26 February 2021
New online - February 2021
February may be the shortest month of the year, but it is another month packed with newly digitised collections being added to the EAP website. The three latest projects to go online include:
- Manuscripts of the Lanten community in northern Laos [EAP791]
- Documents at the Jaffna Bishop's House, Sri Lanka [EAP981]
- Documentary heritage of traditional Protestant communities in Bulgaria [EAP1145]
EAP791 - Manuscripts of the Lanten community in northern Laos
Led by Professor Dr Josephus Platenkamp and Joseba Estevez, the EAP791 project team digitised 768 manuscripts owned by private collectors within the Lanten community in northern Laos.
Members of the Lanten community migrated from the Guizhou, Guangxi and Yunnan Provinces of China into Laos and Vietnam following the social, political and economic upheavals during the last century of the Qing Dynasty (1644 to 1912).
Lanten (also known as Lao Huay and Yao Mun) are classified as one of the 39 ‘ethnic minorities’ of northern Laos that are officially acknowledged by the People’s Democratic Republic of Laos.
Written in Classical Chinese supplemented with lexemes from Lanten language, these manuscripts mediate the transfer across the generations of the religious knowledge and verbal and non-verbal expertise enabling ritual experts to communicate with the Deities of the Lanten pantheon. To that end the manuscripts contain instructions for rituals of healing, marriage, death, ordination, and exorcism, specifying the sacrificial procedures and the Deities involved.
EAP981 - Documents at the Jaffna Bishop's House, Sri Lanka
This major project followed on from pilot project EAP700. Led by Dr Appasamy Murugaiyan, the EAP981 team digitised the remaining rare documents kept under the guardianship of the Jaffna Bishop House in Sri Lanka.
The digitised material covers the period between 1775 and 1948.
The range of material digitised includes handwritten bound registers, personal memoirs, chronicles, account books, correspondence, registers of marriage, baptism, birth and death, newspaper clippings, pastoral letters, biographies of the local bishops, and some religious books.
The material also covers a wide range of languages, including French, English, Tamil, Latin, Portuguese, Sinhalese, and Dutch.
EAP1145 - Documentary heritage of traditional Protestant communities in Bulgaria
This pilot project, led by Dr Magdalena Slavkova, produced a survey of 52 collections of material relating to Protestant communities in Bulgaria.
These collections contain a wide variety of content types including photographs, notebooks, correspondence, books, wedding and baptism certificates, religious booklets, newspaper clippings, and postcards.
In addition to the survey, the EAP1145 project team, which also included Dr Mila Maeva, Dr Yelis Erolova, and Dr Plamena Stoyanova, digitised a sample of 69 files from these collections.
04 November 2020
New Collections Online - October 2020
The latest set of projects to go online are truly global, spanning Asia, Europe, Africa, and the Caribbean. Here's a brief summary:
- The Palace Archives of the Buddhist Himalayan Kingdom of Sikkim [EAP880]
- Government and Church Records from the Turks and Caicos Islands [EAP914]
- 19th Century Bulgarian Manuscripts [EAP989]
- The Ghana Railway Corporation Archive [EAP1144]
EAP880 - The Palace Archives of the Buddhist Himalayan Kingdom of Sikkim
Located near the Himilayas, where India meets China, Sikkim is one of the newest Indian states, merging with India in 1975. This project digitised the hitherto neglected royal archives of the former Himalayan Buddhist kingdom of Sikkim. It contains a wealth of invaluable documents that date between 1807 and 1998. As such, this collection offers crucial insights into crucial historical events including the merger with India in 1975 and military border clashes between India and China.
This collection covers the entire spectrum of political activities, from domestic and religious issues to foreign affairs. This archive therefore offers unique and important insights into the history of this kingdom and its geopolitical significance.
While it is an archive that represents elite perspectives, the Sikkim Palace Archives is also the first collection of local origin to be made freely and universally accessible for international scholarship, presenting a perspective of events and characters as experienced from within looking out. This provides a valuable contrast to the earlier need to rely very largely on colonial sources for the history of Sikkim. The collection adds considerably to the available sources on the history and culture of Sikkim, with very little duplication of material with that available elsewhere, namely in the British Library's India Office collection, and to a lesser extent in the National Archives of India and the Sikkim State Archives.
