30 September 2020
As the UK transitions from summer to autumn, EAP continues to publish newly digitised content. So as autumn leaves drift by your window, why not let these digital collections keep your curiosity warm?
- Arabic manuscripts from the Yattara Family Libary, Timbuktu, Mali [EAP913]
- Wills, Deed Books, and Power of Attorney records from the Eastern Caribbean Supreme Court, St Vincent [EAP1013]
- Mathematical Manuscripts from Pre-Modern India [EAP1063]
- District Administration Reports from the Colonial Territory Nyasaland (Malawi) [EAP1231]
From religious and mathematical manuscripts in South Asia and West Africa to colonial administration in East Africa and slavery related records in the Caribbean, these recently published collections once again represent the wide breadth of material that has and continues to be digitised by EAP project teams all over the world.
The Yattara family library is a private manuscript collection that has been developed over centuries by a prominent family from the Malian city of Timbuktu. It consists of approximately 4,000 largely uncatalogued manuscripts ranging from single folio letters and historical documents to 100+ folio texts from diverse fields of Islamic studies.
This pilot project aimed to orchestrate initial cataloguing and triage preservation for the collection and to digitise a representative sample of the library’s holdings. The project team digitised 50 manuscripts, which are now free to access on the EAP website.
Although the collection originates from Timbuktu, the manuscripts themselves were widely traded and have likely been produced in various parts of the regions surrounding that historical centre of scholarship. Most of the works date from the late 18th to the early 20th century and show the varied nature of manufacture and preservation of manuscripts from this region.
Currently, the material is located in Bamako after the library was moved for protection when Timbuktu was occupied by jihadist insurgents in 2012.
This project sought to digitise documents relating to slavery and the immediate post-slavery era held at the Eastern Caribbean Courthouse, Kingstown, Saint Vincent. The digital collection includes:
- Deed Books [1774-1857]
- Power of Attorney [1789-1880]
- Secretary's Record Book [1812-1813]
- Marriages, Baptisms, and Burials Registers [1765-1820]
- Wills [1800-1835]
- French Power of Attorney volume [1789-1800]
Saint Vincent was an important sugar producing colony of the British Empire and the documents contain extensive information on land transactions, plantation ownership, testamentary practices, and slaveholding. These records are essential for investigation of slavery and plantation life on Saint Vincent and the post-slavery period from 1834 to 1865.
This pilot project created a survey of historical Tamil and Malayalam language sources concerning mathematical practices among various occupations, communities, and institutions of teaching and learning. It digitised seven collections of manuscripts identified by the survey.
One surprising aspect of the survey was the large amount of manuscripts concerning architecture, which are often called the Manaiyadi Sastiram or Manai Alankaram and have hitherto received little attention from historians.
This project digitised the annual reports produced by colonial administrators in the various districts of the Nyasaland [Malawi], between 1934-1935. These reports cover a wide range of topics including:
- Health and Medicine
- Land usage and boundaries
- Law and legal affairs
- Nature conservation
We will be publishing more digitised collections in the coming days, weeks, and months. To keep up-to-date, follow us on Twitter @bl_eap
30 July 2020
Last week we announced that since lockdown began in March and we started working from home, EAP had put more than one million images online. In total, the EAP digital archive now contains more than 8.5 million images. This unexpected milestone is thanks to all of the EAP project teams that digitise endangered archival material all over the world.
You can find summaries of recently uploaded projects in March, April, May, June, and now here is July's summary of four of the most recent projects to go online - and you can expect another summary of new projects online in the very near future, as we have more to announce and still more to upload.
This month's summary continues to represent the variety of different projects that EAP funds, from the Caribbean to South East Asia, from 18th century manuscripts to 19th century newspapers:
- Sufi Islamic Manuscripts from Western Sumatra and Jambi, Indonesia [EAP352]
- Rare Manuscripts from Balochistan, Pakistan [EAP766]
- Pre-modern Hindu Ritual Manuscripts from Kathmandu Valley, Nepal [EAP945]
- The Barbadian Newspaper (1822-1861) [EAP1251]
This project digitised 11 Sufi Islamic manuscript collections located in two regions of Indonesia: Western Sumatra and Jambi. The manuscripts date from the 1700s to the 20th century.
