Dispelling the Myth of an Illiterate Pre Colonial Africa
Africa is simply a continent whose written history has not been studied. Africa is not a continent without writing. Rather, it is a continent without studies on its writing.
The Nsibidi Writing system
Beginning in the 15th century the Portuguese started kidnapping and enslaving people they encountered off the Western coast of Africa. Further European exploration on the continent led to the Berlin Conference of 1865, setting agreements for the partitioning of the African continent and ultimately centuries of slavery and colonialism.
One of the great justifications for European colonialism was the idea of spreading “civilization.” This line of thinking has resulted in the perpetuation of many myths about Africa that persist to this day, such as the idea of an illiterate pre-colonial Africa. A common myth is that it was Europeans that taught Africans to read and write. Even people with good intentions will believe this myth and defend it by saying there was no need for writing as certain regions of Africa had very strong oral traditions. The idea that Europeans taught Africans to read is ironic given the fact that writing has existed in Africa for millennia before it existed in Europe, and the Ancient Greek alphabet from which most modern European writing systems descend is actually a derivative of the Punic script originating in Northern Africa and spread throughout the Mediterranean.
Evidence of many ancient African writing systems can be found in various regions of the continent. Egyptian Hieroglyphics are of course the most known, and this system was used widely by Egyptians and their neighbors. The Meroitic script was developed in the Kingdom of Kush in the 3rd century BC. Nsibidi is an ancient script used to communicate in various languages in West Central Africa. Most notably used by the Uguakima and Ejagham people of present day Nigeria and Cameroon, Nsibidi is also used by the nearby Ebe, Efik, Ibibio, Igbo, and Uyanga people. The script is believed to date back to 5000 BC, but the oldest archeological evidence ever found dates it to 2000 BC. Adinkra is a set of symbols developed by the Akan people of West Africa, used to represent concepts and aphorisms. Lusona is a system of ideograms that functioned as mnemonic devices to record proverbs, fables, games, riddles and animals, and to transmit knowledge originating in what is now eastern Angola, northwestern Zambia and adjacent areas of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Tifanagh is a script used by North and West Africa’s Amazigh people, with archeological evidence of Tifinagh use found in the 1,500 year old monumental tomb of Tuareg matriarch Tin Hinan. The Ge’ez script is an advanced syllabary script used to communicate in several Ethiopic languages. The oldest known evidence of Ge’ez writing can be found on the Hawulti stela, which dates to roughly 800 BC.
Further myths perpetuate that Africans did not write because of the strong oral history tradition in many regions, particularly Western Africa. While it is true that much of West Africa has the strong “griot” tradition, a line of singer-storytellers tasked to pass down history from generation to generation, they did also write! The Empire of Wagadu was one of the first of the great medieval trading empires of Western Africa. Established in the 7th century, it was situated in an area that now comprises parts of present day Mauritania and Mali. They called their ruler the “Ghana'' and it was this title Kwame Nkrumah chose to name the modern day nation of Ghana. There's strong evidence of writing and scholarship in the empires of Wagadu and Kanem during the 12th century, such as the 12th century Kanuri poet al-Kanemi, the invention of Kanems unique Barnawi script in the 12th century, and the presence of Wagadu’s scholars in Andalusia in the 1100s.
It is in reality the perishability of paper in West Africa’s climate that makes it unlikely for any manuscripts from such early dates to be discovered. The oldest known West African manuscript is a letter by Mai Uthman Idris of Kanem, written in 1391 to the Ottoman sultan Al Zahir Bakuk.
Following Wagadu in West Africa was Mali, a powerful empire with a rich tradition of scholarship. One of the world’s oldest universities, the University of Sankoré, was founded in the fabled city of Timbuktu. It was one of three ancient centers of learning located in Timbuktu, Mali, believed to have been established by Mansa Musa Keita. Scholars from around Africa, the Middle East and Europe traveled to Timbuktu to study. Sankoré University was capable of housing 25,000 students and had one of the largest libraries in the world with roughly one million manuscripts at its peak. The rise of Mali in Western Africa saw also the spread of Islam and the Arabic writing script in the region. Ajami, which comes from the Arabic root for “foreign” or “stranger”, is an Arabic script used for writing African languages. Ajami writing exists in just about every West African language, with the most studied being works written in Mandé and Hausa. Some available manuscripts include the Kitab Ghanja written by Muhammad Al-Mustafa, a detailed account of the history of the Gonja kingdom and the Asante invasion housed in the University of Ghana’s Institute of African Studies.
East Africa was exposed to Islam through trade, and many Swahili works are written in the Ajami script.
There’s even very well kept Ajami records written by enslaved Africans brought to the Americas. Some notable examples include Omar Ibn Said, a West African Fula Islamic scholar who was enslaved and transported to the United States in 1807. There he wrote a series of Arabic-language works on history and theology, including a posthumously famous autobiography. Ayuba Soleiman Diallo was another enslaved African who wrote his native language, Wolof, in Arabic Script. Ayuba ran away from the tobacco field he was enslaved on in 1731 Maryland and was captured and imprisoned at the Kent County Courthouse. It was at the courthouse that he was discovered by a lawyer, Thomas Bluett.
Bluett writes the following:
“Upon our Talking and making Signs to him, he wrote a Line or two before us, and when he read it, pronounced the Words Allah and Mahommed; by which, and his refusing a Glass of Wine we offered him, we perceived he was a Mahometan, but could not imagine of what Country he was, or how he got thither; for by his affable Carriage, and the easy Composure of his Countenance, we could perceive he was no common Slave.”
Far from being a continent without history, Africa is simply a continent whose written history has not been studied. Africa is not a continent without writing. Rather, it is a continent without studies on its writing.