The Nsibidi graphic system of the Cross River State in south-east Nigeria and the Tifinagh script used by the Tuareg people of north-western Africa are just two examples of West African languages preserved in print.
According to the British Library, Nsibidi was used by a secret male society in the region. The script is indigenous to the Ejagham people of south-eastern Nigeria and south-western Cameroon but is also used by the neighbouring Ibibio, Efik and Igbo people.
According to webpage africa.si.edu, these scripts fall under the same umbrella group as Egyptian hieroglyphics and the Asante Adinkra symbols.
Tifinagh is another, which the British Library says is at least 1,500 years old. This script can be found from southern Morocco and Algeria to Mali and Niger. It features geometric letters that can be written from left to right, right to left, horizontally or vertically, africa.si.edu says.
There are many more written languages across West Africa with only a snapshot of these showcased at the British Library’s recent West Africa Word, Symbol, Song exhibition.
The list included the Vai script from Liberia, which was developed in the early 19th century by Momlu Duwalu Bukele. It looks uncannily similar to shorthand!
Hopefully this should silence those who maintain that Sub-Saharan Africans had no written language.
Ghana’s Adinkra symbols
Ghana and Ghanaians featured heavily in the exhibition. The Asante’s infamous Adinkra symbols, which are a word system originally used to honour the dead and printed on cloth, were on display.
Visitors received a brief history of the rise of the Asante kingdom, the meanings behind some of the Adinkra symbols, as well as the significance behind the patterns on our cloths. Even more arresting was a 1921 recording of an Asante Atumpan drum being played.
The distinct sound was preserved in time thanks to the wax cylinder recording device invented by American Thomas Edison in 1877. Hearing the faint rhythmic beats amid the crackling sound from the old cylinder was like opening up a window to an almost forgotten past. And to think that the prowess of these drummers, who are almost certainly dead by now, was being heard by visitors from across the globe in 2016!
Islam and Christianity
The aim of the exhibition was to show how rich and diverse languages across West Africa are. As well as showcasing the indigenous languages, the use of Arabic to spread Islamic teachings was touched on. Examples included the Maghribi North African script.
Seeing how indigenous script was employed to convert the masses to Christianity was also telling. German missionary Sigismund Koelle was instrumental in documenting many African languages.
Bibles in a number of West African languages decorated the exhibition. Bishop Samuel Ajayi-Crowther of Abeokuta southwest Nigeria, for example, is famed for translating the Bible into Yoruba.
Even Catherine Musgrave-Zimmerman, who was probably born in Angola and enslaved in Jamaica, was a missionary school teacher, according to the British Library’s records. In 1842, she moved to present-day Ghana and married German Johann Zimmerman, who was head of the Basel Mission.
Their union, according to the British Library, was controversial and the mission only agreed to her marrying a white man because they didn’t want to lose her teaching services!!!!
Although small, the exhibition was jam-packed with facts, profiles and appealed to all senses. Visitors could watch videos of modern-day griots, touch wax prints that are a staple fashion wear in West Africa and learn about Brazil’s Candomblé religion and its Nigerian roots.
Moving away from slavery, the tail end of the exhibition was on the agitators of change who pushed for Africa’s emancipation. Historical figures such as Ghana’s first president Dr Kwame Nkrumah, and Nigerian musician Fela Kuti were celebrated.
So was Liberian politician Edward Wilmot Blyden (1832-1912) who is credited as the father of Pan-Africanism. Sierra Leone-born Adelaide Casely-Hayford (1868-1960), who was an advocate for cultural nationalism, and wife to Ghanaian barrister and journalist J. E Casely-Hayford.
I managed to whizz round the exhibition in 30 minutes desperately trying to absorb as much as the sensory information as possible, and was heartening to see that I was not alone. The space was full of visitors, mainly Black but not exclusively, and parents made an effort to bring their children – which was great.
My only criticism of the exhibition would be that we were not permitted to take pictures. This was reinforced by the many cameras dotted on the walls. And yet there was no provision for postcards or an anthology to mark the exhibition.
When I asked the lady behind the gift counter if they had commemorative postcards of the event, she told me they hadn’t had enough time to organise material.
West Africa Word, Symbol, Song opened on 16 October 2015 and ended on 16 February 2016.
By Kirsty Osei-Bempong
*The image of the Right Reverend Crowther and the Vai manuscript come courtesy of the British Library. The kaba image comes from the British Museum and the decorated sheet-brass box with Adinkra symbols comes from the Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford.*For more blogs on slavery, Asante culture and British history, check
Please be aware that you may not reproduce, republish, modify or commercially exploit this content without prior written consent.