EAP914 - Government and Church Records from the Turks and Caicos Islands
This project digitised some of the most vulnerable and important collections located at the Turks and Caicos National Museum. It contains two sub-collections:
The government records include documents and correspondence involving the colonial secretary and despatches to the governor-in-chief. It also includes legislative and executive council records. This collection thus offers important insights into the colonial governance of the islands, which is still a British Overseas Territory.
Meanwhile, both the government and church collections contain registers of births, baptisms, marriages, burials, and wills. The church collection includes both Methodist and Anglican church records, spanning 1799-1922. These registers provide an invaluable resource for genealogists researching their family history.
EAP989 - 19th Century Bulgarian Manuscripts
This pilot project focused on three collections of 19th century and early 20th century manuscripts located at the Institute for Ethnology and Folklore Studies with Ethnographic Museum, within the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences. It produced a detailed survey of the collections and digitised a sample of manuscripts.
These manuscripts reflect the cultural and folklore heritage of Bulgarian and Balkan areas and include hand painted texts, images, and notated songs.
EAP1144 - The Ghana Railway Corporation Archive
The EAP1144 project team encountered an archive that was in a significant state of disrepair. One of their first tasks was to erect plastic sheets to provide immediate protection to the documents from rain water leaking through the roof.
This pilot project resulted in a survey of the archive and the digitisation of a sample of documents. These include 68 personnel files for railway employees and two files containing correspondence.
03 July 2020
New Projects Online - June 2020
In recent weeks we have continued to put new collections online. Here is a summary of four of the most recent projects to be made available.
- Notary Books of Bahia, Brazil, 1664-1910 [EAP703]
- Documentation of Endangered Temple Art of Tamil Nadu [EAP896]
- Fragile Palm Leaves Digitisation Initiative [EAP1150]
- Safeguarding Colonial Plantation Records of Malawi [EAP1167]
EAP703 - Notary Books of Bahia, Brazil, 1664-1910
Until 1763, Bahia was the seat of the Portuguese colonial government in the Americas and a major sugar plantation economy based on African enslaved labour. Bahia received 33% of the Brazilian trade and 14.5% of the total. Being an administrative and economic centre, and until the late eighteenth century the most important port of trade in the South Atlantic, the production of documents in Bahia was intense. In Brazil, the Arquivo Público do Estado da Bahia (Bahia State Archives) is considered to be second in importance only to the National Archives in Rio de Janeiro.
This project digitised 1,329 volumes of Notary Books deposited at the Arquivo Público do Estado da Bahia. In total 306,416 pages were digitised as part of the project.
The dates for the volumes ranges from 1664 to 1910. They therefore include the first two decades of the republican and post-emancipation period.
These documents represent perhaps the most dependable source for the study of the social and economic history of colonial and post-colonial Bahia up until the end of the 19th century. The notary books include records such as:
- Bills of sale (for plantations, land, houses, ships, slaves, etc)
- Wills and testaments
- Inheritance partition
- Power of attorney letters
- Labour and business contracts
- Children’s legitimisation papers
- Slave manumission papers.
EAP896 - Documentation of Endangered Temple Art of Tamil Nadu
EAP does not only fund the digitisation of manuscripts and documents that can be held in the hand. EAP supports digitisation of almost any at-risk historical material. The digitisation of temple art in Tamil Nadu is a prime example.
The rich cultural heritage of temple art in India is rapidly deteriorating because of vandalism, weather conditions, and practices such as burning camphor for ritual purposes. By digitising the artwork that adorns eight temples in Tamil Nadu, India, the EAP896 project team have helped preserve this art for research, enjoyment, and education.
The drawing lines found on the temple walls represent abstract forms painted several centuries ago. In the evolution of human cognitive expressions, painting is a significant milestone. The paintings are essentially made up of lines and colours and the figures that are represented are mostly mythical.
This project has resulted in a plethora of visually striking images.
EAP1150 - Fragile Palm Leaves Digitisation Initiative
In partnership with the Fragile Palm Leaves Foundation and the Buddhist Digital Resource Centre, this project digitised 300 Pali and vernacular manuscripts in Burmese script.
