Why do people say that sub-Saharan Africa never had any form of written language?

Author:Françoise Marie -

Why do people say that sub-Saharan Africa never had any form of written language?

Two main reasons explain this question, and they are the following:

Reason # 1 : Because there is a difference between a writing system and a proto-writing system. You can inscribe meaning through a proto-writing system.

Proto Writing System

While going deep underground to make cave paintings of animals, early humans as far back as 40,000 years ago also developed a system of signs that is remarkably consistent across and between continents. Genevieve Von Petzinger has spent years cataloguing these symbols (many already documented) in Europe, visiting 52 caves in France, Spain, Italy and Portugal. The symbols range from dots, lines, triangles, squares and zigzags to more complex forms like ladder shapes, known as tectiforms.

Reason # 2 : Many Africans refused to reveal their writing systems to European colonialists.

They kept them as secrets. Many of these scripts are being discovered lately. In addition, many of our writing systems have not yet been studied by Westerners like the storied pots used as a means of communication between husband and wife among the Woyo and Ngoyo, the proverb covers.

Many Westerners fail to understand that you can write or inscribe meaning without letters. Many of our scripts do not use letters but geometric forms like Mandombe, an alphasyllabary.

The Kongo learn to read, draw, write and count in initiation schools who also taught technology and medicine. There were four of them: Lemba, Kimpasi, Kimba and Ndembo. They were suppressed by the Portuguese and later the Belgians. They went underground.

Kongo writing system exists in many forms, the oldest of which are:

The "pictographic" form, which transcribes directly through the signs the sounds (verbal forms) of the language.

The phonographic form: The signs have kept the same phonetic value or a value very close to the graphic form hat inspired them. Used for historical archives some of which are maintained between the museums of Tervuren, Rotterdam and the Vatican.

The "logographic" / figurative form: signs are here associated with proverbs and understandable only in the context of the culture that produced them. This is the form that produces for example "proverb pot covers", "initiatory vases and masks" etc.

Amazon.com: Kongo Graphic Writing and Other Narratives of the Sign (9781439908167): Martinez-Ruiz, Barbaro: Books

Kongo Graphic Writing and Other Narratives of the Sign

The author argues “that multiple, varied communication tools, including written symbols, religious objects, oral traditions, and body language, have consistently been integrated by the Bakongo into structured systems of graphic writing” (p. 1). The complex has deep historical roots, “the earliest evidence” for which “is found in multiple archaeological sites around the border between Angola and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, an area that covers close to two hundred kilometers”

Wendy Laura Belcher

Early African Literature: An Anthology of Written Texts from 3000 BCE to 1900 CE

Contrary to the general perception, the African literatures written before the twentieth century are substantial. Whatever limits can be imagined—in terms of geography, genre, language, audience, era—these literatures exceed them. Before the twentieth century, Africans wrote not just in Europe, but also on the African continent; they wrote not just in European languages, but in African languages; they wrote not just for European consumption, but for their own consumption; they wrote not just in northern Africa, but in sub-Saharan Africa; they wrote not just orally, but textually; they wrote not just historical or religious texts, but poetry and epic and autobiography; and they wrote not just in the nineteenth century, but in the eighteenth century and long, long before.

Yet, the general public and even scholars of African literature are often unaware of these early literatures, believing that African literature starts in the late 1950s as the result of colonization. In this view, Africa is a savage Caliban who is introduced to writing by a European Prospero and Things Fall Apart is his first articulation. Westerns assume that whatever writing happened to be done on the continent was not done by Africans or in African languages and scripts until very recently. This lack of awareness of three thousand years of African writing is particularly surprising given the legions of pre-twentieth-century African texts that historians have uncovered and studied in the past fifty years. While historians labor to overturn long-held misconceptions about Africa as a place without history, literary critics have done little to overturn misconceptions of Africa as a place without literature. The extraordinarily rich trove of pre-twentieth century African continental literatures has yet to be written about in any depth by Euro-American literary critics. Certainly, no book addresses their work at length and almost no literary essays published outside of Africa address the continental works.

