Indigenous and minority writing systems, and the people who are trying to save them
Koré Sèbèli [NEW]
According to the Unicode proposal by Bentoura Bangoura, Lucille Guigon and Mohamed Lamine Sylla, the writing system Koré Sèbèli, or Wakara, meaning “Writing /Feather From the Sky,” was invented by the Guinean researcher/sociologist Mohamed Bentoura Bangoura to compose texts in the Soso (commonly called Soussou) language, one of the national languages of Guinea. (The word Sebeli” is variously written with different acute and grave accents.)
Soso, a tonal language belonging to the Djallonké language family and one of the oldest indigenous language of West Africa, is spoken in Guinea, especially the capital Conakry,and also in some places in Sierra Leone, Gambia and Senegal. The Soso community is one of the oldest communities in West Africa, with its own written communication system.
The Koré Sèbèli script had originally a sacred, secret dimension because for the Sosos, Koré Sèbèli comes from Marigui, the god of destiny. Its origin lies in the Laga (black secret school) where children learned 12 words to which 12 féndalis were attached. Meaning in the Soso language “secret writing, hidden writing,” the féndalis corresponded to hieroglyphs.
These 12 féndalis corresponded to a 12-year cycle of training and adult learning. Young people learned different trades (blacksmithing, pottery, weaving), disciplines (mathematics, astronomy, medicine, philosophy, chemistry) and values (mystical, mythological, medicinal). (Even today, when Soso children are stubborn, they are told N’bara wayèn foú nun rin birin fala i bè, könö i mou a mèma, meaning “I told you 12 words but you didn’t understand.”)
In 1979, Guinean researcher-sociologist Mohamed Bentoura Bangoura decrypted the 12 féndalis and discovered that they correspond to a set of 12 numbers used from antiquity to count, and for divination in consulting oracles, now called the “Bentoura Figures” (Chiffres Bentoura).
Following 33 years of research where he explored the Guinean territory, he reconstructed and the judical charter Kemekiriyah of the Soso Empire (1077-1235). This legal charter, establishing the rules of social and territorial organization, adopted under the sacred tree Kiri of the Soso, was composed of 100 articles, and demonstrated a hundred ancient ideograms.
The Soso were inspired by this ideographic system to compose their charter in the Middle Ages.
Inspired by the inscribed signs that he collected and listed (engraved mostly on wood, stone, clay, animal skins, and irons used to brand cattle), in 2009 Bangoura invented the alphabet Koré Sèbèli, composed of 29 letters (22 consonants, 5 vowels, 2 medials). The typography that Guigon created includes, on the one hand, the alphabet of Mr. Bentoura Bangoura, and on the other hand, 83 ideograms that she extracted from the historic Kemekiriyah charter.
The writing Koré Sèbèli breathes new life into a form of written communication transmitted from generation to generation in the Lagas but gradually forgotten, shelved due to the establishment of Arabic script (12th-14th century), then the introduction of the Latin alphabet (18th-19th) with French colonization (1891-1956).
During colonization, the Sosos who still used the ideograms were considered illiterate and ignorant, and were encouraged to give up their written tradition. The Lagas were removed and despised during this period.
Lucille Guigon writes: “Writing is taught weekly by the sociologist Mr. Bentoura Bangoura in his residence at Coyah or Conakry. Other former students of the professor teach it in their turn, such as Mohamed Lamine Sylla in Egypt. It is not today an official teaching, integrated in the schools, but a possibility of learning for the Guineans who wish it in parallel with their schooling. And a real school is being built in Coyah, in which Koré Sébèli will be taught as well as other teachings of the traditional Soso school, the `Laga.’
“In terms of usage, the writing is used by the teacher who wrote a book with the syllabary, and by his students who write poems, learning manuals (syllabary, method of grammar and conjugation, book of economics, mathematics) or religious texts.
Several editorial projects are underway with this writing, including a Soso proverb book and a book on medicinal plants. For the moment, they are mostly manuscripts and recently printed texts, with the typography I created, in small editions.”
As always, we would love to hear from anyone with first-hand knowledge of these developments. For example, have you come across the Koré Sèbèli clock?