Did Yoruba exist only in oral form until Western colonizers arrived from Britain? Have you heard of Ajami?
Ajami is the Arabic word for foreigner. It also describes an Arabic-based writing system adopted within some African societies as far back as the fourteenth century. Some of the languages that were written in Ajami include Yoruba, Kiswahili, Hausa, Oromo, Somali, Tigrinya, Amharic, Malagasy, Bamanakan, Madinka, Kanuri, Berber, Wolof, Fulfude. Ajami literatures first developed as a way to propagate Islamic education but eventually evolved to be used in other ways: to record business transactions, herbal medicine recipes, write poetry and record mundane day-to-day activities.
Although Ajami literatures contain a wealth of information on Africa’s intellectual and cultural history, scholars have not paid much attention to them. In fact, in some archives, Ajami documents were classified as “unreadable Arabic” based on the assumption that sub-Saharan African languages were not written down before Western colonization. Indeed, the secrets of Ajami scripts are hard to unlock because they require an understanding of Arabic script, the African language in consideration, and the system of transcription. This is why Ajami became the medium of communication for the resistance during anti-colonial struggles: it was inaccessible to European colonizers.
So, to answer the question posed at the start, Yoruba was written long before the British arrived in the Bight of Benin. Now, the onus is on us to unearth the treasures hidden in Yoruba Ajami scripts and in the Ajami scripts of other languages.
By Iyeyinka Omigbodun
(Photo: Lameen Souag)