Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Ancient writing in West Africa

Today, I came across the subject of the Olmecs. The Olmecs were a people who lived in South Central Mexico from the 1400BC to 400BC. Apparently, there are some who believe that a large population of the Olmecs were of African origin, specifically, of West African origin. I did google searches and visited several pages but did not read anything that led credence to that claim. What piqued my interest however was reference to some ancient Olmec script that was similar to an ancient Mende script.

What writing could the Mende, a West African people, have had in 400BC?

I do not mean to be condescending towards the idea of ancient African West African writing. As a child, I hoped that some ancient artifacts will be discovered and our history would be uncovered, but I have now come to accept that we did not write, we did not build monuments (none so ancient) that have withstood our climate. Every now and then, I feel a fleeting sense of regret that my people, my ancestors did not develop some form of writing. But are my feelings misplaced?

I found a reference to a book by Saki Mafundikwa, a Zimbabwean graphics artist, "Afrikan Alphabets: The story of writing in Afrika". I was skeptical, afterall, there was writing in Egypt. The Egyptian writing that could not migrate across the Sahara. Even though I recall reading a book long ago (title I cannot recall) that claimed that Yorubas migrated from Egypt, I will maintain the assumption that writing did not migrate with them. But I digress...

Sample pages from "Afrikan Alphabets: The story of writing in Afrika" provide a clue as to what I may find in the book.

The commonly held belief is that most graphic symbols in Afrikan societies are merely decorative. In fact, in Afrikan culture, symbols fill an important communication role. There are stories to be found in the rock art of the San people in southern Afrika; the carvings on the calabashes of the Kikuyu of Kenya. There is information stored in tally sticks like the Ishango Bone from The Congo, the knotted strings of Nigerian Aroko, and the scarification found in many Afrikan societies. The meaning attributed to these symbols and artifacts qualifies as proto-writing, or forerunners of writing. Most of these symbol systems are several thousand years old, suggesting that Afrika has a much older tradition of writing than some have recognized.

I am one of those who believe that graphic symbols on calabashes, wooden statues, rocks are decorative. Knotted strings of Nigerian Aroko? Is that the iroko tree? Well, I'm ready to be educated, or re-educated about the history of writing in West Africa.

Once I read the book, I'll be back to share my thoughts and new learnings.

Thursday, March 05, 2009

A precious cow from Tales by Moonlight

I set a goal to publish at least one book review per month and yet, February ended without any review. I intend to make it up. The good news is that the book is already picked, "Tales by Moonlight" by Nigerian Television Authority, so my review will follow shortly.

In the meantime, here is one of the stories from the book about a man, his three sons and a precious cow. I was very amused by the story when I first read it. The idea that a man disowned his children because of a cow seemed ridiculous. Until I started thinking of the cow as less of a cow but more of an asset.

The story is of Fulani origin. The Fulani are traditionally a normadic, cattle-rearing group that inhabited parts of West Africa. The cow must have been symbolic of the wealth of a Fulani man. It was all the property he had. The cow dictated the man's lifestyle - the cow's needs determined where the man resided at any point in time. Everything was done to satisfy the cow. So it should come as no big stretch of the imagination what would happen if a man fell prey to a manipulative and vindictive cow. I imagine that this story may have been used to illustrate why an alternative lifestyle was preferable to the pastoralist one. One where man farmed, made crafts and was more in control of his destiny.

The images used within the story text came from illustrations in the book.