New Federal Grant Award: Readers in Ajami

By Rodima-TaylorOctober 4th, 2020

The team of Ajami scholars at Boston University, led by Professor Fallou Ngom, has been awarded a three-year grant of $178,900 by the U.S. Department of Education to develop specialized Ajami readers in Hausa, Wolof, and Mandinka (three major African languages with rich written Ajami literatures) with a multimedia companion website. The Readers in Ajami (RIA) project will provide students, language teachers, scholars, and American professionals with the necessary linguistic, cultural and literacy skills to engage Ajami users of West Africa. The resources of the project will cover a range of fields, including business and economy, health and medicine, agriculture and the environment, and human rights, politics and diplomacy. The project will produce a methodology that can be replicated for other world languages with dual literacy systems (Ajami and Latin script orthographies). It will provide an optimal model of how to build and sustain specialized textual and digital educational resources that incorporate local voices and knowledge recorded in multiple African Ajami scripts – something many academics and professionals have overlooked for centuries. The project draws on the expertise at BU and overseas in Ajami, African linguistics, pedagogy, social anthropology, and digital technology. Our team, led by Professor Ngom, includes Dr. Daivi Rodima-Taylor, Dr.  Jennifer Yanco, Dr. Mustapha Kurfi, Mr. Ablaye Diakite, Mr. Elhadji Diagne, Dr. Bala Saho, and the Geddes Language Center digital specialists Alison Parker, Shawn Provencal, and Frank Antonelli.

Rodima-Taylor Published Work on Digital Infrastructures

By Rodima-TaylorAugust 29th, 2020

Dr. Daivi Rodima-Taylor, Project Manager of NEH Ajami, published several articles recently focusing on the role of digital technologies in mediating local and global distributions of power. She co-edited a special issue "FinTech in Africa" (with Langley, in Journal of Cultural Economy) and authored an individual article on the fintech political economy of self-help. Her review article “Promise, Ethnography, and the Anthropocene: Investigating the Infrastructural Turn”  (in American Anthropologist) examines the role of contemporary infrastructures in in exacerbating the environmental and social challenges of the Anthropocene and explores their potential to distribute material and knowledge resources in novel, sustainable ways. The article “Interrogating Technology-led Experiments in Sustainability Governance” (with Bernards et al., in Global Policy) suggested novel pathways for exploring key ethical, social and political considerations involved in the increasingly technological solutions to global sustainability issues. Another collaborative article, “Global Regulations for a Digital Economy: Between New and Old Challenges” (with Beaumier et al., in Global Policy), examined the unique challenges posed by digital technologies to regulators and policy-makers on local, national and global levels. Daivi's recent co-edited book, Land and the Mortgage: History, Culture, Belonging holds her chapter "Land, Finance, Technology: Perspectives on Mortgage Lending." Her recent work also explores the intersection of the local and global in digital remittance infrastructures, and the legitimacy of digital development in small states. The social study of algorithmic power was highlighted at a co-organized symposium “Law, Ethics, Culture: The Human Face of Artificial Intelligence” at the University of California, Irvine.

Digitizing Past and Present: Our Geddes Digital Humanities Team

By Rodima-TaylorJune 12th, 2020

By Mark Lewis and Daivi Rodima-Taylor

The Geddes Language Center of Boston University is one of the integral partners of our NEH-funded Research Project on Ajami Literature and the Expansion of Literacy and Islam: The Case of West Africa. The Geddes Language Center is a full-service language learning facility dedicated to providing an extensive humanities resource for the College of Arts and Sciences and the Boston University community. Founded in 1960, the mission of the Geddes Language Center is to support the teaching and learning of languages, literatures, cultures, and film as faculty introduce new learning modalities and resources, both in the classroom and online.

