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Nko: An African alphabet rising from decades of subjugation


Nko is an alphabet developed in Guinea Conakry seventy years ago under the shadows of foreign scripts but the suppressed alphabet is recently gaining popularity in West Africa.

Karamo Jammeh, a Gambian Nko expert based in Sweden. Jammeh authored four books in Nko and he is currently working on his fifth one on the history of all the prophets in Islam

By Mustapha K Darboe

When a Guinean scholar Sulayman Kanteh developed Nko, a script for writing his native Mande languages, not even that country’s pan-African leader Saikou Toure dared popularize it.

Guinea Conakry was part of Mali Empire whose territory covered greater part of what is today known as West Africa. The demise of colonialism led to the creation of new nations with ethnic cleavages.

“Nko could not have the state backing because Guinea is a country of many ethnic groups and the script could be perceived by some as belonging to the Mande speaking people even though it belongs to everyone,” says Karamo Jammeh, a Gambian expert and advocate of the script.

Now, though, after seventy years of its existence, Nko, is gaining popularity not only in West Africa, but also in Europe and America

Karamo Jammeh is Gambian who was based in Sweden for 30 years, and lectures the script on several platforms including Youtube, his website and at his home in Bakoteh.

“The writing style is as developed as any other writing form,” Jammeh says.

“Today, Nko is taught in 6 universities in America including Harvard, at Cairo University and Universities in Mali, Guinea and schools in many other places in West Africa,” Karamo Jammeh, an expert in Nko, says.

Linguistic colonialism

Contrary to Western literature, archeological evidences have shown that Africa is the home of world’s oldest forms of writings.

According to a research by the University of Houston, Mande people have been using streamlined pictographic writing dating back 3000BC. This is centuries before recent European scripts sourced from Greek alphabets were developed.

And similar pictographic scripts were at the same time in use in places like Ethiopia and Egypt.

But most of the old African scripts have become obsolete due to influences of foreign languages. However, in the 19th and 20th, few new scripts were developed.

In Liberia and Serra Leone, five scripts were invented, mainly for Mande languages in the 19th and 20th centuries, the oldest being Vai created by Momolu Duwalu Bukele.

The birth of Nko

Nko was developed in 1949, birthed out of anger at an Arab man who, in a newspaper comment, likened natives of man’s oldest habitat to birds because they have no known script.

Kanteh, a Guinean, was in Ivory Coast, trading in cola nut, when he came across the comments. A son of a scholar and fluent in Arabic and French, he began his protest by creating and standardizing Nko.

Nko becomes more successful than Vai in its penetration of the literary world.

Vai is another alphabet of Mande speaking people in Liberia and Serra Leone that has been used since in the 19th century.

Kanteh went to author close to 200 books and since then lots of books in all fields have been written by several people across Africa including Gambians.

“Kanteh did a book on traditional medicines written in Nko… This was meant to ensure that certain knowledge peculiar to his people are not lost to history,” Karamo says.

Luqatul Nko: A copy of the Holy Quran transliterated in Nko. The work was sponsored by the late King Fahd of Saudi Arabia. Nko text is left and Arabic is right.

Steady growth in Gambia

Until 2018, the only work of literature written in Nko available at the National Library, was a mathematics book, published in 2000 by Ebrima Janko Janneh, a native of Gunjur.

Now, there are two more books, including Sulayman’s Kanteh work on scientific terminologies and Mandinka grammar by Karamo Jammeh.

People’s interest in the alphabet is increasing in the Gambia. It is being taught at several places including Tallinding Arabic School, two places in Sukuta, and a place in Tanji.

“There are many teachers in Nko now though they are far from being enough… Some students have now become teachers. We have sent a few people to Guinea Conakry to learn Nko in the past,” Karamo says.

One of them is Omar Sisawo, a young man in his late twenties who lives in Brufut. Sisawo returned from Guinea Conakry in 2017, after a year studies in Nko at a polytechnic.

“I am currently working on a book on Homophones in Mandinka in Nko,” he says. “Interest in Nko is increasing.”

“We teach at Tallinding Arabic School, Sukuta Nema Arabic School, another school along Sukuta road, Tanji and some of us also do it at our homes,” Sisawo adds.

