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Nsibidi/Ajami: Rebirthing Nigeria’s Lost Languages

By Njideka Agbo & Oreoritse Tariemi
23 January 2022   |   6:48 am
A few years ago, a document written in Nsibidi (dated 2000 BC), containing the first page of the words of the iconic writer, Chinua Achebe, of his book, “Things Fall Apart”, surfaced on the internet. It was the first time a large portion of Nigerians were exposed to one of the most popular ancient forms…

A few years ago, a document written in Nsibidi (dated 2000 BC), containing the first page of the words of the iconic writer, Chinua Achebe, of his book, “Things Fall Apart”, surfaced on the internet.

The new Things Fall Apart cover designed by Victor Ekpuk

It was the first time a large portion of Nigerians were exposed to one of the most popular ancient forms of writing in Africa, besides the Egyptian Hieroglyphics.

Then, in 2017, to celebrate the 60th anniversary of “Things Fall Apart”, an artist- Victor Ekpuk- redesigned the cover using Nsibidi.

In 2006, UNESCO placed Igbo, the language spoken by over 20 million people from the South-Eastern part of Nigeria, on the “endangered list” and predicted that it may go extinct in the next 50 years. 

Addressing this, an Igbo linguist enthusiast, Lotanna Igwe-Odunze said, “Today, Ìgbò is a threatened, if not endangered language because, no matter how many initiatives and meetings we attend to encourage people to speak Ìgbò, our language will never truly flourish until we write and read widely in Ìgbò.”

Likewise, Yoruba, spoken by one of the largest ethnic groups in West Africa and arguably the most popular in the region, is being threatened. 

In 2020, the Executive Secretary, National Institute for Cultural Orientation (NICO), Mr Ado Muhammed Yahuza, warned that if cautious measures are not put in place, Yoruba, the most widely spread language in sub-Saharan Africa, may not survive the next 50 years. 

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Language transcends communication. Besides being a form of identity, it is one of the major keys to unlocking history. Across the world, there are 6500 spoken languages and 4065 written languages. 

Unlike the worldwide popularity of the Egyptian Hieroglyphics, the reverse is the case about Nsibidi. 

Nsibidi. Photo Pinterest

Conceived by the Ekoi (Ejagham) people of Cross River state in Nigeria, and used by exclusive societies for men of power and authority including the Ekpe Leopard Secret Society, before extending to other regions of Eastern Nigeria, Nsibidi’s ideograms share similarities with the hieroglyphs. 

This exclusive form of writing fascinated the colonialists such that Author P.A Talbot described it as “a kind of primitive secret writing” which was communicated on “cut or painted on split palm stems”.

Despite its popularity, Nsibidi began to dwindle from 1900 until the final adoption of the Onwu Alphabet in 1961.

A less popular indigenous writing language but also integral to the history of Western and Northern Nigeria, Ajami Script dates back to pre-colonial Nigeria. According to Fallou Ngom, the Director of the African Studies Center at Boston University, Ajami first developed in communities with a long history of practising Islam, who saw the need to adapt Arabic into their tongues for religious purposes first, before it found a more secular use and became an instrument to record notable dates, medicines and potions as well as laws. In fact, Mustapha Hashim Kurfi, a Senior Lecturer at Bayero University, writes that the script was so widely shared across communities refuting claims that before the coming of the Europeans, Africa had no written history.

A Nigerian note.

For the Yoruba people of Western Nigeria, Ajami laid a foundation upon which present-day Yoruba alphabets found their footing. However, in drafting the present-day Yoruba alphabets, Rev. Samuel Ajayi-Crowther’s primary objective, enunciated in his 1852 book “Vocabulary of the Yoruba Language”, was to facilitate the diffusion of Christianity among the Western tribe. It is noteworthy to add that, in 1843, Rev Ajayi-Crowther had written the first Yoruba grammar book using the Latin scripts with their diacritics. Hence, adopting the Ajami script, which has been closely identified with Islam to promote Christianity, a religion that competed for converts was self-defeating at best. 

One can argue that Rev. Ajayi-Crowther’s attempt became quickly successful because Ajami was not a popular means of communication in Yorubaland and was particularly used by people belonging to the Islam religion.

Cultural activist, Kọ́lá Túbọ̀sún notes that although not much of Ajami scripts has survived because it was not uniformly used, the “Arabic” inscription on the Naira notes is Ajami. 

“Every Naira note has an Ajami script describing the note you are holding,” he tells Guardian Life. 

However, the history of a culture is vastly considered incomplete without written accounts of traditions and norms handed down across generations. According to Anthropologist Elizabeth Tonkin, oral tradition is not considered a sole source of history as what is told is only what memory remembers, giving room for discrepancy and the loss of facts.

Buttressing this, Iheanyi Igboko, the executive director of Centre for Memories; a repository for the history and culture of the Igbo race, says to Guardian Life, “I think it is important to understand the rationale behind Nsibidi. It is important to us because we inherited an oral tradition, so most of the things that we need to know, we may actually find out through Nsibidi. It holds a lot for us in terms of culture. We can actually find out why some institutions were in place through the preservation of such writing systems. For us to have an understanding of where we are heading as a people, we need to find out what happened in the past.”

