Walābū [NEW]

It’s a sad fact that in my work with the Endangered Alphabets I regularly hear that scripts that have been invented rather than inherited are not “real” scripts, and are, even in scholarly work, referred to as “secondary” or “artificial.” They are often described—and again, this is by educated people—as the work of amateurs, enthusiasts, attention-seekers, or troublemakers. And as evidence that they are not worth considering, people point to the fact that few of them are widely adopted, and few survive the death of their inventor.

For a different point of view, let’s consider two scripts created for the Oromo people of Ethiopia and their language. One, along with its creator, the scholar-poet Sheikh Bakri Sapalo, is described in some detail elsewhere in the Atlas.

The other is a script I didn’t hear about for the first 14 years of research into indigenous and minority scripts, and in fact almost nobody has heard of it. Does this make it not worth considering? Read on.

The script was created by the Oromo religious teacher Sheikh Kemal Adem. He was born in rural Ethiopia in 1944 and from an early age devoted himself to studying Islamic subjects and Arabic grammar, and remarkably, invented a coffee-combing machine.

The Oromo people were marginalized and oppressed by successive national governments, and Kemal left Ethiopia during the Derg military regime, traveling to Sudan and Saudi Arabia to further his studies. He started devising a script for the Afaan Oromo language around 1963, and for the next 28 years kept it secret for fear of imprisonment or assassination by the Derg.

This script seems to have been hidden so effectively that the first published mention of it is apparently a paper published in in the Journal of Ethiopian Studies (JES) Vol. 55, No. 1 (June 2022), “An Investigation into the Walābū Oromo Script Devised by Sheikh

Kemal Adem,” by Nuraddin Aman, a researcher at the Institute of Ethiopian Studies, Addis Ababa University, who interviewed Sheikh Kemal in Bale, Southeast Ethiopia.

During the interview, Sheikh Kemal carefully articulated several reasons for creating the script:

  • Unlike other orthographies, his script represented all the sounds of the Afaan Oromo language and its dialects.
  • He opposed the adoption of Latin-based Qube orthography since it was not originally the script of the Oromo language. A great and ancient people, he said, must own a writing system, and them Latin alphabet does not make the people the owners of the alphabet, but rather its borrowers.
  • Learning the Latin-based Qube system ironically led to Oromo speakers mispronouncing English.
  • The script saved time and energy compared to the Qube orthography, which required multiple characters for a single Oromo word.

He wrote four books with his script: two sacred, two secular. Umdatu As-Sālik wa ‛Uddatu An-Nȃsik (Farȃ‘id) is a manual of Islamic sacred law; Safȋnatu An-Najāh, “the ship of salvation/success,” is a book of doctrine and jurisprudence, translated from Arabic; the third is an introduction to his own Walābū script; and the fourth is a biography of five heroes of the Bale rebellion, 1963-1970.

In his introduction to the Walābū script, he wrote, “I did not adopt this script from other orthographies, rather it is the property of the Oromo nation and belongs to this nation.”

Remarkably, both the script and its author were, at least as of the early 2020s, alive and active. Sheikh Kemal told the researcher that, “Despite the long challenges he faced in the past, mainly due to political factors from the government side, currently, the author of the Walābū Oromo script has got a patent right in 2017. As presented earlier in this paper, around eight [university]students have learned the Walābū Oromo script from the Sheikh. At present, the author of this script has the intention of developing a software system for the Walābū script with the concerned professionals in order to reach it out to the wider public.”

6.6958° N, 40.9587° E