Connections between N’ko and Ajami

Today, one is more likely to come across Manding written in N’ko than in Arabic (or even Latin) script. But did N’ko stifle Ajami or emerge from it?

Robust traditions of Ajami exist and have been relatively well documented and studied for major West African languages such as Wolof, Hausa, and Fulani. It surprising then that thus far there have been few Ajami texts found for major Manding varieties such as Bamanan, Maninka and Jula [1]. Today, in many Manding-speaking areas, one is more likely to come across the language written in N’ko than in Arabic (or even Latin) script.

Map of the Manding language continuum.png
By Coleman DonaldsonOwn work, CC BY-SA 4.0, Link

In the strictest sense, “N’ko” (ߒߞߏ) refers to a non-Latin-, non-Arabic-based script invented in 1949 by a young man named Sulemaana Kantè schooled in the Quranic tradition of his father. Today, it also denotes a broader grassroots social movement in West Africa that labors to promote Kantè’s alphabet for both Manding and African language literacy and education in general. Without any formal support from regional governments or international donors, N’ko literacy has continually spread through dedicated individuals behind local bookshops, radio shows and study groups across the region. They annually produce hundreds of texts in the form of books, newspapers and websites–far more, than what is written in state-backed Latin orthographies for Manding. N’ko’s success thus can potentially be said to have in part stymied any potential modern-day continuation or expansion of Manding Ajami literacy.

Sticker of Sulemaana Kantè with his name written below him in N’ko on a laptop in Wes Africa (Photo credit: Coleman Donaldson)

At the same time, N’ko’s printed texts of today have also preserved at least one concrete connection between itself and Ajami as distinct Manding orthographic traditions. One relatively popular N’ko text today is entitled “Five big questions and their answer.” It is comprised of a transcribed interview (or series of interviews) conducted with Kantè between 1968-1969. In one excerpt he explains his first encounter with written Manding. In 1941 he was presented with a Manding-language history text of the ethnic Fulani of the region, which had been penned in the Arabic script together by his grandfather and maternal uncle. Unable to read the document, despite his native-speaker skills and Quranic education, Kantè was not impressed. In response to his uncle’s remark that it was more of memory-jogging device for the author than a stand-alone text, he recalled thinking:

ߒ ߞߊ߲߫ ߒ ߞߏ߫ ߝߘߊ߬ߝߌ߲߬ ߞߊ߲ ߕߍ߫ ߝߏߦߌ߬ ߘߌ߫ ߸ ߓߊ ߊߟߊ߫ ߡߊ߫ ߛߏ߲߬ ߊ߬ ߛߓߍ߫ ߞߏ ߡߊ߬

“I said African languages are worthless because God has not allowed for them to be written”

Kantè, of course, would later change his thinking on the matter. Ultimately, what hampered his family’s orthographic tinkering and later inspired his own unique solution was the difficulty of representing all of Manding’s contrastive sounds within the graphic inventory of the Arabic script. Using only three short vowel markers and three long vowel markers, Kantè’s uncle and grandfather struggled to devise a system of conventions to represent their native Maninka’s seven vowels with contrastive lengthening, nasalization and tone.

Regardless, Kantè’s N’ko thus points us to the existence of Maninka Ajami manuscripts in the early twentieth century. During the summer of 2016, while doing fieldwork in Kankan, I was shown a photocopy of a Maninka text that presumably stemmed from the generation just before the emergence of Kantè’s N’ko. In the future of our Ajami Lab work, I hope to return to speak with friends and acquaintances to look into the existence of such early twentieth century Ajami documents.

But what of earlier Ajami writings in Maninka? According to the N’ko intellectual and activist Condé (2008), Kantè considered himself an heir to work of Alfa Mahmud Kaba. A skilled leader of the Batè region (of which Kankan is part) of upper Guinea in the mid-nineteenth century, Kaba was also a man of letters who is today remember for his Arabic works and his (presumably oral) translation of Islamic poems into Manding. Kantè was also influenced by a friend of his father, “Diakagbe Taliby Kaba” (Jakagbɛ Talibi Kaba), who also worked to translate Islamic rites and poems into Manding. In fact, he is purported to have devised a writing system for Manding as part of his efforts. Exploring the history of such scholars and any manuscripts that they left behind is part of our work in the Ajami Lab too.

In both cases, such connections invite us to think that it’s not necessarily that N’ko hampered Ajami, but rather that that Ajami gave rise to N’ko.

[1] The exception is Mandinka, spoken at the western edge of the language-dialect continuum. In this case, there are at least two major scholarly works investigating local history through Ajami texts (Giesing & Vydrin 2007; Schaffer 2003).


Condé, Ibrahima. 2008. “The Emergence of N’kophone Literature: From Poetry to the Novel.” Mande Studies 10: 133–48.

Giesing, Cornelia, and V. F Vydrin. 2007. Ta:Rikh Mandinka de Bijini (Guinée-Bissau): La Mémoire Des Mandinka et Sòoninkee Du Kaabu. Leiden; Boston: Brill.

Kántɛ, Sùlemáana. 1968. ߢߌ߬ߣߌ߲߬ߞߊ߬ߟߌ߬ߓߊ ߅ ߣߴߊ߬ ߖߊ߯ߓߌ [Five Big Questions and Their Answer]. Edited by Bàbá Màmádi Jàanɛ.
Schaffer, Matthew. 2003. Djinns, Stars and Warriors: Mandinka Legends from Pakao, Senegal. African Sources for African History 5. Leiden: Brill.

Author: Coleman Donaldson

Postdoc at the University of Hamburg interested in speech and literacy practices in Francophone and Manding-speaking West Africa.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.