The staff of the BU Geddes Language Center


The collaboration with the Geddes Digital Humanities Team under the leadership of Mark Lewis provides a unique multi-media component to our archival and research project. Geddes web designer Alison Parker and director of programming Shawn Provencal provide the website design and coding elements to accommodate the digital repository and display of Ajami manuscripts, their transcriptions and French and English translations, in four West African languages – Wolof, Mandinka, Hausa and Fula. Video resources specialist Frank Antonelli processes and edits video and audio files that form an important part of the NEH Ajami project, and advises project scholars on the use of multi-media equipment.

Geddes has a long-standing collaboration with the BU African Studies Center. This includes the African Language Materials Archive (ALMA) that is a multi-partner project focusing on the promotion and documentation of literature and literacy in the languages of Africa. This archive holds a collection of cassette recordings from the 1980s, made during field research in a number of different Sahelian and desert countries. Many of the transcriptions accompanying these recordings were translated into Western languages, mostly French or English. This collection, known as At the Desert’s Edge, involved hundreds of interviews of every-day people in traditional societies. Researchers engaged them in discussions of the ecological conditions of their existence and the state of the environment in their countries.

The countries that are part of the ALMA project are Burkina Faso, Chad, Ethiopia, Mali, Niger, Senegal, and the Sudan. The project represents one of the largest digitization initiatives the Geddes Language Center has undertaken in more than a decade, and will likely continue for the foreseeable future. All coordination and technical work is done by Frank Antonelli, Video Resources Specialist. The primary material of this collection was digitized during the years of 2016-2019.

Our Scholars at the African Studies Association Annual Meeting

By Rodima-TaylorNovember 27th, 2019

The African Studies Association 62nd Annual Meeting, “Being, Belonging and Becoming in Africa,” took place in Boston, MA, from November 21-23, 2019, in Boston Marriott Copley Place. The Annual Meeting featured presentations and contributions by several of our NEH Ajami Research Project scholars.

NEH Ajami project director Fallou Ngom was chosen to present this year’s African Studies Review Distinguished Lecture. The lecture series was established in 2011 featuring state of the art research in African Studies. Prof. Ngom’s lecture was titled “Beyond Orality: Non-Europhone Sources and African Studies in the 21st Century.” Dr. Ngom’s other engagements at the Annual Meeting included panels Between the Lines: African Languages in Ajami Manuscripts and Quranic Education, and Roundtable: Islamic Manuscripts, Muslim Intellectuals, and European Colonialisms in West Africa.

David Robinson was engaged in Roundtable: Joseph C. Miller Dialogues Part I: The Communal Ethos: Methods and Mentorship in African History, and served as discussant in panel Two Books on West African Islam - The Walking Qur’an: Islamic Education, Embodied Knowledge, and History in West Africa.

David Glovsky presented in panel The Importance of a Regional Approach: The Case of Senegambian History, and chaired and presented in Roundtable: Frontiers in Digital History in Africa: Trends, Opportunities, and Futures.

Daivi Rodima-Taylor served in the ASA Annual Meeting Local Arrangements Committee, and chaired and presented in the ASA Local Arrangements Committee Panel Building Bridges through Migration: First Generation African Immigrants. She also co-chaired and presented in panel Crypto-politics: Digital Media, Sociality, and Power.

Former ASA Board member, Jennifer Yanco, has been active in organizing local field tours and other ASA Local Arrangements Committee activities.

David Robinson on Ethnohistorical Fieldwork in West Africa

By Rodima-TaylorOctober 21st, 2019

Our project member Dr. David Robinson describes his experience preparing and carrying out interviews in Senegal and Mali in the linked article “Interviewing, Intermediaries and Documents: Senegal and Mali,” published in Mande Studies (vol. 20, 2018). He emphasizes the importance of his assistants or intermediaries for the choice of informants and the conduct of the interviews, as well as the quality of translation of the sessions. In his fieldwork, he combined the interview material with documents, especially an Arabic ethnohistory written by Cheikh Moussa Kamara in the 1920s, to produce his publications on Futa Toro and al-hajj Umar. He also reflects on the transformation, i.e. Africanization, of the History Department at the University of Dakar.  READ MORE HERE

Boston University Libraries Uploaded the World’s Largest Digital Collection by Mande Scholars

