Indigenous Mande Alphabets and Ethnic Identity

Note: The following essay on Mande scripts was originally written for a linguistics and anthropology course I took at Knox College. As it was the last assignment of my senior year and I had a solid A in the class anyway, I used it as an excuse to ramble for pages about the Mande alphabets I had been researching for my books. I am under no illusion that this is a good essay, as very little of the content is actually devoted to proving the thesis (I probably wouldn’t have graded it as generously as my professor did), but it is a handy information dump on some of the alphabets that directly inspired the Yammaninke Alphabet from Theonite.


With the exception of Ancient Egyptian Hieroglyphs, Western scholarship does not often make any mention of indigenous African writing systems. However, Africa is replete with indigenously originating writing systems, some, such as Ancient Berber, dating back over two thousand years, some such as King Ibrahim Njoya’s Bamun syllabary, developed during the nineteenth century, and some invented and popularized within the last hundred years. Among these more recently created African scripts were several writing systems developed independently of one another by speakers of languages within the Mande language group. The indigenously generated writing systems of the Mande are worth consideration for a number of reasons: first, they are conspicuously numerous, with five separate (albeit, in some cases, related) writing systems developed in the past two hundred years, and second, despite being developed in an environment of exposure to both Roman and Arabic scripts, they all display a significant degree of originality in their spread of phonemes and the graphemes chosen to represent them.

In this essay, we will be looking at four of these indigenously generated Mande writing systems: the Vai syllabary, developed around 1820 by Duwalu Bukele of Liberia, the Mende (or Kikakui) syllabary, developed in the early 1920s by Mohammed Turay of Sierra Leone, the Toma syllabary, developed in the 1930s by Wido Sogbo of Liberia, and finally, the N’ko alphabet, developed in 1949 by Souleymane Kanté of Guinea. It should be noted that there was a fifth indigenously generated Mande writing system, the Kpelle syllabary, developed in the 1930s in Liberia, but since it was never widely used, we will be focusing our discussion on its more successful cousins. After considering the history of the development and dissemination of each of these four writing systems, we will look at the context in which they developed to try to understand why several different writing systems were developed for the same language group within two centuries each other and what this tells us about Mande ethnic identity. For the purposes of this discussion, I will be drawing on the sparse secondary sources I have found on these indigenous Mande scripts, and some background sources on Mande culture in general, as well as my own experience studying Maninka language and culture with Mande griot and journalist Mamadou Ben Cherif Diabaté.

The term ‘Mande’ here refers both to the Mande language group, which includes Maninka, Bambara, Soninke, Dyula, Bozo, Mende, Soso, and Vai, most of which are mutually intelligible to the trained ear, as well as the corresponding ethnic group. Since the traditional Mande conception ethnic identity is heavily tied to language, these are largely the same thing (i.e. the Mande ethnic group consists of Soninke people who speak the Soninke language, the Maninka people, who speak the Maninka language, etc.). The unifying tenant of Mande identity for all of these groups is that they trace their history back to the founding of the Mande Empire (also known as the Manding Empire or the Empire of Mali) in the eleventh century by the hero king Sundiata Keita. Since this history has been preserved, until very recently, solely through exclusive oral tradition, knowledge of Mande language is inseparable from Mande ethnic identity.


The Vai Syllabary


(Image courtesy of Omniglot)

By far the oldest of our indigenously generated Mande writing systems is the Vai syllabary, invented in 1832 or 1833, depending on the source. Because the Vai script was developed well before linguistic and anthropological research in Africa—or indeed anywhere—was very well underway, the information on the script’s origins is thin possibly not entirely reliable. Most of what the Western world knows about the creation of the Vai syllabary is thanks to S.W. Koelle, a German missionary who taught in Freetown, Sierra Leone and visited the town of Bandakoro, in Vai country. There, he was able to meet with Momolu Duwalu Bukele, who, with the help of five of his friends, invented the Vai syllabary. Bukele related to Koelle, the dream he had had that inspired the creation of the script. Bukele’s account of the dream, as transcribed by Koelle, is as follows:

