Ousseina Alidou



Scriptural Encounters in the West Sahelian Space: Pre-Islamic, Islamic and European Legacies

The cultural space of West African Sahel-Sahara is a crossroad of several epistemologies based on different scripts. Three of these scripts on which I intend to focus are Tifinagh, Ajami and the Roman/Latin alphabet. Tifinagh has been in existence since antiquity and is used predominantly among the Amazigh/Tuareg populations. Ajami, the Africanized Arabic script is a product of the encounter with Islam that stretches back to the 10th century; and the Roman alphabet, of course is part of the more recent 19th century legacy of European colonial rule in West Africa. I intend to look at the interplay between these three scriptural traditions in terms of their evolution and the gender and class politics that have shaped different literacies and literary traditions in what is today the Republic of Niger. In the process, I shall also highlight how recent postcolonial forces of democratization have led to the rethinking of the role of Tifinagh and Ajami in particular, in addressing social hierarchies in knowledge production and access, resulting from the dominant position of the French language.

Before the inception of Islam in the Sahel cultural landscape of the Republic of Niger, orality played a central role in the lives of people and characterized the majority of the cultures that define the peoples who inhabit the area. The only exceptions were the Amazigh people commonly known as Tuaregs and Shuwa-Arabs who, additionally, had literate traditions. These are Tifinagh in Tamajaq language for the Tuaregs and Arabic script for the Shuwa Arabs. Though both Tuareg men and women can read and write Tifinagh, Tuareg women are more closely associated with the use of Tifinagh for social purposes such as letter writing, and artistic decoration (De Foucauld, Charles 1920, Nicolaisen and Nicolaisen 1998, Klute 2002 p.c.). As scholars such Muller Kreamer and als (2007); Claudot Hawad (2006); Kreamer and als (2007), 1 Susan Rasmussen (2006: 92-95), Cinthya Becker (2005, 103), Alidou (2005: 62) and Goodman (2003:39-48) also observe, matrilineal structures of traditional Tuareg society grant high status to Tuareg women, including access to and mastery of Tifinagh literacy. Contrary to many scriptural traditions in the world, Tifinagh is virtually unique in having been an indigenous African script of which women have played a central role in its transmission across time. Writing is not only a technological innovation; it also reflects a cultural epistemology, philosophy and mode of social, political and economic organization. In this regard, one question worth exploring is whether Tifinagh as a script transmitted by women to both male and female that might be a reflection of Amazigh/Tuareg/Berber traditional matrilineal society in which women enjoy high social status.

The introduction of Islam had some definite impact on the destiny of Tifinagh as a result of two developments: One is the introduction of Arabic-based literacy through the Classical Qur’an school (Ware 2014) which now operated in competition with Tifinagh for the Tuareg. Second was the trend towards linguistic and cultural Arabization which threatened the very survival of the Tifinagh script in more recent times, even Tuaregs, as most of whom Muslims, continue to resist while asserting their Islamic identity. (Goodman 2003: 12, 39-48). The 1990s democratic pluralism in the Republic of Niger opened new doors for new national investment in both indigenous languages and literacy practices in the educational system which was hitherto dominated by French language as medium of instruction (Alidou 2002, 2005).

If Islam threatened to erase Tifinagh script, it was also responsible for giving birth to a new script, the Ajami script in the Sahel. For centuries, the Sahel has been a crossroad of several cultures and civilizations, both from the Bilal El Sudan and the Sahel-Sahara, stimulating the adoption of Ajami in the writings of several African languages that were part of that network of exchange. In time these multi-lingual traditions rooted in Ajami led to the production of African


Ajami intellectual and literary archives with works written originally in African languages or translated from Arabic (Moumouni (2017), Ngome 2016), Kane (2016), Graziano, and Lydon (2011), Ibrahim, Jumare, Hamman and Bala ((2010), Abdallah Uba Adamu (2010), Jeppie and Diagne (2008), Hunwick (2003)).

