Wednesday, April 16, 2008

The Mande speaking people have never stopped writing in their ancient script. It appears that the Mande are keeping alive use of the script in Secret Societies like the Poro Secret Society.

There is considerable evidence that the Vai writing was invented millennia before 1820. This view is supported by the presence of signs analogous to the Vai script being found on rocks from the Fezzan to the Niger Valley and beyond that make up the corpus of the Vai script .

Controversy surrounds the invention of the Vai script. Delafosse claimed that Vai informants told him the writing system was invented in ancient times. S.W. Koelle in Narrative of an expedition into Vy country West Africa and the Discovery of a system of writing,etc.(London,1849) claimed that the writing system was invented by Bukele in 1829 or 1839. David Diringer in The Alphabet (London,1968,pp.130-133) reported that there was a tradition that the writing was invented by a group of eight Vai. Marcel Cohen La grande invention de l'ecriture at son evolution (Paris,1958, p. 21) believed that the Vai writing system was not invented before the 18th century, but more probably at the beginning of the 19thth century.

The story about Bukele's dream is just a cover, used by Bukele to keep members of the Gola Poro society from being angered by Bukele's open teaching of the Vai script . We know that the symbols associated with the Vai script existed prior to Bukele's alleged invention of the Vai writing because it was known to African slaves in Suriname. In 1936, M.J. Herskovits and his wife on a field trip to Suriname recorded a specimen of writing written by a man while he was possessed by the spirit winti. Mrs. Hau, who examined the specimen wrote that "Most of the component parts of are to be found in the syllabaries of West Africa which we have just discussed" (see: K.Hau, Pre-Islamic writing in West Africa, Bulletin de l'IFAN, t35, ser.B,No.1 (1973)pp.1-45).

The British took over Suriname and ended slavery in 1799. Years before Bukele's alleged invention of the Vai writing. As a result, there is no way a descendant of a Suriname Maroon (runaway slave) could have produced the writing under possession by the spirit winti if the writing was invented by Bukele.

If you read the history of Bukele's alleged invention of the Vai script we discover that although Bukele dreamt of the Vai characters he was able to "reconstruct" the symbols not by deeply meditating on the dream, he: Later Dualu retired from his work as a steward and returned to his hometown in the Vai chiefdom. But he couldn’t forget the idea of having a means of writing. He asked himself, “Why can’t we have something like this for our own Vai people?” One night he had a vision in which he saw a tall white man who said, “Dualu, come. I have a book for you and your Vai people.” The man in the vision then proceeded to show him the shapes of the Vai characters used in the Vai writing system.

When Dualu awoke, he began to write down the characters he’d seen in his vision. Sadly, there were so many he could not remember them all, so he called together his friends and fellow elders and shared with them his vision and the characters he had written down. His fellow Vai elders caught his excitement and over time, they added more characters in place of those Dualu could not remember.

This is the main give-away that the writing existed before Bukele's alleged invention. Firstly, how could "his friends and fellow elders" help him recover the Vai signs, if the signs were not already invented--since these men had not had Bukele's dream.

Secondly, before Bukele popularized the Vai script he sought protection from King Fa Toro of Goturu in Tianimani for his school. The King granted protection to the inventors of the Vai script because "The king declared himself exceedly pleased with their discovery, which as he said would soon raise his people upon a levelwith the Porors and Mandingoes, who hitherto had been the only book-people" (see: S.W. Koelle, Outline grammar of the Vai language--and an account of the discovery and nature of the Vai mode of syllabic writing, London,1854).

Bukele needed a Kings support for the teaching of anyone the Vai writing because the first schools set up to teach the script at Dshondu and Bandakoro were burned down along with the Vai manuscripts found in the schools after 18 months .

If Bukele had invented the Vai script as he claimed, why did he need protection for his schools? The answer is that he didn't invent the writing he just popularized the script.

The Vai script was taught in the Mande secret societies. This is why even though the script is well known, it is cloaked in an aura of secrecy.This view is supported by the fact that when Thomas Edward Beslow, a Vai prince who attended mission schools in Liberia and the Wesleyan Academy in Massachusetts was initiated into the Poro Society he mentions in his autobiography that many members of the secret society could write in Vai (see: T.E. Beslow, From Darkness of Africa to the light of America).