About fifteen years ago, I had a dream, in which a tall, venerable looking white man [1854: in a long coat] appeared to me saying: “I am sent to you by other white men.” [Duwalu] asked: “What is the object for which you are sent to me?” The white man replied: “I bring you a book.” [Duwalu] said: “This is very good; but tell me now, what is the nature of this book.” The white messenger answered: “I am sent to bring this book to you, in order that you bring it to the rest of the people. But I must tell you, that neither you, nor any one who will become acquainted with the book, are allowed to eat the flesh of dogs and monkeys, nor of any thing found dead, whose throat was not cut; and to touch the book on those days on which you have touched the fruit of the To-tree (a kind of very sharp pepper).” The messenger then showed [Duwalu] his book, and taught him, to write any [Vai] words in the same way, in which the book was written.”

According to Koelle, Bukele described with enthusiasm how the messenger had showed him each symbol by writing it on the ground with a finger and then telling him its sound and meaning. Koelle believed that the white man from Bukele’s dream is a metaphorical representation of an English-speaking white missionary with whom Bukele studied for three months when he was a young boy and seemed to Koelle to have deeply inspired him. We can’t be sure how much credit to give this theory as Bukele himself never seems to have said anything to connect the two. Adding to some researchers’ skepticism is the face that the Vai word used to refer to white people could also refer to any foreigner, meaning that either one of or both the missionary Bukele describes from his childhood and the ‘white man’ in his dream could just as easily have been an African American expatriate, of which there were many in Liberia at the time. I am inclined to think that the conflation of the dream messenger and the possibly white missionary is a product of Koelle’s most likely biased conjecture since, as a white missionary himself, he may have harbored some bias that caused him to inflate the importance of the white missionary from Bukele’s past. If the dream Bukele described was a metaphor for a real life person or event, speaking from my own immensely frustrating experience trying to interpret the metaphors in Mande oral history, it is highly unlikely that a visiting outsider such as Koelle would be able to fully understand it.

In any case, Koelle seems convinced that Bukele’s fascination with the power of written language goes back to his childhood. After his time spent with the English-speaking (possibly white, possibly African American, possibly completely irrelevant) missionary, Koelle tells us that Bukele was employed as a servant by slave-traders along the coast, telling us that:

They [the traders] often sent him on an errand to distant places, from which he had generally to bring letters back to his masters. In these letters his master was sometimes informed when [Duwalu] had done any mischief in the place to which he had been sent. Now this struck his mind very much. He said to himself: “How is this, that my master knows every thing which I had done in a distant place! He only want to look into the book, and this tells him all. Such a thing we ought also to have, by which we could speak with each other, though separated by a large space of land.

According to Koelle, it was through this experience that Bukele gained an appreciation for the power of written language and developed a desire to harness it for his own people. Although as Tuchscherer and Hair point out, it can almost be taken for granted that, “Bukele and probably all his associates were well aware of the power of writing,” since, “all along the West African coast, since the time of the first European arrival leading members of the coastal peoples had appreciated the advantage of literacy, notably for commercial correspondence and accounts.”

Another account of the creation of the Vai syllabary, written in 1849 in the Vai script itself, comes from Bukele’s cousin and aid in developing the script, Kali Bara. In Bara’s version, he too was visited by the dream messenger and shown the symbols that were to appear in the script. Bara’s account was published as a book in London in 1851. From there copies were sent to Liberia and spread to other Vai speakers. Since the creation of the Vai syllabary, the script was used in translations of the Koran and the Bible, and by the end of the nineteenth century, was in use by a majority of Vai-speakers.

This brings us to the characteristics of the script itself, originally handwritten by its creators and later standardized for printing in London. The Vai script is a syllabary, meaning that each character represents one syllable. In addition to the characters representing syllables, the Vai script contains a number of logograms, symbols representing common words, punctuation symbols, and a numerals system. In all, the script contains 246 characters. That leaves the question of what forms might have influenced the development of the symbols themselves.

