BY Bruno Goes, 12:01pm January 12, 2023,

How Falou Ngom’s discovery of his father’s handwritten documents turned into an argument that African literacy pre-existed western influences

Fallou Ngom. Photo credit: Boston University

Fallou Ngom was born in the small West African country of Senegal in 1960. His father, Shaykh Ngom, was a local trader who traveled frequently between the rural villages of Senegal, selling goods and trading with other merchants. Growing up, Fallou was fascinated by the stories his father would tell him about the different cultures and languages he encountered on his travels. He quickly became interested in learning as many languages as he could and by the time he was a teenager, he was fluent in French, Wolof, and several other regional languages.

In 1980, Fallou left Senegal to study French and linguistics at Western Washington University in the United States. He excelled in his studies, and after completing his degree, he took a job as a French professor at the same university. But despite his success in the US, Fallou never forgot his roots in Senegal and he always maintained close ties with his family and community there.

In 1996, Fallou’s father passed away. When he returned to Senegal for the funeral, he brought back with him a box of his father’s old papers, which he stored in a corner of his office. For nearly a decade, the box sat unopened, until one day in 2004, Fallou decided to take a look inside. Inside, he found a note, written in his father’s handwriting, about a debt he owed to a local trader. What struck Fallou was that the note wasn’t written in French, the official language of Senegal, but in a script that looked like Arabic but sounded like Wolof, a regional language. This discovery surprised him as he had thought his father was illiterate.

Curious, Fallou asked his brother to check with the trader and confirm the debt, which he did and the trader had the same note in the same Arabic-turned-Fula script. This realization that his father and many other African people written off by official government authorities as illiterate, were in fact communicating in a language all their own sparked Fallou’s interest in this new writing system, which he later found out as Ajami.

Determined to learn more about Ajami, Fallou applied for a postdoctoral fellowship and traveled back to West Africa to research this mysterious script. His work took him to villages and cities all over the region, where he found Ajami everywhere, from the records of local shopkeepers to the verse of poets. He discovered that it was used for religious texts, medical diagnoses, advertisements, love poems, business records, contracts, and writings on astrology, ethics, morality, history, and geography.

Fallou’s research was groundbreaking and brought to light a rich and previously unknown aspect of African history. His findings demonstrated that the people of West Africa had a long and rich tradition of writing, dating back centuries, and that this tradition had been deliberately suppressed by government authorities. His work has been published in many scholarly journals and he has been invited to speak at universities and conferences all over the world. He has also been awarded numerous academic and professional honors, including the award of a research fellowship from Boston University where he is currently a Professor of Anthropology.

Fallou continues to work tirelessly to promote the study of Ajami and to raise awareness about the rich cultural heritage of West Africa. He is a passionate advocate for the preservation of endangered languages and cultures, and he has dedicated his life to uncovering and sharing the stories of the people of his homeland. Through his work, Fallou has helped to bring new understanding to the history and culture of West Africa and has made an invaluable contribution to the field of linguistics and anthropology.

Fallou Ngom’s work on Ajami and the African writing systems has been an invaluable contribution to the empowerment of the black community. His research not only uncovers a previously unknown aspect of African history but also challenges the narrative that Black people are illiterate. By bringing to light a rich and ancient tradition of writing, Fallou’s work helps to deconstruct the stereotypes and prejudices that have been imposed on Black people and their culture.

The suppression of African culture by government authorities and mainstream media has been a longstanding problem that has had a devastating impact on the continent and its people. Throughout history, many African cultures have been dismissed, misrepresented, or outright erased by those in power, who have sought to impose their own narratives and ideologies on the continent. This suppression of culture has served to dehumanize and marginalize the people of Africa and has contributed to the perpetuation of stereotypes and prejudices that are still present today.

One of the main ways in which African culture has been suppressed is through the imposition of colonial languages, such as French, English, and Portuguese, which have been used as a tool of control and domination. This has led to the devaluation of indigenous languages, and has also made it difficult for people to communicate, preserve and share their history, culture and knowledge through oral tradition, and written forms like Ajami script.

Another way in which African culture has been suppressed is through the portrayal of Africa and its people in mainstream media. Often, African cultures are reduced to stereotypes and portrayed as “primitive” or “backward.” This perpetuates harmful stereotypes and marginalizes the people of Africa, leading to a lack of representation and understanding of their cultures in the world.

The suppression of African culture is a complex and multi-faceted problem that has had a profound impact on the continent and its people. However, by highlighting and valorizing the rich and diverse cultural heritage of Africa, scholars like Fallou Ngom and many others, contribute to the counterpoint of this narrative and help to empower the black community and reclaim its heritage.

Last Edited by:Sandra Appiah Updated: January 12, 2023


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