By Rodima-TaylorOctober 9th, 2019

By Eleni Castro, Fallou Ngom, Daivi Rodima-Taylor

Boston University scholars and digital collections experts recently completed uploading the largest to date digital collection of Mande scholars' work in the world. The project EAP 1042, funded by the British Library/ARCADIA focused on the archives of Mandinka scholars of Casamance, Senegal. The BU team digitized over 18,000 pages of Arabic, Arabic-Ajami bilingual texts, and Mandinka Ajami manuscripts covering a variety of religious and non-religious subjects. These materials will help scholars and students of Africa for generations to come enhance their research and teaching on various aspects of pre-colonial, colonial, and post-colonial Africa.

The Ajami texts of the Mandinka people of Casamance in southern Senegal are not well known beyond local communities. Many of these sources are written in Mandinka Ajami, the enriched form of the Arabic script used to write the Mandinka language for centuries. Among the least documented, only a few Mande Ajami manuscripts (including languages such as Bamanankan, Eastern Maninka, Western Mandinka, Jakhanke, Jula, and Susu) are available to scholars. The recent EAP 1042 project funded by the British Library's Endangered Archives Programme has changed this, identifying and digitally preserving over 18,000 pages of Mandinka Ajami and Arabic texts from the Casamance region of Senegal. The Endangered Archives Programme provided digitization/curation guidance and funded this digital preservation project, which is supported by Arcadia, a charitable trust of Lisbet Rausing and Peter Baldwin and administered by the British Library.

The project involved an international research collaboration between Boston University, the West African Research Center, and local experts in Senegal. Several of the team members had extensive expertise in digital preservation of endangered manuscripts - for example, Professor Fallou Ngom led the initiative of digital preservation of Wolof Ajami manuscripts in Senegal in 2011, which resulted in the creation of the African Ajami Library at Boston University. Eleni Castro, OpenBU & ETD Program Librarian at Boston University Libraries, served as the Mandinka project’s technical lead and conducted training in best practices in digital preservation of manuscripts to the fieldwork team. Other participants in the project included scholars from Senegal, as well as local knowledge experts and distinguished elders.

One of the distinguishing characteristics of the project was its significant fieldwork component of working with manuscript owners and language experts in the local communities of Southern Senegal. Following a three-day digital preservation workshop at the West African Research Center (WARC) in Dakar in January 2018, the team spent 15 months interviewing manuscript owners and digitizing rare manuscripts from Ziguinchor, Kolda, and Sédhiou, and curating and post-processing over 18,000 digital images. Three independent copies were deposited at WARC in Dakar, the British Library, and Boston University’s African Ajami Library on OpenBU.

Araabukaŋ Suuku Kotooriŋo: old Arabic poem with glosses by Alī ibn Ḥusayn (659-713). Different generations have commented on the document as reflected in the blue ink made with a modern pen. Ngom, F., Castro, E., & Diakité, A. (2018)

The manuscripts, often kept in trunks in the households of the local scholars or their descendants, covered a broad range of topics - including jurisprudence, divination and astrology, religious poetry and prose, secular records of commerce, local genealogies and biographies, folkloristic treatises of traditional medicine, customs and rites, accounts of social institutions and local cosmologies.  Containing a wealth of knowledge about local livelihoods, customs and mores, several texts constituted more than static repositories – functioning as ‘living documents’ with their marginalia of opinions and insights that were continuously added as the texts journeyed among the community members. A significant part of the manuscripts consisted of poetry designed to be performed and recited in the local communities – serving as an efficient tool of education and socialization. The themes dealt with issues of politics, morality and ethics, family and community relations and norms, shared history and experience of war and peace.

Working in remote areas of rural Africa with limited access to power and adequate lighting also created certain technical challenges, prompting the team to find innovative ad-hoc solutions. In order to not burden the local households of manuscript owners, the team had to work with available light and the help of a macro ring flash. They found that replacing a hot camera battery with a cooler one after a period of work helped to resume digitization much faster. Locally available channels of communication, such as WhatsApp, were used to coordinate activities between the geographically dispersed team members. Fieldwork data were regularly uploaded on Google Drive, speeding up internet access with the help of a mobile hotspot modem.