The collections includes manuscripts that describe suluk mystical rituals, interesting examples of al-Qur’an and works on traditional medicine in Jambi. They also contain unique examples of calligraphy, illumination, and binding which are important to preserve.
The collection also includes some correspondence, including a letter from Siti Afīyah to ʻAbd al-Karīm Amr Allāh, dated 22 September 1928.
Balochistan is located at a geographical and cultural intersection between South Asia, Central Asia, and the Middle East. This project digitised twelve private collections of manuscripts owned by local inhabitants of this fascinating historical region.
These manuscripts shine a spotlight on the pre-colonial history and cultural formations of Balochistan and its neighbouring regions. They provide important historical insights and voices that are often missing from the English language colonial documents that much historical research on the region is often dependent upon.
This project digitised 154 rare manuscripts owned by 81 year old Mr Upendra Bhakta Subedi. Mr Subedi, also known as Govinda Baje, is a descendant of an illustrious family of Rajopadhyaya Brahmins from the heart of the Kathmandu Valley and the manuscripts are located at his ancestral home, which was severely damaged by the 2015 earthquake.
These manuscripts date from the 17th-19th centuries and are mostly manuals on Hindu rites and rituals.
- Prachalit Nepal
EAP1251 - The Barbadian Newspaper (1822-1861)
Following on from a recent project to digitise the Barbados Mercury and Bridgetown Gazette (1783-1848), this project by the same team at the Barbados Archives Department digitised another 19th century Barbados newspaper: The Barbadian.
Like the Barbados Mercury, The Barbadian spans an important period in the history of the Caribbean and offers important insights into the period before, during, and after the emancipation of slavery. You can read more about this in our recent blog, which explored some of what these newspapers reveal about this period and how that relates to 21st century racial tensions.
These newspapers are a rich resource for genealogists as well as those interested in social and political history. While newspapers such as these predominantly provided a voice for the white settler community via editorials, letters to the editor, and advertisements, the identities of the enslaved also emerge, often through acts of resistance.
Look out in the coming weeks, for another summary of recent projects put online.
26 May 2020
May has been another busy month for new EAP projects going online. Here we showcase the first four now freely available, which cover a wide range of topics and regions.
- Siddha Medicine Manuscripts, Tamil Nadu, India [EAP810]
- Indigenous Memories of Land Privatisation in Mexico [EAP931]
- Diplomatic archives of Merina Kingdom, Madagascar [EAP938]
- East African Islamic texts from the library of Maalim Muhammad Idris [EAP1114]
Siddha refers to the traditional medical system of Tamil Nadu, India. Although recognised by the government of India, siddha medicine has not been systematically studied, partly due to the difficulty of access to its texts, mostly in form of manuscripts, kept in libraries or held by practitioners. This project makes these vital sources of traditional medicine available for research.
These palm leaf manuscripts cover a large range of subjects, including general siddha medicine and medical specialities such as acupressure, baby and mother care, eye diseases or toxicology (snake and scorpion bites; food and medicine intoxication), and socio-cultural topics rooted in the siddha tradition such as mantra, philosophy, alchemy, spirituality, and astrology.
The privatization of indigenous lands—the reparto de tierras—is an epochal but poorly understood process in Mexican history. It is largely trapped in narratives of liberal nation‐building or postcolonial despoilment. Yet how did indigenous people actually experience/navigate the reparto? Was it ethnocide, or ethnogenesis? As the one complete surviving record of a state-wide Mexican reparto, the hijuelas promise historians valuable insights into a major agrarian/economic transformation and a deeper understanding of changes in indigenous notions of property, agricultural practice, ethnic rule, and identity.
The Libros de Hijuelas (“deed books” or “bequest books” in English) consist of 196 leather-bound volumes containing 75,000 documents dating from 1719‐1929, with additional copies of earlier, 16th‐ or 17th‐century documents. All the documents pertain to, or are precursors of, a centrally important historical process: the dissolution and privatisation of indigenous corporate property under 19th‐century liberal governments, in this case in the western state of Michoacán, Mexico.
