Exploring African Ajami in the Era of Digital Humanities
8 January 2024
and Daivi Rodima-Taylor
Boston University, NEH Ajami Project Director and Manager
Our new special issue in Brill’sIslamic Africaexplores the literatures and literacies of four major languages of West Africa: Wolof, Mandinka, Hausa, and Fula, and situates African Ajami studies within participatory multimedia and digital archiving approaches. While African Ajami literatures are largely unknown to the larger public, they hold a wealth of knowledge on the history and intellectual traditions of many African communities. Ajami is the term used to refer to non-Arabic languages and literatures that are written with an enriched form of the Arabic script, and it plays an important role in literacy and education in many West African communities. The history of Ajami in Africa helps to offset many stereotypes of the colonial era, countering the assertions that Africa lacks written traditions. The downplaying of the importance of African Ajami traditions has been perpetuated by Arab-centric and Eurocentric scholars and administrators, and its legacies persist even today.
The double special issue, “Ajami Literacies of Africa,” is co-edited by Fallou Ngom, Daivi Rodima-Taylor, David Robinson, and Rebecca Shereikis (volumes 14/2, 2023 and 15/1, 2024). Its articles build on the knowledge generated through the African Ajami research project funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities. We present important new perspectives on the opportunities that digital technologies afford for uncovering the historical and contemporary role of Ajami literacy in mediating the lives of West African communities. In the past, Ajami literary records were collected mainly by Western or Arabist scholars rather than local African scholars. Only after the demise of the colonial state in Africa, did we start seeing a broader entry of local experts in Ajami scholarship. The nature of the texts collected has become more diverse, and the scholarly community is starting to discover the important role of Ajami literacy in mediating people’s everyday livelihoods, in addition to their historical and religious importance.
Figure 1. Pages from Ajami Manuscripts
Our research project has a unique comparative and participatory quality. While there have been studies of particular African Ajami literatures, we examine the Ajami phenomenon across four languages (Hausa, Mandinka, Fula, and Wolof). These languages are spoken by large populations across West Africa and have played an important role in the spread of literacy and the dissemination of the diverse strains of Islam. The Ajami literatures of the Sahel provide a unique window into the history and lived experience of people in the region. Despite similar origins in spreading the faith, each Ajami language system followed its specific trajectory shaped by local cultural, social, and political factors. Our special issue also explores the history of language and culture change, and discusses how Islamic faith and practice took root in West African societies and was, in turn, influenced by local cultures and cosmologies.
Our research project provided a unique bridge between archival knowledge and lived experience by bringing back the digitized texts of the past to their communities of origin to be read, discussed, and interpreted, thereby broadening access beyond Western-centered knowledge custodians. Our field teams have also been collecting manuscripts in the present-day communities of Ajami users in Senegal, Nigeria, and The Gambia. These activities draw on pursuing multi-vocality and participatory knowledge-making through ethnographic interviews, conversations with chanters and singers of poems and treatises, and engaging local communities and experts in the transcription and translation of Ajami manuscripts. Our project combined the emphasis on the oral with documentary traditions. The goal has been to facilitate comparative and interpretive co-production of knowledge about the meaning and purpose of these texts, their social uses, and the voices of the people who have written or use them. Through field interviews, our research teams sought insights into the daily practices of Ajami users, their educational and professional background, and their history of learning and using Ajami. This provided significant information about the present-day role of Ajami in the communities of West Africa.
The manuscripts analyzed comprise a wide variety of texts, ranging from historical records to religious and secular poems and prose. They cover areas such as history and politics, business and economy, health and medicine, agriculture and environment, law and jurisprudence, religion, and divination and astrology. The texts include secular records of commerce, local genealogies and biographies, folkloristic treatises of traditional medicine, and accounts of local customs, rites, and cosmologies. Some of these manuscripts contain in their marginalia ever-evolving opinions and insights that are continuously being added as they travel among community members.
Figure 2. Field team working with local Ajami experts
As our articles show, in addition to its use in religious contexts, African Ajami can be observed in a variety of secular environments and the public sphere, including commercial advertising, street posters, billboards and road signs, political campaign ads, and the insignia of local businesses and services. It is an important means of communication in many areas of Africa where Qurʾānic schools have been the primary source of education. It is estimated that over 50 percent of the population of Senegal is illiterate in French, and those with adequate skills belong largely to urban elites.
Our double special issue contains nine articles from an interdisciplinary team of scholars – historians, anthropologists, linguists, geographers, sociologists, and digital technology and archiving specialists. The articles make three main contributions. First, they establish important historical dimensions of the role of Ajami literacy in mediating the lives of grassroots communities that have not yet been systematically studied. Secondly, they enable unique comparative perspectives on Ajami use in four major West African languages, contributing to the interpretive and contextual analysis of Ajami literacies and their social role. They do so by drawing on the materials in our African Ajami collections, analyzing various manuscripts and topics, and situating them in their communities of origin. Thirdly, the articles explore the role of digital technologies and methods in studying and preserving African Ajami texts. The open-access introductory article to the special issue by Fallou Ngom, Daivi Rodima-Taylor, and David Robinson discusses the building blocks and historical development of Ajami cultures in West Africa and explores the challenges and opportunities for participatory knowledge-making that accompany the rise of digital technologies in the study of African literatures and literacies.
Through this intellectual endeavor, we seek to foster solutions for the co-production of knowledge about African literacies in an era of increasing digitization of archival materials, and the rise of new technological opportunities that help enhance the participation of local communities where the knowledge originates. As digital modes of communication are becoming increasingly prevalent in West Africa, this expands the forms and meanings of communication and literacy but also creates new challenges, inequalities, and digital divides. In our project, information and communication technology has been increasingly relevant not only for preserving and disseminating archival records, but also for facilitating communication among our field teams and local communities. Creating participatory databases and storage options has been another important way to enable the communities to meaningfully interact with the knowledge featured in those databases. Our research therefore situates the decolonizing processes of Ajami knowledge production in a framework of broader productive transformations of the present-day humanistic inquiry – as well as poses new questions about the role of digital humanities in researching and preserving old and new textual material in conceptually novel, participatory ways.
Dr. Fallou Ngom, is a professor of Anthropology at Boston University. His research interests include the interactions between African languages and non-African languages, the adaptations of Islam in Africa, and Ajami literatures—records of African languages written in Arabic script. His work has appeared in numerous scholarly journals, including African Studies Review, Journal of Arabic and Islamic Studies, Language Variation and Change, and International Journal of the Sociology of Language. His book, Muslims beyond the Arab World: The Odyssey of Ajami and the Muridyya (Oxford University Press, 2016), won the 2017 Melville J. Herskovits Prize.
Dr. Daivi Rodima-Tayloris a social anthropologist and researcher at the African Studies Center of the Pardee School of Global Studies of Boston University. Her work focuses on informal economies, financial technology and social media, migration and diaspora, and land and agrarian relations. Her longitudinal field research in East Africa studied local associations of mutual security. She has co-edited several book volumes and published in journals such as Africa, African Studies Review, Social Analysis, Journal of Cultural Economy, Geoforum, and Review of International Political Economy. Find Daivi on Twitter: @DaiviRTaylor.