The first written evidence of the Vai syllabary to reach the Western world came courtesy of Rev. John Leighton Wilson and Stephen R. Wynkoop, two missionaries on reconnaissance at Cape Mount in 1834 wrote an article that was published in an issue of the Missionary Herald. In their account, they wrote that “Some of their characters resemble the Arabic—some resemble Hebrew letter, others Greek characters; but all of them except those resembling the Arabic are merely fanciful.” Given that the region and the Mande as an ethnic group have a long history of contact with Arabic script (in any case, longer than their contact with the Roman alphabet) as an instrument of social and religious power due to Islam’s early penetration into West Africa, it is not difficult to believe Wilson and Wynkoop’s assertion that the Vai syllabary contains some Arabic influence. It is, however, fairly easy to tell that Wilson and Wynkoop were no language experts, as one glance at the lineup of Vai symbols is enough to tell someone with a discerning eye that the script bears no meaningful resemblance to Hebrew or Greek.

I also find the assertion that the non-Arabic-like characters are “merely fanciful” highly suspect. Mande tradition is replete with deeply meaningful systems of visual symbols, some of them utilized by the endogamous artisan clans that make up traditional Mande society. These symbols appear in sand divination, wood carving, metal working, and fabric dyeing, sometimes reaching a level of nuance and complexity that some researchers have argued that they are languages unto themselves.

An example of one of these complex systems of symbols is the patterns on Bamana mudcloth, called bogolan or bogolanfini. In her work on Mande bogolan and its contemporary cultural significance, Victoria L. Rovine writes that, “The rows of circles, crosses, zigzag lines, and other geometric elements that adorn bogolanfini carry messages for those trained in their interpretation. Bogolanfini symbols may refer to objects, historical events, mythological subjects, and proverbs,” adding that “The designs have been likened to a written language.” I can recognize some basic bogolan symbols and their meanings from reading the works of western researchers who have studied it, but even they are not what Rovine would call “bogolanfini-literate,” as Mande people in general are not always open to sharing the meaning of their art with outsiders and the top bogolan-makers are careful to guard their special knowledge of the cloth’s meaning even from other Mande artists. Rovine writes that “analysis of subtle irregularities in the patterns that adorn bogolanfini postulates that artists deliberately obscure their designs in order to conceal knowledge, like encoded imperfections purposefully inserted into a written text.”

The symbols in bogolan are just one example of the wealth of visual symbols that already existed in the Mande world prior to the advent of the Vai syllabary. While the characters of the Vai script bear only a passing resemblance to some bogolan forms (at least to my untrained eye), I personally have trouble believing that a Mande person would create a writing system to represent their language without either consciously or subconsciously drawing on some of the visual symbolism already deeply ingrained in the Mande repertoire.

Another potential influence for the Vai syllabary that none of my sources have mentioned, but that I feel warrants consideration is the Tifinagh writing system, an ancient alphabet used by the Tuareg people of northwestern Africa to write their language, Tamashek. The Tuareg are not Mande, but they have a history of contact with the Mande people stretching back into ancient times. Mande people, even if they may not be able to read Tifinagh, have been visually exposed to it for at least as long as they have been exposed to Arabic, as Tuareg metal smiths traditionally carve their signatures into their crafts (most famously their silver pendants), which have been traded all over West Africa for centuries and continue to be sold today.


(Sample Tiginagh text above courtesy of Omniglot)

I would not bring up a non-Mande writing system except that, having compared the two writing systems closely, I can confidently say that the Vai syllabary has more forms in common with Tifinagh than any other writing system I have considered (including its Mande cousins). To give a few examples, the fairly distinctive Vai symbol for /e/ is the same as the Tifinagh symbol for the same sound only turned on its side. The also distinctive Vai /tɔ/ is identical to the Tifinagh /d/. The Vai symbol for /dɔ/ is the same as the Tifinagh symbol for /d/ and the Vai /nɔ/ is the same as the Tifinagh /n/, give or take a few dots.

Some researchers have sought to draw a connection between the Vai writing system and the writing system developed by the Native American Cherokee. Also an indigenously generated syllabary, the Cherokee script was developed in 1821, just one year before the Vai script. Svend Holsoe identified a Cherokee individual who moved to Liberia in 1823, around the time of the Vai syllabary’s invention. However, there is no evidence that the development of Vai was at all influenced by the Cherokee writing system. The characters in the Vai script do not remotely resemble those in the Cherokee script; the similarities between the two writing systems begin and end with them being syllabaries invented around the same time. Personally, I think that this theory was the result of Westerners being unreasonably surprised to find indigenous people taking their own literacy initiatives in a colonial environment and feeling the need to attribute it to a highly improbable conspiracy between peoples who have nothing to do with one another.


