In his 1969 article in African Language Studies, “Further indigenous scripts of West Africa: Manding, Wolof, and Fula alphabets and Yoruba holy-writing,” David Dalby, a pioneer in the area, wrote:
“This alphabet was developed between 1958 and 1966 by Oumar Dembélé [Dambele], who was born at Bamako in 1939: he was brought up mainly in the Ivory Coast and travelled widely from the age of 14. He attended Koranic school for a short while at Nioro du Sabel (Mali), but is otherwise self-taught. He has taught himself to speak and write French with some fluency, and also has a slight knowledge of Arabic. He now lives at Bamako, where he works as a joiner.
“Dembélé’s interest in writing stems in part from his family background: he told me that his Fula grandfather once had a large collection of manuscripts in  Arabic and in ‘secret’ Arabic writing, but that his uncle destroyed them all after the old man’s death ‘because he could not understand them’. The grandfather lived at Nioro du Sahel, on the southern fringes of an area which is known to be a centre of ‘sub-Arabic’ alphabets.
“When I asked to know the name of Dembélé’s grandfather, however, I was told that he is not known or recognized by his own people at home and therefore should not be known or recognized abroad—Dembélé then added the remark: ‘un peul [sic]— meme quand il sait quelque chose — il se cache ‘.
“On his travels Dembélé has made records of many indigenous graphic symbols which he has come across, and he showed me notebooks filled with symbols which he said he had collected in different parts of Mali, especially in the Kaarta region around Nioro: he made special reference to the towns of Lakhamane (60 miles south-west of Nioro) and ‘Simbin’.
“He allowed me to take a photographic copy of three sheets of symbols from among his papers, but would not clarify his remark that they contained a mixture of symbols he had collected and symbols he had invented. From the sequence of symbols on the sheets it does appear that he had been experimenting with different forms, tallying with his own assertion that he had arrived at the form of characters for his script after much experimentation. He apparently decided that an alphabet would be the most efficient form after unsuccessful attempts with ‘thousands’ of ideographic symbols. His alphabet has itself undergone substantial change since its original elaboration in 1958, the current form having been perfected in 1966.
“Dembélé, very conscious of the cultural heritage of his tribe, recounted a ‘tradition’ that the Fula had had their own form of writing before the Arabs arrived, and that it had since been lost. There is no evidence either to support or to refute such a tradition, but it does help to throw light on Dembélé’s own way of thinking and on his keen desire to decipher the numerous indigenous graphic symbols which he has collected in the Mali area.
“Dembélé has given the invented name of Dita to his script, this being one of a number of invented words which he uses in the script…. He maintains that Africans want their own African form of writing, and he believes that his own script can meet this need: he claims that it can be used to transcribe any African language and, although this is clearly an exaggeration, his large inventory of characters would permit the transcription of many local languages, including Bambara.
“There is no evidence of Dembélé’s script having been used by anyone except himself, and it was made clear to me in Mali that his script is viewed unfavourably by officials connected with the present programme of vernacular literacy in the Roman script: an attempt was actually made to persuade Dembélé to stop giving me information on his script.
“Dembélé has himself taken some interest in the programme for Roman literacy, and his attendance at the 1966 Bamako Conference on the Unification of National Alphabets (held under UNESCO auspices) doubtless assisted him in the phonemic perfection of his script in that year. He was apparently told to abandon his script in 1965, but has chosen to interpret this as referring only to the form of the script as it existed then. He now uses the pre-1966 form as a ‘secret’ script, and was only prepared to give me full details of the subsequent 1966 version. He has a collection of manuscript notebooks written in the script, many apparently in the pre-1966 version, and he was unwilling to let me examine them. He told me that he had written in Fula and ‘other languages’, including Bambara, and that his Fula texts included his own poems.”
“He refused to let Dalby have any of these, since they were in the ‘secret’ form of the script, but he did let him have a copy of a short poem in the 1966 version.
“Dembélé did allow me to examine a ‘dictionary’ which he is at present compiling in the 1966 version of his script. It is not a dictionary in the conventional sense, but consists of a straight list of every phonologically feasible combination of characters in his script, regardless of whether or not the combinations actually occur (in Fula or any other language). No glosses are provided. Dembélé has already written out, in a very neat hand, every possible 2-letter, 3-letter and 4-letter shape, and is now engaged on 5-letter shapes. He has already filled several large notebooks, and has estimated that there will be a final total of 42 volumes.
“The first version of Dembélé’s alphabet, completed in 1958 when he was only 19, had a total of 55 characters, but this number was reduced to 40 in 1961 and to a final total of 39 in 1966: the forms of the characters were also changed substantially between the different versions, so that they are to all intents and purposes different scripts. In its latest form, which is efficient for the transcription of Fula, the script contains a total of thirty-one consonantal characters, seven vocalic characters and a nasalization sign. There is an associated set of decimal numerals, and the direction of writing for the script is from left to right.
“He maintained that some of his present alphabetic characters have an ideographic or pictographic origin, but the only example he would provide was the character [symbol] from damal ‘door’ (representing D in the 1961 version).
“He was interested to see charts of the five indigenous scripts of Liberia and Sierra Leone, of which he had not previously heard, and judged the Vai script to be the most ‘original’ of the five from the point of view of being based primarily on the shapes of ‘African’ graphic symbols. He spotted at once the Arabic influence on the Mende script, and considered the Kpelle script to be the most ‘corrupt’ of the five. These judgements are of value in assessing Dembélé’s own attitude to graphic symbolism, and it seems clear that he has been consciously striving to preserve the ‘African’ style of his own characters.”
Needless to say, we’d love to hear from anyone who can add to this fascinating portrait of the person and/or the script. It seems unlikely the script is still being used, but odder things have happened.
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