Growing with technology

In keeping up with advances of modern digital technological, Nko is now available on a number of digital platforms, including Microsoft PC. One of the brains behind this effort is Boubacar Diakite, preceptor of African Language Program in the department of African and African American Studies at Harvard, a certified N’ko instructor.

A specialist in Phonetics and Phonology of Mande languages, the Mali born linguist who studied Arabic, French, English, and German has helped Microsoft develop softwares to use Nko on PCs.

He also with others helped Eatony Company to develop Twtool for Nko on I-devices. He will be helping the same company to develop triage for Nko on the same devices as well.

Meanwhile, the African alphabet is expected to be the 60th in the world and 13th African alphabet on Google translator by the end of 2018.

There are already a number of Apps on Google Play Store that provides keyboard on Nko for computers and smart phones.

Google Play Store also has a text editor call Nko Pad which helps in translating the script to English.

“You can download Nko keyboard on Play Store and use it in your phone,” Sisawo says.

“There are newspapers on Nko in both digital and print forms in Guinea, Ivory Coast and Mali, mostly.”

And in Gambia, several online platforms including social media is being used in teaching the script.

Omar Keita is the president of Nko Association in Gambia, a group designed to promote the teaching and learning of Nko in the Gambia.

He teaches the script to a WhatsApp audience of about 235 people. A Facebook platform, Nko Bantaba, is also being used to teach the script.

Nko dictionary written by Prof Baba Mamadi Diane, at the University of Cairo

Suitable for schools?

Inspite of the growing interest in the learning of Nko, around the world, there is no single country that has formally introduced the script into its school system.

In Gambia, for instance, all those teaching the script are doing it at their own cost and Karamo thinks that is affecting Nko’s growth.

“Drawing a school curriculum for Nko is very easy… There are people who can do it here. Already, such standards are developed…,” Jammeh says.

“I think drawing a curriculum for university or transliterating a Quran in Nko would be more difficult than drawing a curriculum for primary or senior secondary schools.”

However, in a continent taken over by foreign languages, even advocates of African languages understand introducing an African script into the school system will be a long shot.

This reality is not lost on Dr Burama Jammeh, head of curricula development at the basic and secondary education ministry of The Gambia. 

“I met the guy who is promoting it (Nko) in my office… But we have to study and understand it and open it for general discussion…,” Dr Jammeh says.

“We are open to any new ideas… They (Nko association) are into a memorandum of understanding with the education ministry…”

Introducing local languages into the schools in Gambia has started since colonial days but learning is done in English using Roman Alphabets.

The current syllabus for teaching local languages in school was developed in 2010, says Dr Jammeh.

Even though there are some peculiar sounds in different Gambian languages that can’t be sound in English, Jammeh said they have developed special characters for such cases.

But even that, the focus is not teaching kids local languages but using local languages to help them learn English.

“We are talking about a writing system that is very new in Gambia and in my curricula directory, no one has an understanding of it,” Dr Jammeh says.

Mission impossible?

Despite gains, Nko put on no strength commensurable to its existence. Experts believe it is stunted because English and French have consumed the space it should have taken.

Seedia Jatta, a linguist and national assembly member for Wuli West who spent his life advocating for use of local languages as country’s medium of communication, says Gambia’s slow growth can partly be attributed to use of foreign languages as official languages.

According to Jatta, foreign languages affect not just the education of the children but also representation since the language of the Government is not understood by more than half of the population.

“People must be the conceivers and authors of their own development… But when we speak in the parliament, people who elect us, do they know what we say?… So that kind of representation is rubbish because the people who sent me to the national assembly don’t even know what I say,” Jatta says.

Jatta started his own adult literacy programme in his native Wuli since 1997 at his own expense. Since then, his people are studying Mandinka using Roman Alphabets.

However, Jatta knows little about Nko despite his interest in the using of African languages. He thinks Nko may be too little too late for Gambia.

“Roman Alphabets have been found to be adequate in writing local languages…,” Jatta says.

“There are not many people who understand Nko in Gambia. It means we have to go back to square one if we are to use the Nko script in school system…”







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