The Mende Syllabary


(Image courtesy of Omniglot)

The second indigenous Mande script was not developed until a century after Bukele’s Vai writing system. In the early 1920s, in a Mende chiefdom in southern Sierra Leone, near the Liberian border, Islamic scholar and trader Mohammed Turay invented the Mende syllabary, often called Kikakui for the first three characters in its sequence, ki, ka, and ku.

Like the Vai script, the Mende script is composed of a syllabary and a numbers system, although the Mende script lacks Vai’s logograms and is significantly smaller, containing only an approximate 195 characters (the number varies depending on the writer) to Vai’s 246. Some characters in the Mende syllabary take on diacritical marks, including vertical lines, horizontal lines, and dots. The Mende script’s number system is decimal based and is arranged on a base twenty system of counting. Unlike the Vai script, the Mende script is written from right to left.

In his article on African scripts Théodore Monod addresses the possibility that the Mende script was influenced by the Vai syllabary, citing a few examples of similar-looking characters between the two. Having lined the two systems of symbols up side by side according to (what are, as far as I can tell) their corresponding phonemes, I am not convinced. While some symbols from the Mende syllabary do resemble some symbols from the Vai syllabary, they are few and not are applied to represent the same phonemes. On the other hand, it is difficult to think that a scholar like Turay, living in the same region as the people who developed the Vai syllabary wouldn’t at least know about the earlier script. Whether or not Turay was inspired by the Vai script, the fact remains that the Mende syllabary he created is a largely original system of symbols.

As with the Vai syllabary, there are a few characters in the Mende script that resemble symbols found in bogolan patterns. For example, the Mende grapheme for the phoneme /gbe/ (an hourglass) is the same as the bogolan symbol for the griot’s drum, the Mende grapheme for the phoneme /ko/ (an ‘x’) resembles the bogolan symbol for nobility, and there are a number of other symbols in the syllabary’s lineup that resemble more complex bogolan patterns that I have no idea how to read. It is entirely possible that the similarities between these syllabaries and bogolan patterns are coincidental. After all, hourglasses and ‘x’s are hardly difficult shapes to arrive at; we have an ‘x’ in our Roman alphabet. While it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that the Mende characters’ similarities to bogolan symbols were the result of coincidence, it also wouldn’t surprise me to hear that they were intentional. There is no way to be sure without consulting a Mande expert.

Some sources—Mande and Western—have incorrectly credited Mohammed Turay’s nephew, influential local chief Kisimi Kamara with the creation of the Mende syllabary. This is an understandable mistake, as it was Kamara who was largely responsible for promoting the script and spreading it from the Barri Chiefdom to neighboring areas. According to the oral history of the Mende syllabary, recorded by Konrad Tuchscherer during 1990 and 1991, Kamara learned the script from Turay in the town of Maka shortly after its invention and went on to be its most important proponent because of his influence in the community and his popularity with Mende youth. Tuchscherer writes that during the 1920s, Kamara traveled throughout Mendeland “in a hand-carried hammock, followed by a large entourage of singers, dancers, musicians and acrobats,” adding that his travels “which served to popularize Kikakui as well as to boost his own reputation, are remembered today in a number of towns and villages in southern and eastern Mendeland,” where the script is still used by the individuals he taught. Tuchscherer found in an annual missionary report for 1928 that missionaries had become aware of Kamara’s campaign, noting a ‘keen interest in [the Mende script] in places,’ as well as public notices written in it.