African literature written over the last millennia remains largely invisible for several significant reasons. One, many of the texts written more than two hundred years ago have not survived, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa. Scholars know they existed because travelers reported on them and extant texts make reference to now lost texts. Two, many were never published as print books and of those few manuscripts that were, most were published in obscure places. Three, very few of the texts written in an African language have been translated into any European language. For instance, the hundreds of Ethiopian indigenous texts remain obscure because only a handful have been translated into English. Indeed, in the dramatic cases of texts written in Meroitic or Libyco-Berber, the texts cannot be translated as the language and script is no longer understood. One of the great challenges of the twenty-first century will be archiving and translating the vast libraries of East and West Africa. Fourth, many continue to see sub-Saharan Africa and North Africa as geographic and literary domains separated by a gulf, rather than, as historians and archeologists continue to prove, having deep links to each other. As the origin of the human species, Africa is home to the most diverse peoples of any continent, one of its great strengths. That some of these Africans are lighter-skinned than others is an irrelevancy. All those born on the African continent, and whose forbearers were born on the continent, are Africans and have contributed to its vibrancy. The obsession with the race or region of African authors has resulting in obscuring the literature of the continent and prevented productive comparative work.

This lack of knowledge about early African literature torques the study of modern African literature. Analyses of contemporary writing in the United States, Britain, or Europe often take into account a centuries-old literary tradition rooted in different but related forms and themes. But research on African literature today tends to ignore the continent’s long literary history, with most scholars today focusing on African writing in European languages produced since 1950. For example, few situate later Nigerian experiments in English like Tutola’s Palm-Wine Drinkard, Saro-Wiwa’s Sozaboy, and Iweala’s Beast of No Nation in relation to the English of earlier West African texts, such as the eighteenth-century diary of Antera Duke, an Efik slave-trading chief in what is now Nigeria. Likewise, few lay Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart alongside the work of Nigerian authors of the nineteenth century who were also concerned about the interaction of Christianity and local beliefs—including Egba clergyman Joseph Wright (1839), the famous Yoruba Anglican bishop Samuel Ajayi Crowther (1837), and the Hausa writer Madugu Mohamman Mai Gashin Baki . Senegalese poet Léopold Sédar Senghor’s work on the Queen of Sheba is not considered in the context of the thirteenth-century Ethiopian text about her, Kebra Nagast.

Selection of Texts

Whatever the reasons that these literatures do not get the attention they deserve, the time is well past to start giving them that attention. This book therefore seeks to introduce these literatures and provide excerpts from a few. Influenced by recent trends in literary theory, particularly new historicism, I have selected texts using broad definitions of the basic categories. By “written text,” I mean anything inscribed by human hand or machine on any surface—whether parchment, paper, or stone—that uses a system of signs (symbolic or orthographic) that can be read by many members of a particular cultural group. By “Africa,” I mean the entire African continent and the peoples who originated there. By “African author,” I mean anyone born on the African continent to someone born on the African continent. I do not exclude authors on the basis of race, although I do note the author’s national or ethnic background. In the case of North Africa, I have been more exclusionary, focusing on African texts by those whose families were not originally from Europe or the Middle East. Thus, I have not included North African Roman or Greek authors. Since African diasporic literature written in the Americas has been collected and published frequently elsewhere, I do not include African diasporic authors unless they were born on the African continent. By “literature,” I mean any original text with elevated language or an active “I”, but specifically poetry, epic, romance, hymns, fictional narrative, epistles and belles letters, personal manifestos or philosophy, diaries, biography, and autobiography. Although many African translations vary significantly from their Arabic or Greek originals, I have not included any translations of texts written outside of Africa. By “written African literature,” I mean a text composed and written down in any language by an African author (or, in some rare cases, his or her amanuensis). I do not exclude texts written in European languages. I do exclude oral texts—although Africa has always had a vast unwritten literature in the oral forms of drama, epic, and poetry, that is not the subject of this book. A desideratum remains studying oral and written African literature together; I hope this book will aid that process.

Our exclusion of certain authors or texts is never an argument about their importance or salience, but only due to such authors and texts finding adequate representation elsewhere. Thus, I do not generally include texts written by Europeans in Africa, although many Europeans who lived on the African continent for long periods had imbibed local thought and can be seen as part of a larger African literature. Such authors are generally represented well in travel anthologies.

Quite frequently, texts are omitted because no English translation is available, no translation is possible, or all copies of the text have been lost. It is quite clear that for every extant pre-twentieth century African text, a thousand others did exist but were destroyed by the elements or conquest.