These books contain:
- Legal acts
- Cadastral surveys
- Village censuses
- Hand‐tinted maps
Many of the letters are written by indigenous michoacanos of Purépecha (Tarascan), Nahua, Mazahua, Matzatlinca, or Otomí descent.
The hijuelas collection is unique in that it presents the pre‐history and a complete account of the privatisation process across a whole state, the collection as a whole being organized according to the 16 political districts into which Michoacán was divided.
This project digitised the diplomatic archives of the Merina Kingdom, which dominated Madagascar during the 19th century. These documents (1861-1897) which have been part of the UNESCO Memory of the World Register since 2009 illustrate the encounter between the precolonial kingdom of Madagascar, the abolitionist and religious policies of the United Kingdom and the French territorial ambitions in the Indian Ocean.
Both quantitatively and qualitatively, these documents are a rare and perfect example of the diplomacy of a non-Western State in the nineteenth century. These documents reveal the influence the kingdom tried to obtain among different Western governments and show the connection of the Merina kingdom of Madagascar with the rest of the world, prior to the advent of colonialism.
The availability will surely herald new insights on the pre-colonial period and the construction of the colonial state.
This collection is invaluable because it contains printed material dating from the period of transition from manuscript to print in the Arabic/Islamic tradition. Its known provenance and diverse nature gives insight into the Islamic history of East Africa.
The materials range from locally printed pamphlets to books printed in Cairo, from basic instruction to legal manuals, many with handwritten commentary by East Africa's leading scholars, as well as early locally printed Arabic-Swahili translations. The collection is a "snapshot" of an intellectual tradition in transition and a cross-section of the nascent networks of print in Islamic Africa.
16 April 2020
Four new projects have recently been made available on the EAP website that can now be viewed in full. Three of these projects are from the African continent:
- a collection of medical records from Mengo Hospital, Uganda [EAP617];
- Ajami manuscripts and other records from Senegal [EAP1042];
- photographs from the Nairobi Railway Museum showing areas of Kenya and Uganda before the railway development [EAP1143].
Finally, we have a collection of administrative records from Nevis Island in the Caribbean [EAP794].
This project digitised a collection of patient medical records from Mengo Hospital in Uganda, held at the Albert Cook Library, College of Health Sciences at Makerere University. Sir Albert Cook arrived in Uganda as a missionary doctor in 1897 and founded the Mengo Hospital shortly after. These records dating from 1897-1944 are a valuable source of information about the rich history of modern medicine in Uganda. They also show the value of preserving archives and how they can be used for research in ways other than their intended use. For example, these records are currently being used by academics to study socioeconomic history of Uganda and also missionary views of sexuality, morals and sin.
Building on the work of pilot project EAP093, this major project digitised records from the Caribbean island of Nevis spanning three centuries of history, from 1705-1974. This collection contains a rich source of material for historians and genealogists alike. It includes:
- Common Deed Record Books, 1707-1956 (49 volumes)
- Court of King’s/Queen’s Bench and Common Pleas, 1705-1873 (39 volumes)
- Supreme Court, 1874-1962 (9 volumes)
- Other Courts, 1815-1943 (8 volumes)
- Wills, 1763-1880 (7 volumes)
- Ships Bonds, 1847-1867 (7 volumes)
- Provost Marshal’s Sales, 1847-1935 (9 volumes)
- Land Title Register Books, 1887-1922 (3 volumes)
- Miscellaneous Records, 1840-1940 (23 volumes)
- Maps and plans, 1888-1974 (205 individual maps/plans, or montages of plans)
Ajami is a modified Arabic script used for writing some African languages, including Mande languages (such as Bamanankan, Eastern Maninka, Western Mandinka (or Mandinka), Jakhanke, Jula, and Susu). These Mandinka Ajami manuscripts are particularly valuable as Ajami texts in Mande languages are some of the least documented.
Though the project initially focused on digitising Mandinka Ajami texts they soon found many important manuscripts in other languages that help to document the preoccupations and intellectual traditions of the Mandinka people of Senegambia and beyond. This includes multilingual manuscripts written in Arabic, Mandinka, and Soninke, and a few written in Wolof and Fula.