Observing the growing popularity of the Mende script, missionaries of the Wesleyan Methodist Missionary Society in Segwema, Jojoima, and Bunumbu decided to experiment with the script as a medium for Mende-language Bibles. Since they already had Mende translations of the Bible in the Roman alphabet, the project was in transliteration rather than translation. For this, they employed Mende experts in the script, who brokered their skill to the missionaries for money. Ultimately, however, Mende script failed as a medium for Bible translation because the Mende script experts the missionaries had hired actively resisted their efforts to reinvent the script and educate the general populace in its use. Tuchscherer explains that because the Mende script experts “depended on the restriction of literacy in the script… to encourage widespread literacy in Kikakui, through the spread of the Gospel in the script, was tantamount to destroying the value of their commodity and undermining their own economic livelihood.”

Despite the failure of the Mende syllabary as a medium for Bible translation, it did end up being utilized for a great deal of Koran transcriptions down to the present day. Perhaps because of the script’s beginning, with Koranic teacher Mohammed Turay, Tuchscherer writes that Koranic translation “has always been an important and accepted feature of the script’s traditional usage, undertaken by script practitioners themselves for their own private use.” Tuchscherer makes a point of correcting the false assumption—based on the lack of available data—that the Mende writing system is close to extinction, asserting that when he did his research in the early 1990s, Turay’s script was still in use throughout Mendeland, albeit with a certain level of exclusivity.


The Toma (or Loma) Syllabary

tumblr_inline_p16x4ohUFE1swr7fz_500 (1)

(Image courtesy of Omniglot)

The most recent Mande syllabary invented is the Toma script. The Toma (also called the Loma) people live mostly in Guinea and a small portion of Liberia. Theodore Monod describes the writing system—which he claims to have discovered while in Toma country in the 1940s—in some detail. He correctly observes that, “At first glance at the three scripts of the Vai, the Mende, and the Toma, reveals at once a strong ‘air de famille.’” Unlike the Vai and Mende syllabaries, the Toma syllabary is clear in its inspiration, as it borrows symbols directly from both of its predecessors. However, Monod also observes that, far from being a mere combination of the Vai and Mende scripts, the Toma syllabary is largely its own system, with its own symbols. Like the Vai script, the Toma script reads from left to right.

Monod tells us that the ‘principal discoverer’ of the script was Wido Sogbo, an employee of the American Firestone Company in Liberia. According to his local sources, Wido Sogbo was at home after having gone to the market one day when he asked God why the Tomas had no writing of their own. God answered him, saying “I fear that when you are able to express yourselves you shall have no more respect for the beliefs and customs of your race.” Once Wido had assured Him that a writing system would not make them forget their traditions, God granted him knowledge of the Toma script. Monod estimates that the origin of the writing system must have taken place approximately ten years before his visit, meaning during the 1930s. He notes that the script is still used among the Toma workers at the Firestone Company, writing that “the headmen employ that script to write down the lists of their men, and before learning it the pupil must swear that, in his turn, he will teach the system to anybody who shall ask it of him.”

Having discussed the Toma script’s origins and use, Monod goes on to make some wildly inaccurate and therefore irrelevant speculations about the connections between the origins of the Toma, Mende, and Vai scripts. Unfortunately, his account is the only source I could find on the Toma syllabary. What the development of the Toma syllabary tells us is that, despite the Mende and Vai scripts never achieving use throughout the entire Mande-speaking world, their value was recognized by other communities of Mande language speakers, who (in this case) then sought to make their own syllabary, adapted to their needs.


The N’Ko Script


(Image courtesy of Omniglot)

The last indigenously developed Mande script is N’ko. Unlike its predecessors, it is not a syllabary, but an alphabet. Invented by Souleymane Kanté of Kankan, Guinea in 1949, it has been the most successful indigenous Mande writing system to date. Whereas the origins of the Vai, Mende, and Toma scripts, and therefore the intentions of their creators, are in varying levels of contention, we know a good deal about Kanté’s processes and motives in developing N’ko.

Kanté’s journey to creating N’ko began in 1944 when he read an article by Lebanese journalist Kamal Marwa, which asserted that Africans’ lack of their own systems of writing made them inferior to Europeans. (It should be noted that Marwa, in his article, acknowledged the existence of the Vai syllabary, but dismissed it as being incomplete). Deeply offended, Kanté took the article as a challenge and set about devising a system in which to write his own language, Maninka. He spent 1945 through 1947 trying to find a satisfactory way to write Maninka in the Arabic script, but found that Arabic’s twenty-eight letters could not accomodate all the sounds of his language. In November of 1947, having seen the Ashanti people writing their language in the Roman alphabet while on a business trip in Ghana, Kanté changed gears and started trying to use Roman letters to write Maninka. When that failed, he started work on an original writing system made specifically to accommodate the particular sound of Mande languages, especially tonality. The system he devised became the N’ko script.

