Bamum

Bamum

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Creating a new script for an indigenous people during a colonial era is a two-edged sword.

The desire to claim and assert one’s cultural identity may provide the driving force that sustains an author through the long, hard work of creating a writing system, and it may also be the force that makes the resulting script popular. The colonial authorities, though, may well not want their subjects to develop a sense of their identity and self-respect, and in that sense, the more successful an indigenous script is, the more dangerous it may be.

One of the most remarkable of these creations, the Bamum alphabet, fell prey to its own success.

Starting around 1896, the 25-year-old King Ibrahim Njoya of the Bamum Kingdom in Cameroon invented Shumom, a writing system for his people’s language. (It is also called a-ka-u-ku, after its first four characters.) It was a dream-inspired script, but one that was remarkably practical and non-egocentric. He ordered his subjects to send or give him simple signs and symbols, and he drew from them to create a system that was at first pictographic, but then became increasingly rationalized and symbolic until by roughly 1910 it was a fully functional syllabary.

Using this script, he wrote a history of his people, a pharmacopeia, a calendar, maps, records, legal codes and a guide to good sex. He built schools, a printing press, and libraries; he supported artists and intellectuals.
This seems to have been all well and good while Cameroon was under German control, but when the French took over part of the country after the German defeat in World War I, they smashed Njoya’s printing press, burned his libraries and books, tossed out sacred Bamum artifacts and sent him into exile, where he died.

The Bamum script fell into almost complete disuse until the early 21st century. In 2005 the Bamum Scripts and Archives Project began collecting and photographing threatened documents, translating and in some cases hand-copying documents, creating a fully usable Bamum computer font for the inventory of documents, and creating a safe environment for the preservation and storage of documents. Workshops and conferences in both Foumban, Cameroon and in Queens, New York, have been held on the script.

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