N’Ko is that rarest of beasts, an indigenous script that instead of dwindling may actually be growing.

The script was created around 1949 by Soulemayne Kante of Kankan, Guinea, in order to write the Mandekan languages of Mali, Senegal, Guinea, Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso and Sierra Leone, according to ScriptSource,“ in response to a newspaper article reflecting the colonial misconception that Africans were culturally inferior due to their lack of indigenous writing systems.”

Kanté committed himself to helping the speakers of Mande languages achieve literacy in his writing system. As a result, he authored works on many subjects — the history of the Mande people, science, healing arts, mathematics, and religion.

Since its invention the alphabet has acquired a life of its own. A grassroots movement promoting literacy by using the N’ko alphabet has blossomed across West Africa from Gambia to Nigeria, wherever there are speakers of Mande languages, despite the fact that these countries use French and English as official languages.

“I wouldn’t classify it as an endangered writing system,” suggested Dwayne Rainwater, a Bible translator, “but rather a new budding writing system. It is slowly growing here in West Africa. There are even N’Ko schools (complete with some books written in N’Ko). We are also putting our translations into N’Ko as there is a significant portion of the population that can already read and write N’Ko. There are several books written in N’ko including a good sized dictionary which I use all the time in my work.”

Publications also include a translation of the Qur’an, a variety of textbooks on subjects such as physics and geography, poetic and philosophical works, descriptions of traditional medicine, a dictionary, and several local newspapers.

In a slightly adapted form, N’Ko has also been used for traditional religious publications in the Yoruba and Fon languages of Benin and southwest Nigeria.

The word N’ko means “I say” in all the Manding languages.