Digitization work at Abdou Khader Cisse's home. Ngom, F., Castro, E., & Diakité, A. (2018)

All of these materials are now publicly available in the African Ajami Library (AAL) on OpenBU and will soon be available on the British Library Endangered Archives Programme website. All of the digitization equipment and a copy of the digital archive will remain with the local partner, West African Research Center in Dakar, in order to support its digitization projects and make accessible the materials to researchers in the region. However, there is still more work to be done to help researchers more effectively discover, explore, and study these materials. The digital team will be looking into using an IIIF image viewer for scholars to more easily be able to view, compare, and annotate manuscripts. Since not all West African languages currently have their Ajami letters assigned Unicode characters, transcription is a long‐term goal to help make these materials more accessible. Another ongoing effort—from a social and cultural perspective—is sustaining and building enduring relationships with the manuscript owners and communities where the materials originated from.

The Social Life of African Ajami: Connecting the Grassroots, Mediating the Mundane

By Rodima-TaylorSeptember 8th, 2019

By Daivi Rodima-Taylor, Mustapha H. Kurfi, and Fallou Ngom

 Grassroots Ajami literacy has been historically high in the communities of West Africa. While often viewed through the lens of its religious historical origins, it is increasingly evident that the use of Ajami scripts in a variety of African languages extends far beyond religious and educational contexts. African Ajami can be observed in a growing multiplicity of secular environments, including interpersonal communication, commercial advertising, street posters, billboards and road signs, political campaign ads, and the insignia of local businesses and services.

Ajami, which is the centuries-old practice of writing other languages using the modified Arabic script, is deeply embedded in local histories and socio-cultural practices, and we suggest that it should be analyzed within such context. Arising from Islamic clerical and educational campaigns of the 15th and 16th centuries, Ajami constituted an early source of literacy for a variety of local languages in Sub-Saharan Africa, including Yoruba, Mande, Wolof, Fula, and Afrikaans. Its history refutes the oft-prevailing claims that Africa lacks written traditions. The downplaying and devaluing of the significance of African Ajami has long characterized Arabic as well as European scholars and administrators of the colonial era, and its legacy still often persists, perpetuating racial stereotypes, limiting political participation, and obscuring ethnographic accounts of local practices and institutions. Systematic attention to African Ajami only started as an effort of African scholars of the post-colonial times.

Having flourished throughout centuries, Ajami has established itself as an important means of communication and a mediator of historical and contemporary knowledge in many areas of Africa where Qur’anic schools have been the primary source of education. Consider the example of Senegal. It is estimated that over 50% of the population of this ‘French-speaking country’ are illiterate in French, and adequate skills in written and oral French largely remain the purview of urban elites. Many ethnic groups of the country, including Wolof, Pulaar, and Mandinka, use Ajami scripts for their written communication. Ajami Wolofal (the language of the Wolof ethnic group) is used for both religious and secular purposes in the local communities, including personal written communication such as private letters, as well as in business records and advertisements of the informal sector.

A mill owner’s advertisement for grinding grains reads: “Ku bëgg wàllu wàlla soqlu wàlla tigadege wàlla nooflaay; kaay fii la. Waa Kër Xaadimu Rasuul [If you want (your grains) pounded or grinded or peanut butter effortlessly; come here. The People of The Servant of the Prophet (Ahmadou Bamba)]”. From: Fallou Ngom, 2015.
It is interesting to note that the role of Ajami as an effective tool to reach grassroots communities has not gone unnoticed by large multi-national corporations expanding their business in Africa, as well as by organizers of national and local political campaigns. The adverts of mobile telephony and mobile money services of large telecommunications companies such as Orange S.A. and Tigo of Millicom adorn huge bill-boards on highways and can be found painted on the walls and fences of modest neighborhood shops and kiosks. These photos illustrate the Ajami ads of Orange and Tigo telecoms in the Diourbel area of Senegal where Ajami dominates French literacy.  In Diourbel, a majority of important public announcements are first issued in Ajami, and then translated into French for wider national outreach. It is no surprise that companies such as Orange S.A., a French multi-national telecommunications corporation, have understood the economic and social benefits of reaching their consumers in locally accessible and accepted ways.

