Back in 2005, I welcomed Lameen Souag’s blog Jabal al-Lughat (still going strong!) to the internet, and I singled out for praise his first post, N’Ko, about the alphabet invented by Soulemayne Kante in 1949 for the Manding languages Malinke, Bambara, Dyula, and their dialects. Now there’s a New York Times Magazine article by Tina Rosenberg describing how the digital revolution has affected it:
N’Ko first moved from hand-copied manuscripts into the digital age two decades ago. In the early 1990s, Diané, the teacher of N’Ko at Cairo University, was collating an N’Ko text in a copy shop when he was approached by an employee. “Why are you killing yourself?” the man asked him. “Don’t you know about DOS?” The employee explained to Diané that using computer software, he could write a new script and generate as many copies as he wished. Together with information-technology experts at Cairo University, Diané developed a rudimentary font to use on his own computer. But creating a font that anyone could use was a much more complicated task. …
Digital technology has already transformed how [Ibrahima] Traore [the protagonist of the piece] communicates with his family. When his father died in 1994, his family in Kiniebakoro sent news of the death to cousins in Ivory Coast by going to the bus station and looking for a passenger heading toward their city; the cousins then mailed a letter to Traore in New York. It took two months. Now communication with Kiniebakoro takes a day: Traore sends an e-mail in N’Ko. His nephew, who works in the nearby town of Siguiri, checks his e-mail at the town’s Internet cafe, prints Traore’s letter and then goes down to the dock where canoes ferry people across the Niger River to Kiniebakoro. He asks someone on the boat to take the letter to Traore’s family’s house.
For Traore and others, the most pressing reason for making N’Ko available to Mande speakers is that only a small percentage of Guineans can read and write. The United Nations puts the rate of adult literacy at 39 percent, but that figure counts mostly those who live in major cities — in rural areas, it is much lower. Schooling in rural Guinea is often conducted in the open air, with no chairs, perhaps a blackboard, maybe one book. But most discouraging to students, it takes place in French, a language they don’t speak at home.
“The only hope for literacy in Guinea is N’Ko literacy,” Traore says. For Mande speakers, he says, N’Ko is extremely simple to learn. He and his fellow N’Ko advocates have sponsored hundreds of informal schools throughout Guinea that teach in Manden languages and N’Ko. This year, for the first time, N’Ko will be taught side by side with French in an official school — the pilot program will be in Kiniebakoro, Traore’s hometown.
The article gives the URLs of a number of sites in N’Ko, and mentions other languages, like Tok Pisin and Pipil, being similarly aided by modern technology. A good read. (Thanks, Bonnie!)