Mostly created in the 18th and 19th century, these manuscripts contain approximately 1,000 discrete Buddhist texts on a variety of topics. These include:
- Stories of the Buddha
- Religious rituals
These manuscripts provide an invaluable primary resource for the study of Burmese and Theravada Buddhism, Pali philology, history, literature, regional codicology, pre-modern textual and scribal practices, and manuscript culture.
EAP1167 - Safeguarding Colonial Plantation Records of Malawi
This pilot project surveyed tea and tobacco plantation records from the colonial era in Nyasaland [Malawi]. The team located relevant records and created an inventory, which is available as an Excel spreadsheet.
The team also digitised a sample of records from 13 estates (1922-1966), which are freely available to view. These include:
- Title deeds
- Legal agreements
- Articles of association.
These four projects include a diverse range of content types and span three continents across several centuries. Combined, they aptly showcase the rich diversity of EAP projects.
Look out for even more diverse projects going online in the weeks in months ahead!
24 September 2018
Call for applications now open
Do you know of any collections that are currently at risk and need preserving? The Endangered Archives Programme is now accepting preliminary applications for the next annual funding round – the deadline for submission of preliminary applications is 12 noon 19 November 2018 and full details of the application procedures and documentation are available on the EAP website.
The Endangered Archives Programme (EAP) has been running at the British Library since 2004 through funding by Arcadia, a charitable fund of Lisbet Rausing and Peter Baldwin, with the aim of preserving rare vulnerable archival material around the world. The Programme awards grants to relocate the material to a safe local archival home where possible, to digitise it, and to deposit copies with local archival partners and with the British Library. These digital collections are then available for researchers to access freely through the British Library website or by visiting the local archives. The Programme has funded over 350 projects in 90 countries world-wide and has helped to preserve manuscripts, rare printed books, newspapers and periodicals, audio and audio-visual materials, photographs and temple murals.
There three main types of grant:
- Pilot projects investigate the potential for and/or feasibility of a major grant. A pilot can also be a small digitisation project. They should last for no more than 12 months and have a budget limit of £15,000.
- Major projects gather and copy material. This type of grant may also relocate the material to a more secure location/institution within the country. These projects usually last 12 months, or up to 24 months and have a budget limit of £60,000.
- Area grants will be awarded for larger scale projects. They are similar to a major grant, but larger in scale and ambition. Applicants must demonstrate an outstanding track record of archival preservation work and be associated with an institution that has the capacity to facilitate a large-scale project. The EAP will only award a maximum of two area grants in each funding round. They can last for up to 24 months and have a budget limit of £150,000.
A further type of grant will be introduced in 2019:
- Rapid-response grants can be used to safeguard an archive which is in immediate and severe danger. These grants are intended for the most urgent situations where a delay in the decision process could result in extensive damage to the material. These grants are not subject to the time restrictions of the yearly EAP funding cycle and can be applied for at any time. They must last for less than 12 months and have a budget limit of £15,000.
If you know of an archive in a region of the world were resources are limited, we really hope you will apply. If you have any questions regarding the conditions of award or the application process, do email us at firstname.lastname@example.org
01 September 2016
Call for Applications
Do you know of any collections that are currently at risk and need preserving? The Endangered Archives Programme is now accepting grant applications for the next annual funding round – the deadline for submission of preliminary applications is 4 November 2016 and full details of the application procedures and documentation are available on the EAP website. This year we will also be accepting online applications.
EAP843: Part of the Archibishopric’s Archive, Sandiago de Cuba. A pilot project undertaken in 2015 with a major project about to begin.
The Endangered Archives Programme has been running at the British Library since 2004 through funding by Arcadia, with the aim of preserving rare vulnerable archival material around the world. This aim is achieved through the award of grants to relocate the material to a safe local archival home where possible, to digitise the material, and to deposit copies with local archival partners and with the British Library. These digital collections are then available for researchers to access freely through the British Library website or by visiting the local archives. The digital collections from 165 projects are currently available online, consisting of over 5 million images and several thousand sound recordings.
This year we have started making our sound recordings available for online streaming and one of our most popular archives is the Syliphone Label.
