Some scripts are like the pebbles in a stream, worn into their shapes over centuries by the collective action of millions of users.

Others are clearly the work of a single imagination, a single advocate. Such a script is Mwangwego, the product of a lifetime’s labour by Nolence Moses Mwangwego of Malawi.

Born in 1951 in Zambia, then Northern Rhodesia, Mwangwego visited Paris in 1977, where he discovered the existence of other, non-Latin writing systems. He theorised that, as there were words meaning ‘write’ in Malawian languages, there might have been indigenous, pre-colonial scripts. He decided to create a script himself.

“When I was creating this script,” he said, “I was hoping and I wanted it to replace the Latin alphabet when writing Malawian indigenous languages.”

Mwangwego was not without qualifications as a linguist, speaking and writing Chewa, Tumbuka, Kyangonde, English, French and Portuguese.

He started his act of creation in 1979; after innumerable modifications and revisions, he considered the script finished and ready for unveiling twenty-four years later, in 2003.

The magnitude of his endeavour was recognised by the minister of youth, sports and culture, Kamangadazi Chambalo, who announced, “Mwangwego script is in itself history in the making. Irrespective of how it is going to be received by the public nationwide, the script is bound to go in the annals of our history as a remarkable invention.”

It is one level of achievement to create a new, consistent and workable writing system; to get it adopted is an entirely different challenge. After the script was launched, the anticipated government support did not materialize, so Mwangwego began teaching it himself, putting on lectures and exhibitions.

In addition to his desire to create a non-Latin, non-colonial script for Malawi, Mwangwego also hoped that the combination of having a script that was specifically designed for indigenous languages and a script that Malawians could think of as their own would encourage the development of literacy within the country.

“I was hoping,” he wrote by email, “and I still hope, that people in my country will be encouraged to read and write.”

More than 2,000 people have been taught the script, he said, some of whom are now acting as teachers in their turn.

“The script is now being encoded and a computer font is being refined which may mean that Malawians who are proud of their languages will use it in their computers and smartphones.”

Edited and updated by Eddie Tolmie.
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