According to Ibrahim Yahaya, one of the leading Hausa literary scholars of Nigeria, the earliest available record of literature in Hausa written in Arabic and Ajami, mostly poetry was written right about the seventeenth century by Kano Islamic scholars. But, literary writing in Hausaland would come to its height in the nineteenth century during the period of Shehu Usman dan Fodio’s Islamic reform movement and sustained intellectually and poetically well into the 19th and 20th centuries by hundreds of his multilingual poetic writings in Arabic, Fulfude and Hausa.

The Institute of Arabic and Ajami Manuscripts, a unit of Abdou Moumouni University in the Republic of Niger, is a living testament of this heritage of West African Sahelian Islam in the former French colony. Contemporary Niger Republic society is a mosaic resulting from a convergence of Islamic cultures from Kanem-Borno, Songhai, Hausa Fulani, and Arab-Tuareg/Amazigh civilizations mixed with other non-Islamized indigenous minority cultures. This historical configuration is reflected in Arabic and Ajami manuscripts that continued to be discovered, collected and studied. For example, the recent book by Seyni Moumouni (2017) captures the life of Arabic and Ajami manuscripts that travel up and down the Niger River valley.

Unlike Tifinagh, however, the research so far indicates that until the 19th century, Ajami was primarily a monopoly of men. Even though the African Islamic medieval University of Sankore (Mali) received philanthropic funds from an Amazigh/Berber African woman (Shapil and Diagne 2008 ), the research records so far indicate that women were marginal in knowledge production in Arabic and Ajami until the 19th century. Only one female copyist was mentioned in the research on the Arabic and Ajami manuscripts even though women were subjects within their contents (Shapil and Diagne 2008). Thus, the West African medieval university had similar gendered bias as Paris medieval university (France), Oxford medieval university (England), Bologna medieval university (Italy) (Obi and als 2009:11). Additional research is needed to determine why women were so under-represented in the Arabic and Ajami manuscript writing traditions before the 19th century in the Sahel region. In spite of its male predominance in the medieval era, however, the nineteenth century witnessed the emergence of an Ajami Islamic and literacy literary traditions among Sahelian women stimulated by Sheikh Usman Dan Fodio’s reformist Jihad movement (Boyd 1989, Boyd and Mack 1997 and Mack and Boyd 2002 and Omar 2005, 2013 and 2016).

With Sheikh Usman Dan Fodio’s advocacy of women’s education and literacy, the reformist movement he created managed to produce several generations of female Islamic literati among whom his daughter Nana Asma’u remains the most distinguished in the 19th Century. In fact Nana Asma’u, who was a prolific writer in Arabic and a leader who contributed to the reform movement in her own right, proceeded to create a women’s movement called ‘Yen Taru (Women’s Collective) with the objective of empowering female converts to Islam to contribute to public life of service to community while also promoting Ajami literacy in several languages including Fulfulde, Hausa and Tamajaq (Boyd 1989, Boyd and Mack 1997, Mack and Boyd 2000, Omar 20013, 2016).

The relevance of Nana Asma’u’s place as a historical figure stemmed from the female imprint she left on Shehu Usman’s Jihad literary production and theory, reflected in the thematic versatility of her poetry aimed to integrate new female converts. In addition to her own works Nana Asma’u used her literacy in classical Arabic and her competencies in such languages as Fulfulde, Hausa and Tamajaq to transform the works of her father and her brother Ahmadu Bello who was also a prolific intellectual, poet and leader (Boyd 1989, Boyd and Mack 1997, Mack and Boyd 2000 and Omar 2006). Using African languages, she Africanized and feminized the intellectual and literary movement founded by her father Shehu Dan Fodio through her promotion of women’s mass education and social mobilization through her ‘Yen Taru (Women’s Collective) which survived the colonial onslaught and continues to this day to produce religious poetry in African languages using Ajami script (Sa’adiya Omar 2016, 2013, Alidou 2005).