Admirably, there has been concern among scholars to revive or improve on both written languages. Lotanna Igwe-Odunze, developer of a writing system, Ńdébé script, which pays homage to the old Nsibidi logographs, as well as Nwagu Aneke’s proto-script, says of attempts to revive Nsibidi, “Multiple failed attempts have been made to adapt Nsibidi for modern use, and will continue to fail because Nsibidi suffers from major expressive limitations, and is better suited for decorative, symbolic, or religious purposes.”

The Hebrew Example

One language that has successfully witnessed a revival is the Hebrew language. History records that the language started to witness a decline around 200-400 CE, and by the Bar Kokhba revolt, it was replaced by Aramaic and Greek. Thanks to intra-trade, rabbinic literature, the preservation of the ancient scripts was possible. Although scholars, linguists, and those passionate about the use of the language in literature and speech claimed that they wanted to start “from the place where Hebrew’s vitality was ended,” towards the end of the 19th century, it has now been adopted as a lingua franca of the State of Israel. Today, it is the only surviving Canaanite language.

Interestingly, a huge influence on its widespread use was trade. 50 years before its adoption, as Hebrew infiltrated communities, there was the desire to have a common language denominator for trading transactions. It was here Hebrew found its place, serving as the pidgin between the Sephardic Jews and the Ashkenazi Jews. Despite this, there still existed a dichotomy:  Hebrew spoken by the high and mighty and those spoken by the masses. Hence, the merging of both led to the revival of the language.

To replicate this, Igboko says,

“What we do at the Centre for Memories is to revive cultures such as Nsibidi, and we are looking at how to take that leap, we need to look at those who understand it and one of the efforts we’ve been able to do is to meet with people in the Ekpe cult. We need to discuss further what we can do in terms of innovation and propagating that language, but it is a work in progress.”

Despite this campaign and the use of Nsibidi in creative works, the pace of revival has been slow. 

Cornel Agim, an Ejagham man and Chartered curator, NSIBIDI Gallery Abuja, says that although Nsibidi is still being used by the Ekpe society, achieving the Hebrew example will be difficult.

“You see, the Latin language is now domiciled with the Catholic church, the calligraphy language of the Hebrew and the Arabic because religion and the languages are closely linked so they carried it over hence the success. Because of Christianity, especially for us in the South South, it is near-impossible to get back to using Nsibidi because people who have embraced these religions link it to something diabolical.”

The end of our roots?

In spite of the organisation’s attempt, individuals like Chief Tolúlàṣẹ Ògúntósìn, and Igwe-Odunze are on a mission to revitalise both languages.

 Ògúntósìn has designed what he calls the Odùduwà alphabet (the talking alphabet). Speaking to Global Voices, he said that he was inspired to write the 25 alphabet script after he visited his ancestral shrine in Badagry, a historic town in Lagos, Nigeria. Soon after this journey, he began to have constant dreams where he visited the sun and was “shown the alphabet in the form of lightning.”

Oduduwa Alphabet. Culled from Global Voices

Igwe-Odunze, on the other hand, says that the 1,174-characters script was invented after she “stopped doing expansion work on Nsibidi,” she tells Guardian Life. 

Ńdébé, she notes will “overcome the design problems [of Nsibidi which]… every Igbo person could use simultaneously,” she revealed in an interview with Channels Television.

While Ńdébé serves to preserve our written history, she buttresses it differs from Nsibidi as each character is attuned to a particular sound and character in present-day Igbo language. This, Igwe-Odunze says, will cause every writer to use the appropriate tones in the Igbo language.

The Ndebe script. Culled from The Language Closet

According to Igboko, this progress is progress in itself.

“Lotanna’s work transcends into the future. Even in the Igbo language, there are some scripts you’d want to write and you won’t find the adaptation. So the Ńdébé script has actually made a lot of things possible. Things like what Lotanna did is what we are also thinking of doing. 

Affirming this, Agim notes, “we need to preserve our culture. There are fears that our cultural heritage may not be relevant now because of technological advancement. The relevance may not be expedient, but it is important to know our history so we can know how to move forward.”

Despite recognisable attempts to revive the written history of Nigerian cultures, one question rings true “will society recognise and accept these attempts?”

Tubosun is of the opinion that only a pan-african script that can transcend all Nigerian languages will effectively work. 

“The biggest problem I see with most of the scripts including Ńdébé is that they are dealing with the tone…because Yoruba, Igbo and some of these languages are tonal, every script will fail if it doesn’t find a way to deal with the tonal properties of these languages. If you are thinking of a pan-Nigerian language, then we have to make sure it is a language that can be adopted all round the country.”

In line with this, he hints at a new script- the Musa script developed by Peter Cyrus, he is studying.

Culture activist, Oludamola Adebowale, believes that for any script to be adopted, “it has to be systemically injected into the system. This change can happen maybe three to four generations from now, and if it is going to happen, the nation needs to seriously start looking into it.”