The manuscripts cover a wide range of topics including astrology, divination, Islamic education, poetry, jurisprudence, and many other subjects.
This pilot project produced a detailed survey of all the material held at the Nairobi Railway Museum’s archive and digitised a small sample of photographs. The sample images were taken circa 1901 before and during the construction of the Uganda railway, which runs through present day Kenya and Uganda. They depict the landscape and daily life of the region’s local inhabitants.
20 January 2020
In this post, Sabera Bhayat, a PhD student at the University of Warwick tells us how she has used EAP digital collections in her research on Urdu periodicals, which she has just presented at the Print Unbound conference earlier this month.
Planning a PhD project, which includes an ambitious list of primary sources, can raise concerns of practicality over comprehensiveness. Besides the many primary materials located in various archives both in India and the UK, I had discovered a number of Indian vernacular language periodicals that would be particularly relevant to my own research.
My research examines the discursive history of polygamy in India from the late nineteenth to the early twentieth century. I explore how polygamy was invented as a specifically ‘Muslim’ problem, and how this problem was then articulated by different groups in South Asia during this period. A major element of my research includes Indian Muslim women’s own discourses on polygamy, and how they sought change to such practices within a wider movement for their social reform. As few women were literate during this time and fewer still left written records, a major source for accessing these women’s voices was the Urdu periodical, which had been established for the very purpose of promoting female education and social reform.
However, these Urdu language periodicals were scattered between several archives in India, which would have included much time travelling between distant locations. It is by chance, and a simple internet search, that I came across the extensive project of the Endangered Archives Programme (EAP) at the British Library. I was thrilled to find that the very Urdu periodicals that I was hoping to consult for my research had been digitised and were available to consult online, at my own pace and in my own time.
Tahzib-i nisvan (Volume 35, Issue 19)  EAP566/2/1/21/19
One of the periodicals that has been essential to my research, called Tahzib un-Niswan, (The Women’s Reformer) (EAP566/2/1), had been published bimonthly over fifty years, with over a thousand issues printed between 1898 and 1950. To have taken even a sample of these from each year would have taken much time. However, I was delighted to find that over nine hundred issues had been digitised and were available for me to consult online. This meant I could easily browse through as many issues as I had time for. As one of the more radical mouthpieces of the Indian Muslim women’s movement during the early twentieth century, Tahzib un-Niswan provides insights into the awakening to a Muslim feminist consciousness and campaigns for the acquisition of women’s rights.
Besides Tahzib un-Niswan, EAP has made available a range of Urdu periodicals from South Asia, including issues of Ismat (Modesty) [1908-1993] (EAP566/1/2) and Khatun (Lady/Gentlewoman) [1904-1914] (EAP566/5/1). These two periodicals were also instrumental in the promotion of female education for Muslim women during the early twentieth century and their social reform.
Ismat (Volume 52, Issue 3)  EAP566/1/2/6/1
Khatun (Volume 3, Issue 1)  EAP566/5/1/1/1
The convenience of accessing digitised materials through EAP has been very useful to my research and enabled me to deliver a talk at the Print Unbound Conference early this year. This conference, organised by Contextual Alternate, brought together a range of scholars working with newspapers and periodicals from Asia. This gave me the opportunity to share my research on Urdu periodicals and the role they played in the Indian Muslim women’s movement during the first half of the twentieth century. The research conducted for this paper was made possible almost entirely through access to the Urdu periodicals digitised through EAP.
Exploring the material made available through EAP has also alerted me to further sources both in Hindi and Urdu that I would otherwise have not known about and that I plan to consult for further research into the history of women in India. These include a range of Hindi language periodicals and published literature that will further enrich my research and bring light to women’s voices that may otherwise have been lost.
Blog written by Sabera Bhayat, a third year PhD student in the History Department, at the University of Warwick
14 November 2018
This a wonderful blog written by Eleni Castro, OpenBU & ETD Program Librarian at Boston University as well as Project Technical Lead for EAP1042.