Once he had drawn up the characters of his alphabet, Kanté asked ten illiterate people of varying ages to draw a line in the dirt. Seeing that seven out of the ten drew their line from right to left, he decided that N’ko would be written from right to left to make learning it easier. Unlike Mende and Vai, which had steep learning curves and were practiced and shared with a certain level of exclusivity, N’ko was oriented from its conception toward accessibility for everyone. Dianne White Oyler reports that her informants on Kanté’s life recall him “as saying that he invented N’ko to campaign against ignorance and illiteracy in his country and on his continent… he expressed the idea that Africans needed to learn in their own maternal languages, thereby promoting quick and easy acquisition of knowledge.”

Oyler’s informants (as well as my own mentor, Diabaté) attest to the cultural significance of the name ‘N’ko.’ Literally, it means ‘I speak’ in all Mande languages and has been used as an expression of Mande unity since long before colonization. In the accounts of many Mande oral traditionalists, the Mande Empire’s founder, Sundiata Keita refers to his fellow Mande as ‘those who say ‘N’ko.’ By choosing to call his writing system N’ko, Kanté was making a powerful statement that the script was not just for his fellow Maninka speakers, but was open to any Mande person, or, in an even broader sense, any person with a voice.

Kanté’s mission to make knowledge accessible to the populace went beyond what some Mande people might deem appropriate. For example, Oyler notes that he used N’ko to transcribe works that had previously “belonged exclusively to certain groups of intellectuals. For example, he wrote a history of Mande civilization,” containing information on Sundiata and his successors that had previously been the domain of the Mande griots (oral traditionalists), who dispensed and withheld historical information as they chose as part of their birthright as griots. (hist, 248) Previously, their monopoly on Mande history would have been protected by the fact that the Mande languages in which they kept that history were not easily transcribed in the Arabic or Roman alphabets. However, with the advent of N’ko, their histories could be made available to everyone in their original languages.

After inventing the N’ko script, Kanté was highly active in its testing and later promotion. Because Kanté and his community (like most West African communities) were deeply religious, the first works transcribed in N’ko were the Koran and various other Islamic texts. In 1949, after having taught the script to his own family, he started building up a body of students from those illiterate locals who had been rejected by colonial schools. In exchange for their education in the script, his students were tasked with spreading and publicizing N’ko under the radar of the colonial government. Many of the students he selected were merchants, who carried the alphabet along their trade routes all over Mande West Africa. One of Oyler’s informants recalls one of Kanté’s friends taking the script as far as Egypt. While “Kanté’s movement possessed no infrastructure, no financial assistance, and no texts except the ones Kanté translated and transcribed,” Oyler writes that ultimately, “the engine that powered the movement… was individual initiative—the individual’s desire to possess Mande literacy.” Today, N’ko is used mainly by speakers of Maninka, Bambara, and Dyula in Guinea, Côte d’Ivoire, and Mali, although Kanté designed it to be adaptable to any Mande language or dialect.


Ethnic Identity

So, now that we have reviewed the history and development of the Vai, Mende, Toma, and N’ko writing systems, where does that leave us with our question of why so many writing systems were generated within the same language group, within the colonial era? The simple answer is that the colonial environment and its Westernized standards demanded that Mande people find a way to write their languages down, while no existing writing system was sufficient to do so, owing mainly to the unique tonality of Mande languages.

