Communication: Written Traditions

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Communication: Written Traditions


Ancient Writing Systems. Some nineteenth- and earlytwentieth-century scholars believed that the ancient kingdoms of West Africa came into being because of invaders from the north and that West African culture developed because of Arab and Muslim influences. Later scholars, however, have demonstrated that West African kingdoms were developed by Africans and that some of their writing systems predate the arrival of the Muslims while others developed independently from Arabic influence. One indigenous writing system was the script invented by the Akan peoples, who lived in what is now south-central Ghana. During the fourteenth century, the Akan group controlled the gold trade and introduced standard gold weights made of brass for use in measuring gold dust. (These gold weights are sometimes called Ashanti gold weights after one of the best known of the Akan peoples.) The Akan kingdom grew during the 1500s, and by thelatter part of that century, the Akan people had moved south to the Gulf of Guinea coast to trade directly with Europeans.

Gold-Weight Markings. Becoming well known for their beauty as well as their function, Akan gold weights were miniature records of the culture’s knowledge. Akan script appears to be one of the earliest African writing systems. The Akan people may not have invented all of its marks, nor was it a complete alphabetic system. Some scholars believe the Akans contributed significantly to the ancient Saharan writing symbols of the Libyans. Made by people from several ancient West African states, the weights were marked with symbols that represent proverbs, sayings, riddles, and historic events. The symbols represented things that were important to the Akan people— things created by God and by man. The marks of Akan gold weights constitute a writing system because identical symbols were used and recognized by people with a common language over a large geographic area and because the symbols were combined in ways that created meanings that

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could be interpreted. Some 135 symbols have been identified, and researchers have found instances in which symbols were put together in patterns to function as a word or a phrase. Some gold weights were marked with individual symbols while other weights had extensive text on them.

Mande Script. Another example of written communication in ancient West Africa is the script of the Mande, or Mandinka-speaking, people, who have lived at the headwaters of the Niger and Senegal Rivers since 5000 B.C.E. It may have developed from a proto-Mande script used by ancestors who lived in the Sahara when it was fertile land, before the Christian era. It was a kind of syllabary; that is, each written symbol represents a syllable. The script was apparently used to help merchants record their transactions along the trans-Saharan trade routes. The ancient Maude people wrote this script on stone, wood, or dried palm leaves, using ink made from soot and liana, a climbing plant or vine.

Arabic Writing. Islam was introduced into West Africa from the north after the eighth century. The ulama\ educated religious teachers and professors of Islam, traveled with the trade caravans and brought Islam first to the Soninke people in the kingdom of Ghana. By the eleventh century, Islam had spread to many states near trade routes. Islamic scholars also brought the written language of Arabic. The empires of Ghana, Mali, and Songhai welcomed and tolerated the Muslims and their religion, allowing them to teach people about their religion and culture and to create religious and educational institutions. In 1068 the Spanish-Muslim geographer al-Bakri wrote in his Kitab almasalik wa-‘I-mamalik (The Book of Routes and Realms) that Ghana had two towns on opposite sides of the river, one for the king, Tunka Manin, and the other for the Muslims. Muslims served West African rulers as jurists, scholars, and interpreters. Kings of the West African empires hired Muslim scholars and writers, who brought to their courts knowledge of North Africa and other parts of the world.

Written Histories. One service these Muslim scholars from the north provided was to record the history of a royal household, information previously handed down by oral tradition. For example, during the first half of the thirteenth century, court chroniclers began writing the history of the Kanem-Bornu royal line, beginning in the late tenth century. This history was continually updated until the end of the Sefuwa dynasty in the nineteenth century. Although the kings at first relied on Muslim scholars from the north to do their reading and writing, West Africans subsequently learned Arabic and used it for written communications. The first black men to write histories of West Africa in Arabic were Mahmoud al-Kati, who wrote Tarikh al-Fattash (The Chronicle of the Seeker After Knowledge) and ‘Abd al-Rahman al-Sa’di (1569-1655), who wrote Tarikh al-Sudan (Chronicle of the Western Sudan) in the 1600s.

Centers of Learning. By the beginning of the tenth century, Muslim teachers were residing in the trading city of Gao. In the following century there were many Muslim missionaries working in the Sudanic region and probably teaching some West Africans to read and write Arabic. After Mansa Musa (reigned 1312-1337), of the Empire of Mali, hired scholars of the Quran (Koran), Islamic schools began to appear in Mali, reaching their highest number at the peak of the successor Empire of Songhai in the fifteenth century. At this time, the Songhai Empire was the size of western Europe and equal to any civilization of its day. Timbuktu and Djenné were important centers of learning, with mosques and schools run by religious men. In the sixteenth century Muslims in West Africa wrote on a wide range of subjects, including religion, history, and moral issues. Firsthand descriptions of these centers of learning may be found in Leo Africanus’s description of his visit to the Songhai Empire around 1513-1515. He wrote that the capital city of Niani had “many mosques, priests, and professors who teach in the mosques.” Concerning Timbuktu, he noted:

there are numerous judges, professors, and holy men, all being handsomely maintained by the king, who holds scholars in much honour. Here, too, they sell many handwritten books from North Africa. More profit is made from selling books in Timbuktu than from any other brand of trade.

The Sankore Mosque. The wealth and fame of West African rulers such as Mansa Musa attracted North African scholars to their capital cities, including Timbuktu. The Sankore mosque, which Mansa Musa had built in Timbuktu during the 1330s, became renowned as a center for higher education. Its library, which burned in the nineteenth century, is said to have included copies of all the important works of Muslim learning. Studies there included the humanities (theology, exegesis, tradition, and jurisprudence), grammar, rhetoric, logic, astrology, astronomy, history, and geography.

The Learned Class. Through learning to read and write Arabic and gaining access to the extensive Arabic literature of science (including world geography), an elite group of West Africans became well connected with the outside world. The general prosperity created by trade made it possible to bring scholars from the north to towns of the Sudan (savanna) and the Sahel. This Arabic learning, however, was reserved for those in royal courts and commercial centers and did not include native languages, history, and cultures. It was therefore a marginal part of the whole culture. Although Arabic writers of the time portrayed Mali, Songhai, and Bornu as Muslim states, their Islamic faith was largely superficial. When meeting with Muslims from North Africa, West African kings acted like pious Muslims,

but in their interactions with their subjects they professed belief in their traditional religions.


Ayele Bekerie, African Writing Systems, John Henrik Clarke Africana Library, Cornell University, 1998 <>.

Pekka Masonen, “Trans-Saharan Trade and the West African Discovery of the Mediterranean,” in Ethnic Encounter and Culture Change: Papers for the Third Nordic Conference on Middle Eastern Studies, edited by M’hammed Sabour and Knut S. Vikor (Bergen: Nordic Society for Middle Eastern Studies, 1997), pp. 116-142.

D. T. Niane, ed., Africa from the Twelfth to the Sixteenth Century, volume 4 of General History of Africa (Paris: United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, 1984).

Odyssey/Africa Online, Michael C. Carlos Museum of Emory University, Memorial Art Gallery of the University of Rochester, Dallas Museum of Art 2002 <>.

Ivan Van Sertima, ed., Blacks in Science, Ancient and Modern (New Brunswick & London: Transaction Books, 1983).

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Communication: Written Traditions

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Communication: Written Traditions