Saturday, September 17, 2011

Alphabet follows empire.
Part I in a series: African alphabets: Bamum

French colonial reading instruction, Cameroon, early 20th century. 
What’s wrong with this picture?  This hand-drawn work of art shows little kids in Cameroon learning the alphabet from a French teacher in the early 20th century.  At first glance it looks like an uplifting example of French colonists sharing the best of European culture to inspire the illiterate Africans under their benevolent governance.
Reality is not so nice.  Like an invasive species, those ABC’s displaced a local treasure--Bamum, the writing system invented in 1892 by King Njoya
specifically for writing his subjects’ language.

 A Cameroon artist’s painting shows King Njoya introducing his subjects to Bamum letters. 

    In fact, the Bamum syllabary was for a few decades virtually the only phonetic writing system that hadn’t been brought to Africa from somewhere else, [imports such as the Arabic script of Muslim north Africa, or the Roman letters for Swahili in east Africa and the European languages of the colonies].  Like so many cultural resources in Europe’s colonies, however, Bamum was viewed with distrust by those in power, and was soon outlawed as too nationalistic. 
    Historians have long observed that “alphabet follows empire,” and that conquerors who impose their own way of writing use it to strengthen the propaganda they publish and weaken the words of the people they rule.  Forcing people to read and write with your letters helps you force them them to accept your words.  Bamum writing fell into disuse until well after independence.  Now being revived by a consortium of scholars and artists, Bamum script offers adventurous calligraphers all over the world the chance to immerse themselves in a fascinating way to write, one whose time has come, and gone, and come again. 
    These pictures and characters come from Learn World Calligraphy, where the Bamum syllabary is explored in detail along with three other authentic, distinctive African writing systems.  They are supplemented by Roman letters with African visual style.
A selection of Bamum letters. 

1 comment: