• Molly Callahan

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    Photo: Headshot of Molly Callahan. A white woman with short, curly brown hair, wearing glasses and a blue sweater, smiles and poses in front of a dark grey backdrop.

    Molly Callahan began her career at a small, family-owned newspaper where the newsroom housed computers that used floppy disks. Since then, her work has been picked up by the Associated Press and recognized by the Connecticut chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. In 2016, she moved into a communications role at Northeastern University as part of its News@Northeastern reporting team. When she's not writing, Molly can be found rock climbing, biking around the city, or hanging out with her fiancée, Morgan, and their cat, Junie B. Jones. Profile

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There are 21 comments on Unearthing a Long-Ignored African Writing System, One Researcher Finds African History, by Africans

  1. Many western educated west Africans have very basic literacy in the ajami script if not illiterate, therefore have not had access to these rich manuscripts produced by their own scholars, for so long. Now and thanks to the team of experts and specialists led by Professor Fallou Ngom of Boston University, they can access documents in Wolof, Pular, Hausa and Mandika, transcribed in the Latin script and translated into English in French. Now the long held belief, even by some western trained africans, that Africans have not a writing system of their own, can be put to rest.

  2. Thank you, Professor Ngom! The story of Ajami is a wonderful source of inspiration for all of us. I remember well when your father died in 1996. As former classmates and friends, I had sent you a cassette tape in which I recorded my encouragements, since letters used to take a long time to send and receive. I hope you still have the tape! I am sure your dad is looking from above and proud of you for giving voice and doing justice to millions of people like him who have been falsely treated as illiterate and uneducated for centuries. Albarka!

  3. Thank u. When I went to West Africa in 1978 doing research for a BU dissertation i met Dr. Niangoran Bouah and he was trying to publish on Akan gold pieces. pieces used to educate and communicate even the science and the mathematics, of one Ivorian group. Ii was said more than once while I was in Ivory Coast that Bouah had taught Ivorians that there was science in Africa before the Europeans. One person who helped me to complete my degree was Mohamed Hasan Abdullaziz, a major specialist on Swahili. and professor and chair of a department he founded. I later did research at Egerton College in Kenya. At BU I met Dr. Unokanma Okonjo who published a book on the Ibo family, and taught courses on the family and on racism, or on white racism, and wrote books on white racism. A dissertation was just completed on her as a leader of students in Europe, her jailing, and education in Europe before becoming a faculty member at BU, Hope I spelled the names mentioned above correctly.
    I am trying to write on debt and would like to gain more information on what u found on debt. Note that I believe that two kinds of debt that are opposites in many ways exist, (1) a kind of debt that has existed and has been generally known worldwide for thousands and thousands of years and (2) a way of borrowing, lending, owing, banking and money making that was invented, or some say discovered, in Italy about a thousand years ago. Used until today words, number words, and numbers, coined or devised in Italy drawing from indigenous sources and from its contacts in Africa and Asia – ‘debt’, ‘money’, ‘cash’, ‘manage’, ‘bank’, a ‘million.’ paper money, an accounting and bookkeeping method, and a ‘1000000’

  4. Please contact The Buddhist Digital Resource Center, find out who the are, what they’ve done, and how their methodology can harp this project. Please pass this onto BU. The implications of this are huge for the many languages that are being lost and the whole traditions they represent…ww

  5. What an amazing “discovery” hiding in plain sight. Thank you to all the scholars who have recognized and given a voice to so many who have not had one previously. You have done the world a huge service by making the rich history of Africans come alive.

  6. Hello…

    My comment Is a question…

    Would Professor NGOM give the opportunity to an Italy based language Graduate from Cameroon longing to join a team like his and dig further in Africa based on his suggestions..?

  7. Thanks Karl Bunday for highlighting this article that caused such excitement in 2011.
    On re-reading it, I am reminded of one of important critique of the time ie. the failure to mention that well before the adoption of the Ajami script there existed regional, independently-evolved scripts in may parts of Africa. I wonder if there are more knowledgeable specialists or historians who can add to this or guide us on this. I may be wrong but I believe such scripts varied from cuneiform-like to hieroglyphics. For example Gichandi (or Gicandi) in Kenya, perhaps some remnants of Nubian pre-pharaonic writing systems, etc. Grateful for any corrections/additions.

  8. I grew up in The Gambia seeing students of the Quran commicating in mandinka through arabic script, this is very common in the villages where most of the people are not educated in the english language. I didn’t know that it was known as Ajami . Thank you Mr Ngum for setting light on this subject, keep up the great work.