The Programme has helped to preserve manuscripts, rare printed books, newspapers and periodicals, audio and audio-visual materials, photographs and temple murals. Since 2004 approximately 300 projects have been funded. Last year awards were given for projects based in Argentina, Bulgaria, Cuba, Ghana, India, Ivory Coast, Madagascar, Malawi, Mexico, Mongolia, Myanmar, Nepal, Russia, Sri Lanka, Tajikistan and Turks and Caicos Islands.
The following images give a sense of the type of material that went online over the past year.
EAP692/1/1/2 Alagar kovil Kallalagar Inner Mandapa Ceiling East [17th Century]. Part of the pilot project to digitise temple murals in Tamil Nadu. The team have now started a major grant.
EAP727/6/25: བླ་མའི་རྣལ་འབྱོར་བསམ་པ་ལྷུན་འགྲུབ་དང་མྱུར་འགྲུབ་མ་བཞུགས་སོ།། (bla ma'i rnal 'byor bsam pa lhun 'grub dang myur 'grub ma bzhugs so) [Mid-19th century]. Tibetan Buddhist manuscript from Amdo, PR China
EAP755/1/1/86 Mendoza. Photographs taken by Annemarie Heinrich, Argentina. The team working on this project have also been awarded a major grant.
EAP856/1/6 Journal du Premier Ministre Rainilaiarivony (Tome III) [May 1881 - Sep 1881]. 19th century archives written by Prime Minister Rainilaiarivony (written in Malagasy. Another project is also underway on Madagascar.
So, if you know of an archive in a region of the world were resources are limited, we really hope you will apply. If you have any questions regarding the conditions of award or the application process, do email us at email@example.com
18 January 2016
Deciphering Wolof Ajami Texts
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.
28 October 2015
New images online - October 2015
This month we have had four projects go online. The first photographed temple murals in Tamil Nadu (EAP692). This is the first time that EAP has funded a project to preserve architectural art. These exquisite paintings were vulnerable for a variety of reasons, including the recent use of sand-blasting in temples. The pilot project digitised murals at five sites, four of which are Hindu: Alagarkovil Kallagar Temple (with art dating from the 17th Century); Madurai Meenakshi Sundareswara temple (16th Century murals); Narasingampatti - Chitrachavadi and Adiyamankottai, Chenraya Perumal temple (all 17th Century). The last location is a Jain complex at Tirumalai.
These paintings come from the east ceiling of the Alagar kovil Kallalagar Inner Mandapa and depict the continuous narration of the Ramayana.
EAP692/1/1/2 Alagar kovil Kallalagar Inner Mandapa Ceiling East [17th Century]
EAP692/1/1/2 Alagar kovil Kallalagar Inner Mandapa Ceiling East [17th Century]
The next two images come from cave 1 at Tirumalai and probably date between the 15th and 17th centuries.
EAP692/5/2 Tirumalai Jain Cave. Room 1 [16th Century]
EAP692/5/2 Tirumalai Jain Cave. Room 1 [16th Century]
The second project to go online was EAP759, a pilot project that digitised manuscripts from Sundarban Anchalik Sangrahashala, a regional museum housed in an abandoned part of Jadunath Nandi Hospital, in the South 24 Parganas District of West Bengal, India.
This illustration from EAP759 shows a page from another Hindu epic, this time the Mahābhārata.
EAP759/1/2 Mahabharata [19th century]
Madagascar was the location for the next project (EAP856), with the digitisation of archives of the nineteenth-century prime minister, Rainilaiarivony (1864-1895). The journals are written in Malagasy using Latin script that was introduced in 1823. The archives have been inscribed on UNESCO’s Memory of the World Register since 2009. They have never been systematically studied and now that this invaluable resource is online, it will be of huge benefit to researchers.
EAP856/1/1 Photo Album D
EAP856/1/2 Journal du Premier Ministre Rainilaiarivony - Relations de diverses affaires traitée par le Premier Ministre 
EAP698 was the last project to be made available this month, a major grant that digitised Cham manuscripts. An important cultural group within Vietnam, the Cham once had their own kingdom called Champa, which lasted from the 7th century to 1832. There are about 162,000 Cham people living in Vietnam today, concentrated in Central Vietnam and the Mekong Delta region.