Shopkeeper’s Ajami advertisement in Diourbel, Senegal, reads: “Fii dañu fiy wecciku ay Qasā’id aki band(u) ak kayiti kaamil aki daa” [Poems, audiocassettes, Quran-copying quality paper and ink are sold here]”. TIGO is a reference to a mobile phone company. From: Fallou Ngom, 2015.
The billboard ad for Orange telecom reads in standard Wolof: “Jokko leen ci ni mu leen neexee ak Illimix #250#. Woote (below a telephone icon), mesaas (below the message icon), and enterneet (below the icon @) [Communicate freely with Illimix by dialling #250# to call, send a text message, or access the Internet].” From: Fallou Ngom, 2015.
The growing use of Ajami in public life can be observed also in neighboring Nigeria. During the 2019 Nigerian general elections, political posters using Ajami script were widespread among Nupe language speakers in the country, for instance. The Nupe ethnic group is situated in the Middle Belt and northern Nigeria, and are widespread in Niger State as well as in Kwara and Kogi States of the country. The origins of the ethnic group trace back to the 15th century when Nupe formed loose confederations of settlements along the Niger river. Converting to Islam in late 18th century, they retained many indigenous features of social organization and cosmology. Nupe have also historically maintained close contacts with their Yoruba and Fula neighbors, now all part of a large multi-ethnic state.

Below are examples of political campaign posters in Ajami Nupe, collected by Mustapha Kurfi. Nigerian general elections took place in February 2019, with incumbent president Muhammadu Bahari (All Progressives Congress) winning his re-election bid with 55.6%, against the 44.2% of the opponent Atiku Abubakar (People’s Democratic Party). The political posters feature Ajami Nupe use in national and regional political campaign materials.

• A poster published during the 2019 general elections depicts the image of the Presidential aspirant, Muhammadu Buhari, of the All Progressive Congress (APC). The translation of the Nupe Ajami inscription reads "Vote President 2019" and "Let's vote credible president for positive change." To the left is the political party's logo.
• A poster published during the 2019 general elections depicts the picture of a Presidential aspirant, Atiku Abubakar, of the opposition party -- the People's Democratic Party (PDP). He eventually lost to Muhammadu Buhari. The translation of the Nupe Ajami inscription reads "Vote President 2019" and "Let's vote credible president for positive change." To the left is the party's logo. The last inscription (in red) says "For president.”
• A poster from the 2019 general elections depicts the gubernatorial aspirant in Niger State, Alhaji Abu Sani (Lolo) of the ruling party, APC, who was bidding for the second tern and won. The translation of the Nupe Ajami at the top reads "Vote Governor 2019," whereas the second line says "Vote Governor for the Progress of the state."

While Ajami is thus increasingly used as a mass communication tool in the commercial and political life of numerous West African ethnic groups, there is still room for the formal recognition of its central role in mediating the grassroots by African national governments, supra-governmental bodies, and international development actors.  And although there exists an increasing scholarly awareness about the importance of studying diverse historical records of African Ajami, few are those who know about Ajami as a fascinating lens into everyday livelihood practices, political struggles, and social imaginaries of many contemporary African communities.


New Research Project on ʿAjamī Literature, Literacy and Culture in West Africa

By Shawn ProvencalJune 27th, 2019

By Daivi Rodima-Taylor

The Boston University African Studies Center has started work on an important scholarly project that provides a new window into the history, cultures, and intellectual traditions of West Africa. The project ʿAjamī Literature and the Expansion of Literacy and Islam: The Case of West Africa that was awarded a NEH Collaborative Research Grant, will digitize a unique selection of manuscripts in ʿAjamī (African language texts written with a modified Arabic script) in four major West African languages - Hausa, Mandinka, Fula, and Wolof, transliterate and translate them into English and French, prepare commentaries, and create related multimedia resources to be made widely available within and beyond the United States.