Categories of Texts

In practice, this means that four general categories of written African literature are represented in this text. A prominent category of early written African literature is that written by Africans outside of Africa, in particular those who spent the majority of their lives in Europe or the Americas and were trained in Western educational systems. This includes not only the literature written by the millions of Africans taken to the new world as slaves, but also that written by the hundreds of African youths whom Europeans sent from the continent every year to study in England, France, Portugal, Italy, Holland and Germany from the 1400s on. While the genre of the slave narrative has been widely explored by literary scholars, this later type of the writing done by free Africans in Europe has received less attention, perhaps because much of it was not written in English. For instance, a rich but almost entirely unexplored body of early written African literature is African scholarship in Latin for European universities. I suspect that many discoveries of African literature will be made as more material from European universities is digitalized and the African authorship of some of these theses becomes known. Likewise for early written African literature in Portuguese.

Another category of early written African literature is texts written by Africans on the African continent in Arabic. These include medieval inscriptions in Arabic from eleventh-century gravestones in Mali; letters written by the Emperor of Morocco in the 1600s to various European heads of state; Tarikh el-Fettach, a fifteenth-century manuscript about Jews in Tendirma, near Timbuktu; Tarikh es-Soudan, a seventeenth-century manuscript written by Abd-al-Rahman al Sadi of Timbuktu about the lives and wars of the kings of Mali in the 1200s, Kitab Ghanja, a chronicle from the 1700s in modern Ghana, and so on. Various archival projects in West and East Africa are bringing to light even more African manuscripts dating from the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries. Unfortunately, a tendency to see Arabic as a language foreign to the African continent, despite being in use there for over a thousand years, leads to dismissing Arabic African literature as not indigenous. This would be tantamount to dismissing British literature as Italian because of the Roman invasion 2000 years ago. Misconceptions of Africa as a savage, untouched paradise do not square with the reality of Africa’s millennia of trading relationships with non-Africans and its long traditions of Islam and Christianity.

The final category of early written African literature is that written by Africans on the African continent in African languages, sometimes in African scripts. The African languages with the largest bodies of extant texts are Gəˁəz, Kiswahili, Hausa, Amharic, and Somali [more].

We do not want to suggest that these categories cannot be fruitfully read together. For instance, if I look at some of the early writing by just one ethnic group in West Africa over just one century I find it occurring in several languages and over several continents. There were at least half-a-dozen eighteenth-century Akan writers (Gonja Chronicles?) whose manuscripts have survived. These texts by these Akan authors must be seen as the result of a particular African discursive system, not just as tainted by the European languages in which they were sometimes written. All these men were shaped by the same African culture and their texts should be read in light of each other.

African Scripts

As the table shows, ancient Africa had many indigenous scripts, including hieroglyphs and hieratic, both developed in Egypt around five thousand years ago to represent the ancient Egyptian language. Egyptians then invented Demotic, which was related to Hieratic, and Coptic, which was related to Greek and used to represent an African language. Nubians used all the Egyptian scripts, but also invented their own, Meroitic, to represent the African languages of Meroitic and Old Nubian. Meanwhile in North Africa and the Sahel, Africans invented the Libyco-Berber scripts to represent a variety of Berber languages, while East Africans invented Ethiopic (or Gəˁəz) to represent the African language of Gəˁəz. In the medieval period, Africans in East, West, and North Africa used the Arabic script, but in the early modern period, Africans invented Ajami, which is related to the Arabic script, for their East and West African languages. It is only in the twentieth century that the Roman alphabet came to be used widely in Africa. By the late eighteenth century, Africans also invented the secret ideographic writing system of Nsibidi. That Nsibidi was “discovered” by Europeans only in the twentieth century suggests that other unknown African scripts may have been used during the early modern period. It is also worthwhile to mention Adinkra, a pictographic script invented by 1817 in what is now Ghana, and Vai, an alphabet invented in Liberia in the 1830s. In the twentieth century, Africans invented over a dozen scripts, but only a few are still used.

Last but not least, many Africans adopted or adapted writing systems created by Europeans or Arabs.

The Kongo Kingdom

The Kongo Kingdom: The Origins, Dynamics and Cosmopolitan ...