This October we presented a poster entitled, “Digital Preservation of Mandinka Ajami Materials of Senegal” at FORCE2018 (Montreal, Canada), which is an annual conference on making research and scholarship more broadly and openly available. This poster provided a project overview and update on the work we have been doing for EAP 1042 - an international research collaboration between Boston University, the West African Research Center, and local experts in Senegal, which involves visiting manuscript owners in the Casamance region of Senegal to work with them to digitally preserve and make more broadly available manuscripts written in Arabic and Mandinka Ajami (Mandinka using Arabic script) from their personal libraries.
In January 2018, we gave a three day digital preservation workshop at the West African Research Center (WARC) in Dakar, and shortly thereafter went to Ziguinchor to begin our digitisation field work. Overall, the team is spending 15 months 1) interviewing manuscript owners and digitising rare manuscripts from Ziguinchor, Kolda, and Sédhiou, 2) curating and post-processing over 14,000 digital images, and 3) depositing three independent copies at: WARC in Dakar, the British Library, and Boston University’s African Ajami Library on OpenBU. At the time of writing, we have digitised over 10,000 Arabic and Mandinka Ajami manuscript pages (some bilingual).
Digitisation Workshop team at the West African Research Center in Dakar, Senegal (Jan. 2018)
Project PI, Dr. Fallou Ngom, looking over manuscripts with manuscript owner, El-hadji Lamine Bayo
Ibrahima Ngom (photographer) and Ablaye Diakité (local project manager) photographing manuscripts from the Abdou Khadre Cisse collection (Jan. 2018)
Ibrahima Yaffa interviewing manuscript owner Abdou Khadre Cisse and his brother Cherif Cisse. Filmed by project photographer, Ibrahima Ngom
As we began our digitisation, we noticed that there was a large number of bilingual manuscripts written in both Arabic and Mandinka Ajami, which is very different from the mostly unilingual Wolof Ajami manuscripts digitised in EAP 334. The genres and subject matter found in these works varied widely, from religious to secular topics, such as: astrology, poetry, divination, Islamic education, jurisprudence, Sufism, code of ethics, translations & commentaries of the Quran and Islamic texts from Arabic into Mandinka, stories about Mandinka leaders and important historical figures (including women), records of important local events such as the founding of villages, ancestral traditions, and Mandinka social institutions.
Manuscript of a long form poem praising the Prophet Muhammad, written in Arabic with marginalia in Arabic and some Mandinka Ajami (Abdou Khadre Cisse Collection)
Mandinka healing document (Abdou Karim Thiam Collection)
19th Century watermark found in Biniiboo manuscript (Abdou Khadre Cisse Collection)
Since we are working in remote areas, with non-studio conditions, we encountered some technical issues early on. Finding the right lighting has been an ongoing challenge, since our time in the homes of manuscript owners is precious and limited, and so we have had to work with available light and the help of a macro ring flash. Our camera overheats after +1h of continuous use, but we found that by replacing an extra hot battery with a cooler one, helps us resume digitisation much faster. Since we have a geographically dispersed team, we have setup a communication channel via WhatsApp, and upload files on Google Drive for backup and review as soon as a new collection is being worked on. Internet speeds can be quite slow when sending these large raw image files, but a mobile hotspot modem has helped with internet access while working in the field.
While we will be wrapping up digitisation and curation of these manuscripts by April 2019, there is still more work to be done to help researchers more effectively study and explore these materials. We will be looking into using a IIIF image viewer for scholars to better be able to compare various manuscripts and annotate them. Transcription is a longer term goal, since more unicode work is needed to extend Arabic script characters for African Ajami manuscripts to be full-text searchable in their actual languages.
16 March 2018
The fabled city of Timbuktu has attracted frequent media attention over the last few years. During the occupation of northern Mali by Al Qaida linked extremists in 2012 the destruction of mausoleums to local Islamic saints in Timbuktu caused an international outcry and resulted in a UNESCO funded rebuilding project after the recapture of the city in 2013. The extremists also burned around 4500 manuscripts from the Ahmed Baba Institute as their last act of defiance before the French and Malian forces re-conquered Timbuktu. Already during the Jihadist occupation many thousands of manuscripts had been transported in secret to Bamako in the now famous rescue operation organised by the Timbuktu librarian Abdel Kader Haidara. This swashbuckling tale has been the subject of two international best-selling novels, The Bad Ass Librarians of Timbuktu (2016) by Joshua Hammer and The Book Smugglers of Timbuktu (2017) by Charlie English, as well as countless articles and documentary films. Timbuktu, ante bellum, was a thriving city of tourism and the centre of over fifty private family libraries which have now been moved to Bamako where the manuscripts are receiving conservation treatment and are being digitised by SAVAMA, an association of Timbuktu libraries led by Abdel Kader Haidara, which has received international funding from the German, Dutch, Luxemburg, Swiss and Norwegian governments as well as the Ford Foundation and many other sources.
