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, twenty-five-year-old King Ibrahim Njoya of the Bamum Kingdom in Cameroon invented a writing system for his people’s language 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 invited 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, over half a dozen drafts, became increasingly rationalized and symbolic until, by roughly 1910, it was a fully functional syllabary of eighty characters.

Using this script, he wrote a history of his people, a pharmacopoeia, 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 in the eyes of the local colonial power 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 maneuvred Njoya out of power, smashed his printing press, burned his libraries and books, tossed out sacred Bamum artifacts and sent him into exile, where he died.

It’s a sign of how important an indigenously created script can be that despite Njoya’s death and the almost complete suppression of the a-ka-u-ku syllabary, his son and grandson held on to the script as a cultural symbol. In 2007, more than seventy years after Njoya’s death, the first coordinated effort to revive it began, and today the script is taught to students as part of their Bamum heritage, displayed during ceremonies and paraded on signs through the streets of Foumban.

–Edited and updated by Eddie Tolmie