Koen Bostoen, ‎Inge Brinkman -2018

Literary Practices in the Kongo Region

Africa has been considered ‘the oral continent’ par excellence (e.g. Derive 2008). Africa’s assumed orality has been related to matters ranging from the continuing relevance of proverbs, griots, and myths of origin to the appropriation of the mobile phone. This stereotype has been qualified already (Finnegan 2007), but especially for Africa’s pre- colonial past, studies of the spread of paper, books, and literacy are few and far between. Yet, books have been important in the precolonial history of various regions in Africa – Ethiopia, the Swahili coast, many West- African cultures, and also the Kongo kingdom.

Soon after contact between Portugal and Kongo was established in 1482 there is evidence of the presence of books in the Kongo kingdom as the King of Portugal sent his colleague ‘everything that is necessary for a church’, crosses, organs, cruets, and also ‘many books’ (Brásio 1952 : 71). On other occasions as well, books were sent from Portugal to Kongo: a list of items sent in 1512 refers to ‘the books that are in the treasury to be packed and delivered to Álvaro Lopez, trained as a linguist’ (Br á sio 1952 : 252). Reportedly two German printers were also sent over, but they soon returned, as ‘the land was not healthy for Germans’ (Brásio 1954: 19).

The Kongo nobility learnt to read and write in Portuguese and the upper layer of society studied Portuguese books related to Christianity .Apart from the letters written by King Afonso I to his Portuguese colleague (Brásio 1952 ; Jadin and Dicorato 1974 ), he himself was said to do ‘ … nothing but study and many times he falls asleep over the books, and many times he forgets to eat and drink for talking about the things of our Lord, and he is so absorbed by the things of the scripture that he even forgets himself’ (Br á sio 1952 : 361).

There may be a hagiographic tendency in this letter, as it was sent by the king’s vicar to the Portuguese king. It is clear, however, that the king and his entourage were eager to become literate, and to put the new skills to use: the king took to writing letters and reading books. The quote falls within the parameters of classic studies on the acquisition of literacy, in which reading is viewed as a private and individual experience (Ong 1982). Other people in the Kongo kingdom may also have read books, letters, and other materials on a private and individual basis. At the same time, ‘the book’ may not have been limited to this.

By far most books concerned Christian literature, although Afonso I also studied the entire book of Portuguese law, after requesting the Portuguese king for a copy, as the judge in Kongo told him it was no longer in his possession, he only having books in Latin (Brásio 1952: 356, 374– 5). This hints at private ownership of books: they were in individual possession and could only be borrowed with the owner’s consent. Another reference of non- Christian character is the letter by the Portuguese king that told Afonso I to keep a record book as a form of administration: ‘As in your kingdom there is reading and writing, you must adopt the manner of all Christian kings.

To have account books and inscribe all the taxes and the names of the nobles’(Br á sio 1952 : 530). Yet Christian literature, including the Bible, hymn books, mass books, and catechisms, constitute the most frequently mentioned books in the Kongo kingdom. Apart from the spiritual books meant to inspire the Christian congregation in the Kongo kingdom, church life was also registered in books. Thus each baptism was noted in a book, as described by Dionigi Carli when he fell ill in 1668 in the province of Mbamba and still baptized ten to twelve children per day from his sickbed: ‘two blacks support me under the shoulders, another holds the book, and a third the baptistery’(du Cheyron d’Abzac 2006 : 134). Similarly, each matrimony was written down in a book (Jadin 1970: 437). There were books that listed all confessions made (Zucchelli 1712 : 175) and the names of people becoming knights in the military Order of Christ were listed in liuros da matricula (registration books) (Brásio 1955a : 553).

Books in Kikongo were clearly in demand: the Spanish Capuchin Antonio de Teruel requested the printing of as many as seven books in Kikongo: ‘a manual for the people of Congo’, a catechism , a book of sermons and calendar ‘following their customs’, a book of feast days for the Virgin, a book of prayers for lay congregations, a ‘vocabulary in four languages, Latin, Italian, Spanish and Congolese’, and finally a ‘grammar and syntax to learn the language easily’ (Saccardo 1982 : 378; Thornton 2011d ). Books in other regional languages also became available: a first catechism in Kimbundu was printed in 1642 (Tavares and Santos 2002: 477).

Kongo people integrated the notion of ‘books’ into their history, even if books remained rare and costly. Books were indeed precious items in the Kongo kingdom and highly valued. A document written by the end of the sixteenth century, found in the archives of the Vatican, stated: ‘Nearly all of them learn how to read so as to know how to recite the Divine Office; they would sell all they have to buy a manuscript or a book and if they have one, they always carry it by hand with their rosary which they say often and with devotion’ (Cuvelier and Jadin 1954: 131).