Certain important libraries in Timbuktu declined taking part in the rescue mission to relocate to Bamako. Instead they chose to hide their precious manuscripts in secret desert hiding places in and around Timbuktu: these include the Imam Essayouti, Al Aquib and Al Wangara manuscript libraries, attached in turn to the three ancient mosques of Timbuktu: the Djinguereber (built 1327), the Sankore (built soon after) and Sidi Yahya (1440). Together they compose what was known as the University of Timbuktu. The British Library, through the Endangered Archives Programme and in partnership with the Hill Museum and Manuscript Library in Minnesota, USA, is now undertaking the digitisation of these libraries in situ in Timbuktu, where work is underway in the Imam Essayouti library since October 2017, and will begin in the Al Wangara in April 2018.
Although the main concentration of Arabic manuscripts in Mali was undoubtedly in Timbuktu due to its position as the most important trading city of the Trans-Saharan trade route since the early Middle Ages, other Malian cities also boast large deposits of ancient Arabic manuscripts: Djenné in particular. It is situated some 500 km south of Timbuktu in the Niger Inland Delta of Central Mali and was also an important city of trade and scholarship and one of the gateways where Islam first penetrated Mali in the 13th century. Djenné is a repository for thousands of manuscripts which have been kept by families for centuries. In 2009, the British Library’s Endangered Archives Programme ran a Pilot Project, which concluded that Djenné’s manuscripts provided a suitable source of material for the mounting of a major two year digitisation project. This was the first in a series of three consecutive major projects, which finally came to an end in October 2017, when in the region of 400,000 images had been achieved from the 8,500 manuscripts which are currently stored in the Djenné Manuscript Library.
Malian manuscripts deal in the main with traditional Islamic subject matter such as Hadiths (traditional sayings and stories attributed to the Prophet Mohammed), Islamic Jurisprudence of the Malikite School, religious poetry and sermons etc. There are also frequent philosophical expositions, mainly on ethics and logic as well as many manuscripts dealing with the Arabic language and grammar. There is history, correspondence, and astronomy which is normally treated as inseparable from astrology. A large proportion of the manuscripts, particularly in Djenné, fall under the label ‘esoteric’; incantations and magic formulas which purport to tell the future or influence the course of events by the use of phrases from the Qur’an in combination with the manipulation of vegetable matter or animal sacrifices. These sorts of practises are frowned upon by certain factions within Islam and some believe that this may possibly have caused the destruction of the manuscripts in Timbuktu by the fundamentalists who derive their Islamic creed from the Wahhabist school of Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
The involvement of the British Library through the EAP in these projects in Mali continues to be instrumental in safeguarding these manuscripts. In the case of Djenné not only in digital form but also in providing a physically safe environment for the storage of the documents, which had previously been kept in very precarious situations in the family homes, susceptible to the vagaries of the climate where during the rainy season violent rainstorms often cause destruction to the fragile mud buildings, and insects are a continuous hazard.
However, the menace for the manuscript collections in both Djenné and Timbuktu lies not only in the threat of physical deterioration; the political situation is very unstable. There exists an uneasy truce in Timbuktu, but Islamic extremists are encamped in the surrounding desert and attacks on the city are frequent despite a very large UN peace keeping force. Similarly, the escalating security crisis in central Mali is making the future uncertain for the Djenné Manuscript Library. State presence is withdrawing from the area as frequent attacks from local Islamic fundamentalists target state employees at institutions such as gendarme guard posts and schools. The Mission Culturelle, as the representative of the Ministry of Culture is a potential target and by extension the Djenné Manuscript Library. So far neither has been targeted, but the situation is volatile. The fact that the Djenné collection of documents has now been digitised and that copies exists at the British Library and also at the National Archives in Bamako means that although the original copies continue to be kept in troubled central Mali, at least the vast majority of manuscripts have now been saved for scholars in digital form, and the Timbuktu manuscripts from the three famous Timbuktu University Libraries are now also on their way to being digitally preserved for posterity.