Although much of the literature dealing with the impact of Sheikh Usman Dan Fodiyo’s dynasty focuses on Northern Nigerian, part of the landscape occupied by the Republic of Niger (most of its Southern-eastern and Northern part), shared and continues to share historical and contemporary continuities with the cultures and societies of Northern Nigeria (Alpha Gado and Bako 2016 ). It was not until the colonial period, in fact, that this landscape that we can broadly be defined as Hausaland came to be divided between the French on the hand, and the British on the other with varied consequences on the future of Ajami literacy and literary tradition. This division of Hausaland, however, had little impact on the women’s Ajami movement as demonstrated by the works of (Boyd (1989); Mack and Boyd (2000), Alidou (2005) and Omar (2016).

Under the British, Northern Nigeria was one of the first experimental cases of Lord Lugard’s proposed policy of indirect rule in which local institutions and local structures of authority were used to transmit colonial rule. The British, even encouraged the use of local languages and to some extent promoted literacy and formal education in those languages in Northern Nigeria where more than forty million Hausa speakers reside. However, the British were not keen to retain the use of the Arabic script and allow the continuation of Hausa Ajami literacy creativity. To the colonists, Ajami was a strong repository of Hausa-Islamic identity and an antithesis to the European colonial hegemonic agenda. Thus, by the 1860s British colonial officers in Northern Nigeria and missionaries had begun to debate about and use the Roman scrit for writing the Hausa language, and by the 1903 this new system was established as a policy for recording Hausa texts by the department of colonial education. This marked the beginning of Hausa writing in the Roman alphabet in the former British colonies (Philips 2004).

The tension over language, script and alphabet would become a determinant factor in the intra-African division as colonized subjects became divided along religious and symbolic scriptural affiliation –Hausa Ajami for the Muslim polity and Roman alphabet for non-Muslims mostly converted to Christianity. During the colonial era and beyond, the fate of Ajami literacy in Anglophone Nigeria will be entangled in religious sectarian rivalries between Muslims and Christians with Protestant missionaries succeeding in moving Ajami from being Islam-bound to being an ecumenical script, employed by both Muslims and Christians. It also became a subject of an intra-Muslim ecumenical tension between Sufi Muslims and reformist Wahabi-Izala adherents, especially after the translation of the Qur’an in Hausa Ajami by the late Izala leader Sheikh Abubakar Mahmud Gumi (Brigagglia 2005:428, Cooper 2006:122, Abdalla 2010:211-212).

The destiny of Ajami in Francophone Republic of Niger, on the other hand, was somewhat different because French colonization was based on the direct policy that implied French control of the colonial administration at all levels. The same policy aimed at total cultural alienation of the indigenous population through the imposition of the French language and Roman script in education and administration, except in a few instances where they used the Islamic clergy for the collection of taxes (Rinaldo Cristofori, Silvio Ferrari 2016: 43). In effect, therefore, French colonization and its aftermath meant the near-death of Ajami and Tifinagh literacy and literary traditions in Niger and the exclusion of women from access to literacy in Roman alphabet and formal education until towards the end of World War II when decolonization became eminent and the need for African women to contribute to new post-independence development designs became imperative.

During the 1990s, the wind of political liberation in West Africa will shape the national scriptural and literacy landscapes. In the Republic of Niger the resulting expansion in the use of Tifinagh and Ajami is helping to close the epistemological gap between the Francophile tradition and Nigerien languages and scriptural traditions. In Nigeria, Ajami is still trapped in the Islamic clergy’s monopoly, binding it to its traditional sacredness and secrecy, on the one hand, and ecumenical rivalry arising from theocratic sectarian competition within Muslim clerical communities and between Muslim-Christian evangelicals, on the other (Cooper 2006, Adamu 2010, Raji 1990). In Niger Republic, thanks to the experimentation with political pluralism, the Ajami script is becoming secularized and liberated from both theocracy and patriarchal frame of reference.