ASC Launches Research Project on Ajamī Literature in West Africa

1. Shopkeeper’s Ajami advertisement in Diourbel, Senegal. TIGO is a reference to a mobile phone company. Credits: Fallou Ngom, 2015.

The African Studies Center, an affiliated center of the Frederick S. Pardee School of Global Studies at Boston University, has launched an important research initiative that aims to provide a new window into the history, cultures, and intellectual traditions of West Africa.

The project “Ajamī Literature and the Expansion of Literacy and Islam: The Case of West Africa” that was awarded a NEH Collaborative Research Grant, focuses on studying contemporary and historical ʿAjamī in Africa – a long-standing practice in the West African region of writing African language texts using a modified Arabic script.

The research project will identify and digitize manuscripts in four major West African languages – Hausa, Mandinka, Fula, and Wolof, transcribe the texts and translate them into English and French, prepare commentaries, and create related multimedia resources to be made widely available within and beyond the United States. The Ajamī literatures that have developed in sub-Saharan Africa and hold a wealth of knowledge on the history, politics, cosmologies, and cultures of the region, are generally unknown to scholars and the public due to lack of access.

“The history of ʿAjamī  in Africa calls us to re-evaluate the frequent claims that Africa lacks written traditions,” said African Studies Center Director Fallou Ngom, principal investigator of the project.  “The downplaying of the significance of African Ajamī has long characterized Arabic as well as European scholars and administrators of the colonial era, and its legacy serves to perpetuate racial stereotypes.”

Ajamī is also significant in the contemporary in the commercial and political life of numerous West African ethnic groups. “Although there exists an increasing scholarly awareness about the importance of studying diverse historical records of African ʿAjamī, few are those who know about ʿAjamī  as a fascinating lens into everyday livelihood practices, political struggles, and social imaginaries of many contemporary African communities,” said Daivi Rodima-Taylor, NEH ʿAjamī  project manager.

This collaborative research project involving a multi-disciplinary team of scholars from institutions in the U.S. and West Africa seeks, through increasing access to primary sources in ʿAjamī, to spark research and scholarly work on this important topic. Representing the first comparative approach to African languages written in ʿAjamī, this pioneering initiative seeks to integrate ethnographic fieldwork, interviews, and multi-media formats to illuminate the histories and the educational, social, political and religious significance of ʿAjamī in West Africa. The project builds on prior path-setting work of the BU scholars with gathering, digitizing, and analyzing ʿAjamī manuscripts in the region. The project EAP 1042, funded by the British Library/ARCADIA, recently completed uploading the largest to date digital collection of Mande scholars’ work in the world.

Read perspectives on the social life of ʿAjamī by the project members in the Africa@LSE blog of the London School of Economics

Founded in 1953, the Boston University African Studies Center has provided a strong foundation in African studies to generations of university professors, economists, health workers, government officials, development personnel, diplomats, and numerous others.