Bambara is a local language in Mali spoken and understood by about 15 million Malians. It is the most widely spoken language locally and trumps the usage of French, the country’s colonial language. Blind people in Mali now have a sense of belonging as Braille experts and linguists have translated Bambara into Braille.
The journey to achieving this remarkable feat began in 2019 when Issiako Ballo, a linguist expert at the University of Bamako, was approached by Sightsavers, a non-profit to be the lead linguist in the project to adapting Braille to Bambara.
Ballo saw this as an opportunity for blind students in Mali to have more access to education because almost everyone has command over Bambara, and expressing ideas and thoughts when the language is well understood facilitates the learning process.
“If they can learn these subjects in their language, I think that will only strengthen the knowledge and mastery of science, the knowledge, and mastery of the literature, the knowledge about the world around us,” he said.
There was the need to develop additional alphabets for the translation of Bambara to Braille because unlike French, Bambara has more alphabets and intonations. However, the experts had to fit the new letters into the six points available in the Braille cell.
People like Moussa Keita who have been at the Malian Union of the Blind (UMAV), have received education in French Braille and will soon be one of six teachers to teach Braille in the country’s most widely spoken language.
Keita is ecstatic about the new opportunities that will be available to students if tutoring should commence with Braille in Bambara.
“When I think of this project, that thought not just of the visually handicapped, but moreover, that thought of Africans, particularly of Malians, to write Braille in their language … to try and adapt Braille to Bambara, which isn’t even the official language … really, it’s a feeling of pride and joy for us,” he said to VOA.
One student at the Malian Union of the Blind explained what this translation means to him. He said now when one does not comprehend anything in French, they can easily read and understand it in Bambara then translate it back into French.
This breakthrough will bring the necessary inclusivity for all those who did not get a chance at education because not every blind person is French literate but most of them can speak Bambara. The translation also gives ‘autonomy’ to those who, according to Abdoulaye Diallo, a blind physical therapist and a Braille specialist, were in the ‘margins’.
Bambara Braille will ‘save’ them now because tutoring in many schools is done in the local language rather than in French. Linguists are looking at translating Fulani and Songhay, Mali’s other national languages, to Braille.
In Mali, there are an estimated 160,000 blind people, statistics from the Ministry of Health show. A report by The Observers says many children go blind from preventable illnesses such as measles, conjunctivitis or eye trauma. It said “harmful traditional practices” can also cause blindness.