Early references mostly concern the kingdom’s capital, Mbanza Kongo. Numerous references indicate the spread of literacy throughout the kingdom: Afonso I and his successors implemented an educational system for the nobility, largely led by the intellectual elite of the already mentioned mestres. Letter writing and literacy –usually in Portuguese – became important political instruments.

Paper, ink, stamps with inscriptions, written certificates and permits, etc. were used in the administration of the church and of the court. Letters were exchanged between the capital and the provinces to ensure communication among the political- intellectual elite (Hilton 1985: 79– 80). In other words, literacy came to play a role in the process of centralization of the kingdom: cohesion in the kingdom was partly established through the Christian church, education, and the spread of literacy.

Writing and literacy spread not only through the Kongo kingdom. After Luanda had been founded in 1575, Angola also formed a centre from where literacy spread, as testified by reports of pombeiro traders and Portuguese travellers (Tavares and Santos 2002: 475, 499). While some of the letters from and to the various regions of the kingdom can be found in Brásio’s volumes, the spread of books is more difficult to trace. Even so, the presence of books is attested to. Thus Queen Njinga of neighbouring Matamba brought ‘crosses, medals, rosaries, and spiritual books’ taken by her troops from the battlefield in the 1640s to Christian prisoners of war (de Castro and du Cheyron d’Abzac 2010 : 112).

In the regions further north, in the polities of Kikongo , Ngoyo, and Loango , documents say very little about books in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. It was only with the upcoming overseas trade relations in the later seventeenth century that books came to play a more central role in these more northern regions. The broker states that were based on trade relations came to relate to books in a very different manner from the earlier Kongo Christian book tradition. Literacy was here related to trade: logbooks, inventories, account books, and contracts This later ‘bookness’ in the wider Kikongo- speaking regions took various, novel directions, not necessarily coinciding with European ideas about a book. Many of these belonged to non- syntactical, non- textual uses of writing (Goody 1986: 54).

While the earlier Christian book traditions in the Kongo kingdom had not astonished European visitors, in the later eighteenth century and nineteenth century, Europeans often mocked local book- related practices. Thus a German traveller ridiculed not only the material state of a book that the sons of the Kongo king showed him, writing that it concerned ‘the rudiments of a book, lacking the beginning, the end as well as the title’, and the fact that they ‘of course’ could not read it, he also referred ironically to one of the noblemen’s ‘glassless glasses that could find no resting point on his broad nose’ (Bastian 1859 : 119– 21; see also Tavares and Santos 2002 : 490, giving an example of the Portuguese travellers Capelo and Ivens). The possession of ‘glassless glasses’ points to the notion that the idea of reading and writing could be appreciated beyond the process of creating or deciphering texts.

The meaning of the word ‘book’ in the northern regions came to include anything written: a ticket, a letter, a contract, a book, accounts, etc. ‘With mukanda the Fiote indicate everything that is written or printed, especially letters and the notes that one hands them for hiring contracts, with specification of the negotiated payment’ (Güssfeldt et al. 1888: part 1 : 153). Trade on the coast between the Congo River and Ambriz took the following procedure: ‘As each bag of coffee (or other produce) is weighed and settled for, the buyer writes the number of “longs” that has been agreed upon on a small piece of paper called by the natives “Mucanda”, or, by those who speak English, a “book”; the buyer continues his weighing and purchasing, and the “books” are taken by the natives to the store’ (Monteiro 1875 : 107– 8).

The usage of such ‘books’ or mikanda (plural of mukanda) was widespread, according to Julius Falkenstein: ‘A Mukanda was issued for everything thinkable’ (Güssfeldt et al. 1888: part 2 : 18).

In some cases, the word mukanda shifted and came to mean ‘letter’ exclusively, while for book another term was used, in nearly all cases buku (cf. infra). There was a shift from largely Christian, European- based ways of experiencing books in the Kongo kingdom especially in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, to new, local meanings in the realm of trade, with a nodal point in the coastal regions in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. This broad spectrum on books and book- related practices can be related to linguistic evidence from the Kikongo Language Cluster

Books entered the region through various domains: Christianity, trade and political administration. The history of the translation of book- related concepts will be considered in connection with the spread and employment of books in the region.


Article by Françoise Marie on Quora.


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