The project digitised manuscripts from 25 private collections and below is a taste of what the manuscripts contain.
EAP698/15/6 Cham manuscripts collected by Ms. Dong Thi Hang, No.06
EAP698/1/11 Cham manuscripts collected by Mr. Sam Van Tanh, No.11 [Latter half of 20th century]"
I am sure we will have some more interesting projects to share next month, but if you can’t wait until the next blog to hear our latest news, do join our Facebook group.
21 October 2015
Safeguarding poetry by Usman dan Fodio and his contemporaries
To celebrate West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song, the current exhibition that is on at the British Library, we are excited to have guest posts by some of the grant-holders that have carried out EAP projects in the region and we look forward to posting them in the next few months. Our first contributor is Dr Anneke Breedveld who talks about her project to digitise important Fulfulde ajami manuscripts from Nigeria, one of the poems from this project appears in the exhibition.
In 1997 Abubakar Bashir, the custodian of some 700 handwritten poems composed more than 200 years ago by the famous Nigerian Muslim leader Usman dan Fodio and his contemporaries, crossed almost 900 kilometers of rough terrain from Yola in Nigeria to Nkambe in Cameroon, to track down a linguist who could help him document his important inheritance. Covered in dust and bruised from being bounced about for four days in public transport, he arrived in Nkambe where he found me. Somehow he knew that I had written my PhD thesis on Fulfulde, the language in which the poems were composed and thought that I was the expert he was looking for. I couldn’t agree less, but Bashir insisted on showing me copies of some of the poems he had brought with him and explained to me their provenance, their contemporary use and historical importance. The significant involvement of women instantly caught my attention.
Bashir had inherited the poems from his mother and they were passed down to her by generations of men and women, all the way back to the 1790s when Usman dan Fodio and fellow jihadists, including his daughter Nana Usmanu, found the time to sit down and write beautiful poetry in their mother tongue, Fulfulde. These poems are a living history, as they are still recited by men and women alike at festive occasions such as Mawlid, the celebration of the birth of the prophet Mohammed. The original poems are written in Arabic script and some are in a very bad condition due to centuries of folding and unfolding. Bashir looked for advice and help to safeguard these texts for the future by transcribing, translating and archiving them properly. He returned home with a list of questions we thought should be answered in order to understand the poems.
EAP387/1/3/10 First page of the poem entitled "Yimre yeyraa'be" by Moodibbo Raaji , a friend (and later also critic) of Usman dan Fodio. It shows a page skilfully sown together, showing the care and respect that owners had for the texts.
Years later in 2009, Bashir invited me to London. Apparently I was not the only authority he had turned to for help and he had managed to get sponsoring from the Emir of Sokoto to fund my costs, including a laptop and a mobile phone so that we could stay in touch. Bashir had managed to produce transliterations into roman script of all the Fulfulde poems in his possession, which made it so much easier for me to understand (or at least to read) them. Like his mother, he would also recite the poems at special occasions and we made some recordings of the poems. And since in Fulfulde “to recite poetry” is synonymous with “to sing”, these are impressive recordings. London was also the place where the seed was planted for EAP387, a major project for digital preservation of the 1500 pages of Fulfulde poetry. In 2011 I went to Nigeria to digitise the documents at the University of Mubi.
The documents of EAP387 are now accessible for people to study. The translation of the texts is an ongoing process, as the documents show that Fulfulde has changed considerably over 200 years. My knowledge of different dialects and morphology helps to put forward possible translations to the native speakers without whom translation would not be possible.
Safeguarding the digital records in EAP387 is only the beginning of transferring the knowledge contained in it to future generations. Wouldn’t it be great if the recordings of the recitals of the poems, Latin transcriptions of Fulfulde and translations into Hausa and English would be added to the digital records of EAP387 in a multi-modal document? Thus the poems would truly become a rich source for the study of West African history.
Dr Anneke Breedveld, Tilburg University
Grant-holder for EAP387: Safeguarding Fulfulde ajami manuscripts of Nigerian Jihad poetry by Usman dan Fodio (1754-1817) and contemporaries
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