From September 2018, the British Library will be showcasing the projects carried out in Djenné in the form of an exhibition to be held along the Second Floor Gallery. There will also be accompanying events related to Mali during the autumn, so do check the Library's What's on page later in the year.
18 January 2016
Our final blog to coincide with the British Library's exhibition on West Africa is by Dr Fallou Ngom, grant holder for EAP334, a project that digitised Wolof Ajami manuscripts from Senegal. Dr Ngom gives a fascinating and detailed explanation on how the Arabic script was modified for the Wolof language.
It has been noted that some of the oldest African Ajami texts kept in some European libraries are mislabeled as arabe indéchiffrable (“undecipherable Arabic”).[i] Though Ajami has a long tradition in Africa, stretching from Senegambia to the Horn of Africa, it has been largely overlooked in teaching and research about the region, partly because Ajami texts are difficult to decipher by outsiders. Like other Ajami users around the world, Wolof Ajami writers enriched the 28 Arabic letters with diacritical dots (Wolof: tomb). These diacritical dots can be placed below or above Arabic letters or below or above Arabic vowel diacritics, as reflected in the excerpt below.[ii]
Exerpt 1: Wolof Ajami text
Bismi llāhi al-raḥmāni al-raḥimi
Wa ṣalla llāhu ʿalā sayyidinā
Muḥammadin wa sallama taslīman.
In the Name of God, The Merciful, The Beneficent.
May blessing and Peace be upon our Master Muḥammad
Fellow Murid disciples, listen to be awakened
about Shaykh Anta. Do not sleep
No matter how asleep I am, I will wake you up
No matter how confused I am, I will call upon you
Perhaps, some pretend to be asleep because they are confused
But when awakened, they will snore no more.
Decrypting Wolof Consonants
The Wolof language has 43 consonants (including geminates). The following eleven consonants do not exist in Arabic: p, mp, mb, c, ñ, nc, nj, and ŋ, g, ng, and nd. Thus, to render them in writing, Ajami users had to modify Arabic letters that represents Arabic sounds closer to them with diacritical dots. An orthographic rule is applied to the following natural classes: bilabial, palatal, velar, and prenasal-alveolar consonants. The bilabial consonants (p and the prenasal mp, and mb) are written with the Arabic bā (ب, b) with three dots placed above or below. Verse 1 and 2 show examples of mb written with the dots above and below the bā. Similarly, the palatal consonants (c, ñ, nc, and nj) are rendered with a jīm (ج, j) with three dots above or below. An example of c (in ci, the proposition at, in, on) written with a jīm with three dots below is shown at the beginning of verse 2. On occasions, the dots are omitted inadvertently.
The velar consonants ŋ, g, and ng are generally written with the Arabic kāf (ک, k) with three dots above or below. An example of g is in verses 1 and 4. The prenasal-alveolar nd forms its own class and is commonly written with the dāl (د, d) with three dots above or below. Verse 6 contains an example of nd written with dāl with the three dots above. While in Romanized texts, the vowel diacritic that typically follows geminates and prenasals in Ajami texts is not represented, in Ajami texts it reflects an articulatory phonetic feature. It refers to the consonantal release at the end of words with geminates or prenasals. Finally, the sukūn (o placed above a consonant) functions in Ajami texts as it does in Arabic materials. It is used to indicate absence of vowel after a consonant.
Decrypting Wolof Vowels
Three diacritics are used to write the three vowels of the Arabic language: i (kasra, a line below the letter), a (fatḥā, a line above the letter), and u (ḍamma, a superscript د above the letter). Similar to the consonants, Ajami users deploy innovative techniques to represent the vowels of their languages that do not exist in Arabic. For example, Wolof has the following eight vowels: i, e, é, ë, a, o, ó, and u. Five of them (e, é, ë, o, and ó) do not exist in Arabic. As in the case of the consonants, an orthographic rule applies to natural classes to write Wolof vowels that do not exist in Arabic. The classes include: front, central, and back vowels.