The ʿAjamī literatures that have developed in sub-Saharan Africa and hold a wealth of knowledge on the history, politics, and cultures      of the region, are generally unknown to scholars and the public due to lack of access. This Collaborative Research project between the scholars from institutions in the U.S. and West Africa seeks, through increasing access to primary sources in ʿAjamī, to spark research and scholarly work on this important heritage of Muslim Africa. It brings together a multi-disciplinary team of experts working on different languages and contexts to achieve two interlinked goals: 1) to show the importance of African ʿAjamī traditions by building collections and analyzing representative manuscripts, and 2) to conduct interpretive humanities research that will open up a sustained examination of the ʿAjamī phenomenon in sub-Saharan Africa. Representing the first comparative approach to African languages written in ʿAjamī, this pioneering project seeks to integrate ethnographic fieldwork, interviews, and multi-media formats to illuminate the histories and the educational, cultural, political and religious significance of ʿAjamī in West Africa.

Prof. Fallou Ngom conducting fieldwork inside the home of manuscript owner, El-hadji Lamine Bayo. Ngom, F., Castro, E., & Diakité, A. (2018). African Ajami Library: EAP 1042. Digital Preservation of Mandinka Ajami Materials of Casamance, Senegal.


The interdisciplinary and international project team consists of Fallou Ngom (Principal Investigator), Daivi Rodima-Taylor (Project Manager), digital humanities specialists of the Geddes Language Lab from Boston University – Mark Lewis (Director of the Geddes Lab), Shawn Provencal (Director of Programming), Alison Parker (Web Designer) and Frank Antonelli (Video Resources Specialist), and Rebecca Shereikis (Publication Consultant) at ISITA Northwestern University. Language team consultants include Jennifer Yanco, Mustafa Hashim Kurfi, and Garba Zakari for the Hausa digital team; Fallou Ngom, Bala Saho, and Ablaye Diakite for Mandinka team; David Robinson, David Glovsky, and Mouhamadou Lamine Diallo for Fula team; and Fallou Ngom, Ablaye Diakite, and Mouhamadou Lamine Diallo for Wolof team. Our work will be done in collaboration with ISITA at Northwestern University,  IFAN (Institut Fondamental d’Afrique Noire), Michigan State University, WARA (West African Research Association), WARC (West African Research Center in Dakar, Senegal) and colleagues from Bayero University and Kaduna Polytechnic in Nigeria.  The BU African Studies Center will contribute logistical support.

An image of a Wolofal (Wolof Ajami) manuscript from Fallou Ngom’s collection at the British Library Endangered Archives Programme, part of the EAP 334 project.

On June 18th, the project’s core team convened for a planning meeting at the BU African Studies Center, joined via skype by participants from other institutions in the United States and Africa. Attendees included  Fallou Ngom, Daivi Rodima-Taylor, Jennifer Yanco, Mark Lewis, Shawn Provencal, Alison Parker Frank Antonelli, Rebecca Shereikis (Northwestern University), Mustafa Kurfi (Hausa digital team), David Glovsky (Michigan State University), and Eric Schmidt and Natasha Patel of BU ASC.

The NEH Collaborative Research Project builds on the pioneering work on ʿAjamī literatures and cultures at the Pardee School of Global Studies of Boston University. A prior project on Wolofal was funded by the British Library's Endangered Archive Programme. In 2011-12, working with his Senegal based team, prof. Ngom collected and digitized 5,400 pages from 29 manuscripts and 15 collections, deposited at the West African Research Center, the British Library, and Boston University. The current project will also build upon several other earlier projects hosted by Boston University, Northwestern University, and Michigan State University and MATRIX, focusing on ʿAjamī and Islam in West Africa.