The Garay alphabet, created to write the Wolof language, which is spoken in the Gambia and Mauritania, and is the most widely spoken language of Senegal, is one of many African writing systems invented as a response to colonialism.Amdy Diop, the new social media coordinator for the script, gave this account of the creation of Garay by Assane Faye.

“In 1961, on the first anniversary of Senegal’s independence from France, the president, Léopold Sédar Senghor, went on the radio and called on all Africans in general, and Senegalese in particular, to ‘gather stones and build this new country.’

“This made [Assane Faye] reflect on what was missing, or what he could do to help.

“Next day he went to the beach in his village, which was called Yen, and as he passed a cave called Garay — the word means “the whiteness of the cotton flower,” as the interior of the cave was white — a vision struck him and he began writing on the sand. He called to his friend to bring him something to write on, and that’s how the alphabet came into existence.”

The resulting script shows Arabic influence in being written from right to left.

Assane Faye continued teaching the script on a small-scale, face-to-face fashion over the decades.

Charles Riley visited him in 2009:

“Continuing overland from Guinea, I took public transport into the Tambacounda region of Senegal, where for a couple of days, I collected some audio interviews with my old village and some of the neighboring villages. Since I’d last been in the area twelve years ago, a rural hospital and several ecotourism camps had been established, but the environmental pressures from overgrazing left some pretty apparent changes on the landscape. I continued onto Dakar from there, and touched base with Assane Faye, inventor of the Garay script he developed for Wolof in 1961. He has been offering lessons in it to hundreds of people over the years, translated the Koran using it, and has a house filled with dozens of unpublished handwritten texts, some of which have been cited in secondary sources, but with little or no bibliographic control. We worked together to digitize five of his texts, and the next day a previously scheduled outdoor press conference outside his home was held to discuss the history and usage of the script.”

Subsequently the script seems to have moved from being a linguistic cottage industry to something more contemporary. Garay now has a font, a Facebook page and a YouTube channel with teaching videos.

Diop acknowledged that the script is still used by a small number of Wolof speakers, but “hopefully with technology, the newer generation like us will be able to do something about it.”

A side note: it is possible that English has inherited some words from Wolof: “banana,” via Spanish or Portuguese, and “yum” or “yummy,” from the Wolof nyam, to taste.