The front vowels i, e, and é are typically written with kasra, imāla (a dot below the letter) or their combination, as illustrated in verses 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5. The back vowels o, ó, and u are written with ḍamma as seen in verses of the excerpt. In some Wolof Ajami texts, o and ó are further differentiated from u and are written with a ḍamma with a small dot inside. With respect to the class of central vowels which includes ë and a, both vowels are generally written with the fatḥa, as shown throughout the excerpt.
Additionally, when a word begins with a vowel, there are several possibilities to write the vowel. Because the fatḥa, kasra, and ḍamma diacritics used to write respectively the vowels a, i, and u in Arabic cannot stand alone, the alif (ا) is commonly used as a supporting letter in Wolof Ajami materials. The consonants ḥā (ح, ḥ), hā (ه, h), and cayn (ع, c) can also serve as supporting letters at word-initial position in Wolof Ajami writing. The vowel a in the word amaana (perhaps), the first word of verse 5, is written with a fatḥa placed on a supporting ḥā.
Additionally, the ḥā (ح, ḥ) and hā (ه, h) have other orthographic functions in Wolof Ajami writing. They can both occur at the end of words. When these two letters (ح and ه) are used at word-final positions in Wolof Ajami texts, they reflect an articulatory phonetic feature: the uninterrupted airflow of final vowels. The hā (ه) can also indicate a dialectal trait in Wolof Ajami. In such cases, hā (ه) indicates a dialectal feature of the rural Bawol-Bawol Wolof variety spoken in the heartland of the Murid areas where h is pronounced before nouns beginning with a vowel, in contrast to urban varieties where it is dropped.
Decrypting the Segmentation System
The segmentation system that Wolof Ajami practitioners utilize to break their words and phrases also differs in some respect from the one commonly used in the standard Latin script texts. The phrases with multiple elements in the Romanized excerpt form single units in the Ajami excerpt. The first phrase in the box in verse 1, ma yee leen (I wake you up), consists of the subject pronoun ma (I), the verb yee (to wake up), and the object pronoun leen (them). The second phrase in the box in verse 2, ci mbiri (about/concerning the business of), consists of the preposition ci (at, in, on), mbir (business/affair), and the plural genitive morpheme –i. The two phrases in the boxes in verses 3 and 4, ma yeete (I wake up people) and ma woote (I call upon people), consists of the subject pronoun ma (I) and the verbs yeete (to wake up people) and woote (to call upon people). While the elements of the structures are isolated in the standard Roman transcription, they are agglutinated in the Ajami excerpt.
Though deciphering Ajami texts is clearly not easy, the benefits are immense. Deciphering such Ajami texts opens up new doors into important written sources of African knowledge that have hitherto eluded most Arabophone and Europhone scholars. Ajami sources are old and extensive and they complement the (1) Arabic, (2) Europhone, (3) indigenous written, and (4) oral traditions of Africa that constitute the “African Library.” Ajami sources equally deal with both religious and secular matters, including arts.[iii]
Bàyyi fen moo gën jàng al-Quraan ak xam-xam te jëfe ko [to stop lying is better than studying the Qurʾān and knowledge [of Islamic sciences] and living by it], a maxim in Ajami calligraphy emphasizing the primacy of ethical excellence over ritual practice in the Muridiyya Sufi order of Senegal. Courtesy of Yelimane Fall, Murid calligrapher.
[i] Mamadou Cissé, “Écrits et Écriture en Afrique de l’Ouest,” Revue Electronique Internationale des Sciences du Language 6 (2007): 84.
[ii] Source: Ka, Muusaa. Nàttoo di Kerkeraani Awliyā-i, copied by Muhammadu Amiin Saaw. Tuubaa, Senegal, 1989. For a recited version by Mama Njaay.
[iii] For more on the information in Ajami materials in general and the Wolof tradition in particular, see: Murid Ajami sources of knowledge: the myth and the reality ; and EAP334.
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