  9. Dear Professor Fallou Ngom,

    Your work on Ajami manuscripts is astonishing, transformative and exciting in innumerable ways. Classical academics find it enlightening and insightful. For linguists and historians, it is an inestimable treasure trove of, hitherto, inaccessible knowledge. For serious scholars of Africa, or from Africa, you are revolutionizing the field. All in all, inquisitive minds will be able to gain new and unparalleled perspectives on a wide range of topics that Africans have explored using unique paradigms that the wider world is only now getting a glimpse of.

    For your Ancestors, you are the best spokesperson that they coud have dreamt of, with your uncanny agility to decipher their messages and relay their profound substance to unsuspecting contemporaries. Kudos!!! Many more victories lie ahead of you!!!

  10. I really don’t understand how this is possible he didn’t know before his dad died. There must be something else to this story we aren’t being told. I can understand most Swahilis not knowing about Ajami and the general population like us. But a whole Professor of Linguistics from Africa never bother to even research what languages African wrote… let alone research, at least take 5 minutes to ask his own dad… “Hey dad I’m in uni studying linguistics, curious how did you guys used to write before white people came?”… “Hey dad, I’m now a professor of linguistics, do you know how languages were written in Africa?” Etc.. he never ever ever asked his dad such questions? Very sad to hear that, it appears perhaps he himself was the product of a biased education system that he himself believes his dad was illiterate and didn’t deserve to be asked such questions. So sad to see. But glad to see he can make amends for the questions he didn’t ask his dad when he was younger that he is not trying to generate information for the future generation so that we know better. All the best to him.

    1. Most colonized or enslaved people are brainwashed to believe nothing they had , especially knowledge , was of any value.It is an essential part of the process. Is not curious that his father did not discuss Ajami with him ,or attempt to teach him about it? My suspicion is that the father himself might have thought the important thing for the son was to learn to read and write French.

    2. I was thinking it similarly curious that he thought his father was illiterate but he recognized his father’s handwriting? How does that work? And, like you said, if he was studying linquistics you would think he would have asked? I also think it is interesting that this work is being done at BU, so many people in Africa would not have access to it (unless all original papers are posted on the internet), further isolating them from their own culture.

  11. Wow! So fascinating and inspiring! I have studied the Romance languages and found this article so interesting, especially because I am also considering inspiring others in the area of self-esteem. Now, imagine someone being called illiterate when, in reality, their language was there, just unseen by the imposing new government. Yet, there were others who, thanks to that “unseen” language, were able to form a tighter bond and grow their resistance. Very interesting dynamics. Thank you for publishing.

  12. Language is endlessly amazing and beautiful. What a tremendous benefit to the variety of cultures using ajami to have this memorialized for the future. Thank you for sharing this story.

  13. The degree of egocentric and superiority never ceases to amaze me. I worked with aborigines from Australia for a couple of days in college. The British professors they were traveling with couldn’t determine or find any written language working with this clan for sometime. find any written language. Dream painting was one of the ways they shared their heritage and stories. It changed my understanding of indigenous cultures by getting to dream paint with them. Spending time with individuals we look nothing like us is an amazing experience. I felt rather uncomfortable only because I realized how much more they experienced in their ways of communication. This article is so broadening in many areas of cultures and diminishing the myth of illiteracy .

  14. It’s my understanding that Swahili (Kiswahili in the language) was the name given by Omani Arab traders to a number of separately named varieties of a Bantu language spoken along the East African coast and nearby islands.

    The name, Swahili, was descriptive as it was the Arabic word for coast.

    Initially, the language was written in Arabic script, like those recently discovered in Western Africa.

    While today, Swahili is not the mother tongue of most of its users, it has been and persists to have that status.

  15. Since Ajami was thriving in Senegal even as the author was busy in the US, it tells us something about the way we, the African elite, have been trained. We are busy burying our heads in Western libraries as ours disintegrate, or are made to disintegrate. I remember a line from Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s earlier play, THE BLACK HERMIT, spoken by a supposedly illiterate mother to her Western-educated son: EDUCATION HAS TAUGHT YOU NOTHING. I think the import of Prof. Fallou Ngom’s discovery is that we should spend more time looking within than without; we should spend more time with our people than our employers. To put it differently, his discovery is not of Ajami as a thriving language, but of the way we have been miseducated to spend most of our time looking elsewhere instead of home.

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