they ever heard of anyone doing that I asked? Watching the busy market-day pass by, a snicker or two passed between them before one of them spontaneously produced a small piece of cardboard from his wallet. “Like this?” he asked as I gazed at a tiny piece of cardboard with 5 lines of Arabic script. Though I could not and still cannot read those lines, I had just been introduced to Jula Ajami literacy practices that I had been blind to for two years.
As a result of this initial introduction I carried out preliminary ethnographic research on Jula Ajami practices over the course of the next couple days which has now been published as a working paper in my department’s in-house journal, Working Papers in Educational Linguistics. Anyone brave enough to handle my attempt to more fully analyze Jula Ajami practices is welcome to look the paper. Given its length, jargon and citations though, here I want to really briefly highlight two of the most interesting features of Jula Ajami that I discovered in my research.
First, authentic Jula Ajami texts (i.e., those not produced at my request) all fit into the genre of medicinal treatment recipes. That is, they were lists and instructions for preparing medicinal treatments using local plants. These recipes also incorporated religious elements from Islam within the preparation instructions. In this sense, the recipes fall under the banner of what scholars have labelled esoteric Islamic sciences (Brenner, 1985). These kinds of practices are esoteric in the sense that they frequently only circulate in limited circles based around initiation-style learning. They are not secrets because of their illicit-nature but because their efficacy itself depends on their limited circulation. The fact that Jula Ajami seems to be closely tied to these kinds of practices may explain in part why the literacy practice is not widely on display to outsiders or foreigners.
Second, my linguistic analysis of the texts suggests that Jula Ajami is not written in the form of Jula that is most widely-spoken in Burkina Faso. They are written in a distinct register (Agha, 2007) which resembles a form of the language that is spoken in and around a town in Côte d’Ivoire named Kong. Curiously the texts that I collected however were produced in Burkina Faso where the speakers’ so-called native dialect is arguably the lingua franca variety of Jula spoken across the country. Linguists in West Africa typically conceptualize each village or town as having a particular dialect that can be assigned to the people in the place. But language is not tied to a place. Different ways of speaking a language travel every time that someone uses the language. Moreover, these ways of speaking are imbued with a certain social reading. They can be perceived as “lower class”, “pure” or as reminding someone of a certain kind of person in the world. What is interesting in the case of Jula Ajami then is that a certain way of speaking Jula–that is, a certain register–came to be adopted as appropriate in writing texts. In this sense, Jula Ajami texts reveal the ways that even so-called vernacular or local languages of Africa have a complex social life on par with any official, “modern” or global language.
- Brenner, L. (1985). The “Esoteric Sciences” in West African Islam. In B. M. D. Toit & I. H. Abdalla (Eds.), African Healing Strategies (pp. 20–28). New York: Trado-Medic Books.
- Agha, A. (2007). Language and Social Relations. New York: Cambridge University Press.