Transcribing, Cross-checking, Editing, and Translating Wolof Ajami Manuscripts

By Elhadji Djibril Diagne

Taking part in the NEH Ajami project, and working with consultants of different academic backgrounds and expertise, has been a great personal experience. My collaboration as a Wolof consultant consisted of transcribing into Latin script, cross-checking, editing, and translating (into French and English) Wolof Ajami manuscripts. Needless to say the task at hand was daunting, since it was my first project of this scope involving Ajami texts. For instance, I was familiar with listening to chanted Ajami songs of Murid poets such as Mbay Jaxate or Muusaa Ka, but I had less experience with reading or studying their poems in written form. However, following the guidelines laid forward by the project management team allowed me to successfully complete all tasks at hand. Also, collaborating with specialists and experts at different stages of the project contributed significantly to overcoming any challenges that I faced.

As farmers, the authors of Wolof Ajami manuscripts used their agrarian environment, farming tools, and the fauna and flora as vehicles to convey difficult Islamic concepts, and to expand on the key principles of the Murid ethos that they blended with their Wolof moral values and philosophy. In order to complete cross-checking and editing the manuscripts (using audio-transcripts), I had to contact different Murid sources based in New York where I live, as well as in Senegal, to ensure that “unfamiliar” words, phrases, proverbs, metaphors, nuances, and place names were properly spelled and contextualized. I would send them the Ajami manuscripts, then hold reading sessions with them over the phone, during which I would make necessary corrections and take notes on the areas that required clarification. I also consulted with other experts, such as an Islamic specialist running a Quranic school in Harlem, whom I visited on several occasions when working with Muusaa Ka’s poems (The First Battle of Badr, and Miracles of the Prophet). They are all fluent in Arabic, and well read about Islamic history, prophetic traditions, and Murid hagiography. Oftentimes, they pointed out grammatical errors and misspellings, or engaged in critical intellectual debate about the manuscripts. In so doing, they added insightful comments and broadened my perspective about the context, including the significance of the concepts, beliefs, customs, and norms of the Wolof agrarian society. I added that information to my translations as footnotes, to enable the reader better understand the texts, subtexts, and the context of their composition. I used these footnotes as a lexicon to circumvent the challenges in harmonizing the spelling of various words and clarifying their contextual definition. In one instance, it was only the audio recording of a Wolofal chanter based in Senegal that helped us understand the illegible areas in the manuscript.

The translations of these manuscripts are of historical significance as they show various linguistic tools used by the Murid authors to broadcast to the illiterate masses the teachings of the Murid religious leader Amadu Bamba. They also document the lives, struggles, and achievements of the religious communities in a difficult colonial context. These authors were very preoccupied with preserving local knowledge and handing it down to posterity. For instance, Muusaa Ka’s poem Poem of the Mosque of Touba is of historical significance, since it documents in minute detail how the Murid leadership mobilized their followers to lay the foundation of the largest mosque in Senegal, in the challenging context of the global economic crisis of 1930, following the passing of their revered leader Amadu Bamba in 1927. The poem provides authentic facts about the people, time period and places that were part of the events, in addition to providing information about the original blueprint and measurements of the mosque. Such information is unknown to many Murid disciples and to the general public. In another poem, Elegy for Seriñ Massamba Mbakke, the author demonstrates how the protagonist became one of the first Murid missionaries to travel from town to town by rail, spreading the message of Bamba to new Murid converts, as he also expounds on his scholarship, great human qualities, generosity, and lifetime achievements.

Last but not least, this work would not have been possible without my academic background in applied linguistics, as well as without my Quranic teacher through whom I first discovered Wolof Ajami that has sparked my curiosity and fascination ever since. I was immediately interested in Ajami as I understood the use of diacritics to form sounds that do not exist in Arabic. I continue participating in diverse activities involving Ajami – for example, serving as a reader and script for an illiterate elder friend in my neighborhood, who uses Ajami to maintain correspondence with his brother living in the United States.

Elhadji Djibril Diagne is a trilingual (Wolof-French-English) consultant-linguist who has worked with several organizations in Senegal, the United States, Canada, and the Diaspora. He is the VP of communication at Murid Islamic Community in America, Inc. (MICA, Inc.) in NYC and the editor in chief of the annual magazine published on the Shaykh Ahmadu Bamba Cultural Weeks celebration in the United States, Canada and the Caribbean.