What do we learn from this report. First, the Vai script was known to Vai elites. Obviously, members of Poro would not like non members of the society to know about this writing. Yet, Bukele was teaching the Vai writing to any one who desired to learn it , so the Vai would be recognized for their literacy just like Europeans. Secondly it was being taught in the Poro society, which King Fa Toro, did not belong too.

Today eventhough the Vai script is well known the writing is semi-secret. As a result. some commentators believe the Vai no longer write in the script. This led Christopher Fyfe in A History of Sierra Leone, to write that: "Though an English trader who spent some time among the Vai in the 1860's found schools where children were still learning it, it was almost forgotten by the early twentieth century, and today is only studied by linguist".

Fyfe was wrong. Gail Stewart, only five years later in Notes on the present-day usage of the Vai script in Liberia (African Language Review 6,(1967)p.71) found that the script was still very popular among many Vai.

David Dalby wrote about a Gola student of William Siegman, who allowed Siegman him to copy the inscription but he would not translate same. This student attributed the writing to the Poro Society, and said he was taught the writing by his grandfather. Dalby wrote: "After the present paper had gone to press, Mr. William Siegman of Indiana University gave me information on a fifteenth West African script, used in Liberia for writing Gola. Mr. Siegman had seen a young Gola student at Cuttingham College (Liberia) writing a letter in this script in 1968, but although the student allowed him to take a copy of the letter he declined to provide Mr. Siegman with a Key"(see:D. Dalby, Further indigenous scripts in West Africa and etc.,ALS,10,pp.180-181).

Dalby viewed the assertion of the student that the writing was used by members of the Poro Society with skepticism. But Dalby should not have been skeptical because Beslow had made the same claim.

In conclusion, Bukele probably did not invent the Vai writing. This is supported by the fact that 1) the symbols associated with the Vai script were well known to members of the Poro Secret Society; 2) descendants of Maroon Blacks in Suriname were familiar with the script; and 3) the Vai writing, for the most part remains in use but it is maintained in a semi-secret fashion and not usually shared with people who are not members or kin of members of a secret society, this is why the Gola student would not translate his letter for Mr.Siegman.

Finally it must be remembered that the symbols engraved on rocks from the Fezzan to the Niger bend and other areas where the Mande live are identical to symbols associated with the Vai script. This shows the continuity of writing among the Mande speaking people over a period of 3000 plus years.

The evidence from Suriname, symbols on the rocks near Mande habitations in the Americas, and the existence of the symbols relating to the Vai script in other Mande writing systems and their continued use by members of the Vai and members of secret societies support Delafosse's tradition that the Vai writing existed in ancient times.

References:

S.W. Koelle in Narrative of an expedition into Vy country West Africa and the Discovery of a system of writing,etc.(London,1849)

David Diringer,The Alphabet (London,1968, pp.130-133)

K.Hau, Pre-Islamic writing in West Africa, Bulletin de l'IFAN, t35, ser.B,No.1 (1973)pp.1-45).

S.W. Koelle, Outline grammar of the Vai language--and an account of the discovery and nature of the Vai mode of syllabic writing, London,1854).

T.E. Beslow, From Darkness of Africa to the light of America).Gail Stewart,Notes on the present-day usage of the Vai script in Liberia (African Language Review 6,(1967)p.71)

D. Dalby, Further indigenous scripts in West Africa and etc.,ALS,10,pp.180-181)..

2 comments:

Bittor Zugadi said...

Here some of my work in software translation to mande language (Bambara) using the N'ko script

Gedit

Karim Aldridge Rand said...

This would seem to make perfect sense. In addition to the explanation you've given, these non-Islamic secret societies were wise to conceal their script (i.e., writings/manuscripts) - especially given the historical pillage and destruction of jihadists like the Tuareg. The Poro secret societies, I would think, were well aware of past ravaging of documents (by Islamist fanatics) of the Timbuktu learned community. Then there were the colonial French and British governments that certainly did their share in hijacking indigenous produced manuscripts and such. This would give said societies even more reason to keep this writing system from public view.