Kpelle was, or perhaps is, one of many dream-inspired West African scripts.
According to Ruth Stone in her article “Ingenious Invention: The Indigenous Kpelle Script in the Late Twentieth Century,” Gbili, a paramount chief from Sanoyea, Bong County, in central Liberia, invented the Kpelle script in the 1930s. The script was revealed to him one night (in a different account, during an unusually long sleep of three days) in a dream through an angel messenger. Upon waking, however, Gbili summoned Lee-polu, whereupon he dictated the script in essentially complete form.
“Such an origin,” Stone writes, “accords special status among the Kpelle, for dreams are the source of things to be highly regarded. If Gbili had simply worked in his waking hours to devise the script, the Kpelle people would not have considered it to be of much significance. Coming through a dream, however, the script received special recognition by the Kpelle people.”
History shows time and again, however, that inventing a script is one major challenge; teaching it and getting it widely accepted is, if anything, much harder. Kpelle has always been restricted, or perhaps specialized, in its range of use.
“The script, from the beginning, was intended by the Kpelle as a tool of elite literacy,” Stone writes. “Like other Kpelle knowledge, it was considered a powerful commodity to be given to others judiciously and restricted to a few in the social and political hierarchies. Some of those invited to learn the script were scribes for the surrounding chief. These clerks were sent to Sanoyea to acquire the knowledge of the script so that official communication might be conducted using it. Some chiefs, like Bono-boi of Yanekwele, came themselves to acquire this special power. One of Gbili’s wives, Neni-tee, mastered the script as well. She is reputed to have written messages to Gbili when he was traveling away from home. She delighted in astonishing the people of Sanoyea by being able to read his letters and to predict the exact day of his return.”
As would be the case later with the Adlam script, the crossroads and the marketplace played a part in spreading the Kpelle syllabary.
“Sanoyea, long a prominent town on the trade route from the coast of Liberia to Guinea, developed as a center for the teaching of the new script in the 1930s and 1940s,” Stone continues. “This stopover on the road to the interior had for some time served as a center of communication and was known for its market at a time when few other towns had the weekly markets that are so common today…. According to Lee-polu, pupils learned in small groups in various houses throughout Sanoyea. No tuition was charged of those who came to learn.
“The length of instruction varied. One [source] mentioned that he had spent three months learning the script. Lee-polu asserted that a diligent person could master the basics of the script in four days, although Lee-polu’s time estimate might have been tempered by his desire to convince people of the ease of learning the script. This is how he summarized the script and its learning. `[Writing] is not difficult. If you want to know it, four days. If you seat a syllable, if you seat it at its fellow’s head, it is a word. They are numerous, you bounce them together.’”
The Kpelle language is still very much alive, but the growth of the syllabary was doomed by the local Lutheran mission, which in mid-century developed a Latin-based script for the language and engaged in a widespread program of teaching and publication. By the 1970s, the Kpelle script was being used by a handful of enthusiasts for hut tax records, for the financial records of a store, and for recording court debts. Today there is interest in the script in Guinea and Liberia, but no active program of teaching or publication. The principal sign of life can be found at her Facebook page, which in itself is a porthole into the activities of Maria Konoshenko in support of the Kpelle language: a Kpelle dictionary, COVID information in Kpelle, and language videos.
If you read French, you may want to check out her paper HERE.