Africa's Ajami writing system

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MARCO WERMAN: Africa remains one of the world's poorest and most under-developed continents and experts point to a number of reasons. One of them is the region's reported high rates of illiteracy. Yet many more Africans may be reading and writing than the official numbers indicate. They're using a writing system that dates back to the days when sub-Saharan Africans began converting to Islam. The World's Katy Clark explains.

KATY CLARK: More than a thousand years ago, religious leaders modified Arabic texts to help spread the Koran to African shepherds and shop keepers. The writing system they used came to be known as Ajami. Ajami's an Arabic word. In the early days, it was used somewhat disparagingly to refer to anything that wasn't Arabic. But as Boston University Professor Fallou Ngom explains, the term evolved. It now describes the writings of various African languages that use this modified Arabic script to this day.

FALLOU NGOM: Especially sub-Saharan Africa from Senegal, Gambia, the Western part to the Horn of Africa, all that Sahelian band that had been influenced by Islam since the 10th century has used the Arabic script, modified it to write their own languages. So the literature that is produced is produced in African languages, although the script may look like Arabic.

CLARK: Ngom says Arabic speakers might be able to read an Ajami document because they'd recognize the script. But they might not understand what they were reading.

NGOM: If you look in the French colonial libraries, Ajami documents were referred to �unreadable Arabic.� And the sections where they were kept were labeled the [INDISCERNIBLE].

CLARK: Undecipherable Arabic, which is part of the reason Ajami has largely escaped the attention of Westerners. Even many educated Africans aren't familiar with the Arabic-based writing system. Ngom, who grew up in French-speaking Senegal, didn't learn about it until 2003. That's when he stumbled upon an IOU written in Ajami by his late father. Until then, Ngom had considered his father illiterate.

NGOM: I would see him writing, but I really never paid attention to what he was writing. Probably because I was so influenced by the intellectual tradition that produced me, that disregarded anything that was not French as not important.

CLARK: Ngom later discovered that his father also kept a diary in which he recorded information about his family, and his thoughts on current events. Ngom describes Ajami as the �emotional voice� of sub-Saharan Africa that's largely gone unheard. This summer, he came across Ajami documents written by a Mandinka teacher living in Senegal during World War Two. The teacher was angry that so many young men from his remote village were being drafted into the French military to fight Nazi Germany. The poem curses Adolph Hitler.

NGOM: It says, �Hitler the German has brought evil to this world. May God take away all his evil. If he's assisted by great spirits may those great spirits be destroyed.�

CLARK: Ngom says cursing was a potent weapon in the community, and that the poem represents the spiritual leader's effort to destroy Hitler. Ngom believes that by translating Ajami texts like this one, we get a much richer, much more detailed understanding of African history and every day goings on than if scholars were to simply focus on Arabic, French, or English documents. And he's not the only one who thinks this. Dmitry Bondarev is with the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies. He says the study of Ajami throws open the door to previously unknown areas of Africa.

DMITRY BONDAREV: For example, in Bambara [INDISCERNIBLE] areas in Mali, Senegal, one only got the information from oral tradition. And recently some Ajami texts put down in Arabic script in the 19th century brought up some local histories of the cities, of the families which we would never know if we didn't get access to Ajami material.

CLARK: One potential problem, though, is that there aren't many scholars who can read Ajami texts. Ngom is hoping to change that. Under his direction, Boston University is training 17 students this semester in Hausa and Wolof, two African languages with rich Ajami traditions. It's a first step towards teaching them to read Ajami. Ngom himself hopes to uncover as many Ajami documents as he can. He says his dream is to translate Ajami texts written by African slaves brought over to the Americas. For The World, this is Katy Clark in Boston.

WERMAN: If you'd like to hear more of that Ajami poem cursing Hitler, check out the video at our website, TheWorld.org.