A King of Great Accomplishments
BY AWAKE! WRITER IN CAMEROON
IBRAHIM NJOYA was the 17th king of the Bamum, a large ethnic group whose people still inhabit the grasslands of western Cameroon. He was king from 1889 until his death in 1933, as shown in the accompanying list of rulers, whose reigns date back to the 14th century. During Njoya’s reign, the French and Germans were attempting to colonize the area.
From his youth Njoya showed himself to be a highly intelligent and intuitive man, and he surrounded himself with like-minded intellectuals and innovators who shared his vision. The magnificent palace he built, seen in the photograph below, testifies to his expertise in architecture. He is also credited with the invention of a mill used for grinding corn, as seen here. Especially noteworthy, however, is his development of a new system of writing the Bamum language.
Making Possible a Written Record
At the end of the 19th century, the history of the Bamum people was being preserved mainly by oral transmission from one generation to the next. Njoya recognized the danger of details being omitted or added. He was familiar with the Arabic language after obtaining books in that language from traders and traveling merchants who passed through his kingdom. He was also probably aware of the earlier Vai script, which at the time was being used throughout the grasslands region. So he set out to develop a system to write his own language.
Njoya started with several hundred signs, mostly pictographs and ideograms. That system required his subjects to memorize what each sign depicted. Over the years, with the help of his trusted courtiers, he simplified the system. They minimized the number of signs necessary by using a system of syllables. Through combining a number of the signs, or letters, of his new script, specific words were formed. The reader had to memorize far fewer letters and their corresponding sounds. When Njoya finished, his new writing system, called A-ka-u-ku, had 70 letters.
Njoya encouraged the use of the Bamum script by requiring that it be taught in schools and used at all levels of government. He directed the writing of an impressive history of his dynasty and his country in his new script. Thus, for the first time, Bamum people could read about their traditions, laws, and customs. Njoya even had pharmaceutical recipes recorded using the new Bamum script. Over 8,000 of those original documents are still preserved in the palace archives.
An advantage of this new system of writing became evident shortly after the arrival of German colonialists in 1902. Although Njoya profited from the economic development, he did not always see eye to eye with German authorities. So he used his new invention, which the Germans had not yet deciphered. How enduring has Bamum been?
During World War I (1914-18), Germany lost its control of Njoya’s domain. Eventually, the newly formed League of Nations transferred the mandate of Bamum territory to France. Although Njoya was open to new ideas, he was proud of his heritage and desperately wanted to preserve and develop the culture of his people. This inevitably led to his opposition to French colonial rule over his realm. As was the case with chiefs who did not demonstrate loyalty to the colonialists, in 1931 he was deposed by the French. Two years later Njoya died in exile.
With a French ban against use of the Bamum script in schools and without Njoya to promote the script, it soon fell into disuse and was forgotten by the majority of the Bamum people. When missionaries of Christendom arrived on the scene, they studied the spoken language of the Bamum people and prepared a grammar to be used in their schools. Unlike Njoya, they borrowed most elements from the already existing Roman alphabet and its phonetics.
Recently, efforts have been made to renew interest in the Bamum script. The present-day sultan, Ibrahim Mbombo Njoya, has opened a school in the palace that his grandfather built. Here local schoolchildren are once again learning this writing system so that it will not fall into extinction.
[Picture on page 27]
A plaque showing the Bamum dynasty from the 14th century down to today, written in the Roman alphabet on the left and the Bamum script on the right
[Picture Credit Line on page 26]
All photos: Courtesy and permission of Sultan Ibrahim Mbombo Njoya, Foumban, Cameroon