While attempting to learn basic Maninka from my mentor, Diabaté, I took a lot of notes and constantly struggled to put the sounds I was hearing into the Roman alphabet. Even consulting Diabaté and borrowing some characters from the International Phonetic Alphabet, writing down Maninka was maddeningly difficult, in part because there has never been a completely standardized system of Romanization for Mande languages. Most of the names and terms that appear in this essay—Diabaté, Duwalu, Kamara, etc.—have at least one, if not three or four, alternate spellings that are widely used, leading to a great deal of confusion when it comes to reading anything involving Mande words transcribed in the Roman alphabet. To give just two examples, the name of the Mande Empire’s founder is often spelled ‘Sundiata,’ ‘Soundiata,’ ‘Sunjata,’ and ‘Son-jara,’ and in my few sources alone, the name of the Vai syllabary’s creator has been spelled ‘Doalu Bukara,’ ‘Doualu Bukare,’ ‘Doalu Bukere,’ and ‘Duwalu Bukele.’ Simply put, the practical need for a Mande writing system other than the Roman alphabet is immediately obvious to even the idle reader of material on Mande culture. Several times during our study sessions, Diabaté remarked, “Some time you should come visit me in Mali. Then you will have time to learn to write N’ko, and then you will really know Maninka.”

We know that Souleymane Kanté invented N’ko at least partly in response to the failure of the Arabic and Roman alphabets to express his own and other Mande languages. While our sources don’t tell us as much about the motives and goals of the creators of the three syllabaries, it is entirely possible that they represent isolated incidents of people responding to similar needs on a smaller scale. However, beyond their basic practical use, these indigenous Mande writing systems serve as an expression of ethnic pride and identity. The number of people encompassed by that identity may differ—with a writing system like the Toma syllabary endeavoring to serve a small community with specialized needs while N’ko endeavors to serve a wide range of people—but the underlying principle does not. Regardless of scope these indigenous Mande writing systems present a way in which Mande people can take up the non-indigenous practice of writing on their own terms and express their culture and ideas without sacrificing their traditions or subordinating themselves to colonial power.



Aronson, Lisa, “The Language of West African Textiles,” in African Arts, Vol. 25, No. 3, Special Issue: West African Textiles. UCLA James S. Coleman African Studies Center: July 1992.

Austen, Ralph A., In Search of Sunjata: The Mande Oral Epic as History, Literature, and Performance. Indiana University Press, 1999.

Imperato, Pascal James, and Marli Shamir, “Bokolanfini: Mud Cloth of the Bamana of Mali,” in African Arts, Vol. 3, No. 4. UCLA James S. Coleman African Studies Center: Summer, 1970.

Kreamer, Christine Mullen, Mary Nooter Roberts, Elizabeth Harney and Allyson Purpura, “Writing and Graphic Systems in African Art,” in African Arts, Vol. 40, No. 3. UCLA James S. Coleman African Studies Center: Autumn, 2007.

Monod, Théodore, “A New West African Alphabet: Used by the Toma, French Guinea and Liberia,” in Man, Vol. 43. Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland: September – October, 1943.

Niane, D. T., Sundiata: An Epic of Old Mali. Longman African Writers, 1994.

Oyler, Dianne White, “A Cultural Revolution in Africa: Literacy in the Republic of Cuinea since Independence,” in The International Journal of African Historical Studies, Vol. 34, No. 3. Boston University African Studies Center: 2001.

Oyler, Dianne White, “The N’ko Alphabet as a Vehicle of Indigenist Historiography,” in History in Africa, Vol. 24. African Studies Association: 1997.

Rovine, Victoria L., Bogolan: Shaping Culture through Cloth in Contemporary Mali. Washington and London: Smithsonian Institution Press, 2001.

Tuchscherer, Konrad, and P. E. H. Hair, “Cherokee and West Africa: Examining the Origins of the Vai Script,” in History in Africa, Vol. 29. African Studies Association: 2002.

Tuchscherer, Konrad, “African Script and Scripture: The History of the Kikakui (Mende) Writing System for Bible Translations,” in African Languages and Cultures, Vol. 8, No. 2. Taylor & Francis, Ltd: 1995.

Tuchscherer, Konrad, “The Lost Script of the Bagam,” in African Affairs, Vol. 98, No. 390. Oxford University Press on behalf of The Royal African Society: January 1999.

See also:

The scripts themselves on Omniglot, the Vai Syllabary, the Mende Syllabary, the Loma Syllabary, the N’Ko Alphabet, and the Tifinagh Alphabet. I don’t know what I would do without these resources.

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