One day while he was living near Seattle, the Senegal-born linguistics professor Fallou Ngom forgot to close a window before a rainstorm passed through, and the next morning discovered the wind had blown some of his papers to the floor. On one of them, a sheet several years old, his late father had recorded a debt. Ngom’s father was considered illiterate because he couldn’t read and write in the country’s official language, French. But like many Senegalese had for centuries, he wrote daily information in his native tongue using a modified form of Arabic script known as Ajami. Ngom was struck by the irony: Here was his “illiterate” father communicating with him years after his death, in writing. Ngom realized that this was more than just a touching personal moment. It also represented an immense opportunity. Ajami script had been widely used across Africa for day-to-day writing in a dozen languages, and Ngom knew those writings had been largely overlooked in the official story of the continent – in part because so few historians could read them. How many other documents like this existed across the continent? How many had simply been missed, or ignored?
more from Kenneth J. Cooper at the Boston Globe here.