A Cultural Revolution in Africa:

The Role of Literacy in the Republic of Guinea since Independence [1]

Dianne White Oyler, Ph.D.

Fayetteville State University.

* N'ko & oral tradition     * N'ko literacy &  guinea    * Songs of Souleymane Kanté

| Ecriture | Télé-Enseignement | Intervention | Christopher W. Kouyaté | L’identité | Sebeden | Contacts | la remise officielle |

| oral tradition | N'ko literacy | Songs of  Kanté |  Société en Afrique  | Le Centre | cairo_university | kafa lu serede |

 “Culture is a better means of domination than the gun.”[2] "Ahmed Sékou Touré" 

At the time of their independence most African nations attempted a process of decolonization in the three spheres of European imperialism, political, economic, and cultural.  While this process in the  political and economic arenas is apparent, decolonization of the cultural area is much harder to define and to illustrate because European cultural impositions had usurped the areas of language, socialization through education, and technology from simple writing to electronic media.  However, in the Republic of Guinea the process can be clearly documented.   Its approach to cultural decolonization can be analyzed in light of the more formal “Cultural Revolution” launched by its independence leader Sékou Touré in 1958 as a policy of the First Republic.  Touré’s objective was to validate the indigenous cultures that had been denigrated by the Europeans[3]  while at the same time creating a Guinean national consciousness. In other words, Touré launched a country-wide campaign to recapture indigenous culture by formally focusing on language and education.  His specific intent was to validate indigenous culture by using maternal language education in order to achieve better control of European science and technology.  This action, he believed, would lead Guinea into creating global economic partnerships within the modern world’s economy.   An unanticipated consequence of Touré’s campaign, however, was the cultural awakening of the Maninka speakers who consider themselves to be the direct descendants of the ancient Empire of Mali. Although disseminated through the countries of West Africa (including Guinea, Mali, Mauritania, Senegal, Côte d’Ivoire, Niger, Burkina Faso, Benin, Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Nigeria), the Maninka speakers constitute roughly 40 percent of Guinea’s population many of whom live in the region of Haute-Guinée which is about two-fifths of Guinea’s territory.  The Maninka cultural revolution that began within the larger Touré “Cultural Revolution”continues today in the Second Republic of Lansana Conté which began in 1984. The cultural revival of the Maninka language, its oral literature, and its connection to the heroic/historic past has been juxtaposed to any official policy of creating a Guinean national consciousness since 1958.

This paper specifically addresses Guinea’s internal revolt against European cultural imperialism as evidenced in the issues of language and literacy that have dominated the political landscape in post-1958 Guinea.[4]  The paper further addresses the concept of maternal language learning that became central to decolonization, and particularly the policy Sékou Touré developed and implemented with the support of UNESCO —  the National Language Program (1968-1984).[5]    More importantly, however, the paper documents one result of Touré’s program which has acquired a life of its own outside government control.  It is a grassroots literacy movement that centers on an alphabet called N’ko whose dissemination shows the growth of a literacy movement that is currently spreading across international boundaries throughout West Africa.  A salient aspect of the issue of language and literacy was the involvement of Souleymane Kanté (1922-1987), a   Maninka-speaking, Guinean “Peasant Intellectual,” who invented the  indigenous alphabet N’ko in 1949.  Souleymane Kanté was born in Soumankoyin-Kِlِnin about thirteen kilometers from Kankan. He was the son of the famous Quranic school teacher Amara Kanté.  When Souleymane had finished his Quranic school education, he could read and write Arabic and translate Islamic texts.  After his father’s death in 1941, Kanté left Guinea for Côte d’ Ivoire to make his fortune as an entrepreneur in a more cosmopolitan urban setting.  Becoming an autodidact there,  he read extensively, learned other languages, and became renown as a scholar.

Guinea and Decolonization

The Republic of Guinea under the leadership of Sékou Touré ended political imperialism in 1958 when 95% of the voters cast a “No” vote in a referendum addressing the country’s need for belonging to the “French Community.” Thus began a real struggle for autonomy in the three spheres of national life: the political, the economic, and the cultural.  At that time the reality of political independence from France meant indigenous leadership, and, particularly in Guinea’s case, it meant also an inexperienced leadership in terms of training and practice.  Sékou Touré’s experience offers a salient example of the under-preparation of emerging African leaders.  Possessing an eighth grade, French-style,  colonial education, plus a bit of training supplied by French communist trade unionists, and the experience of  ten years of governmental service, Touré took power and deliberately created an eclectic form of government which drew upon the strengths of his equally eclectic education.  In the cold war period Sékou Touré chose the political path of African Socialism and the diplomatic path of non-alignment.  This type of government called  “Positive Neutralism”  allowed him to open Guinea to all manner of foreign investment without committing himself to a specific ideology.[6]

Inherent in the political independence of Guinea, however, was the problem of a revenue shortfall because France had withdrawn its economic aid to Guinea and also its trade partnership.  One  result of this action was that Guinea lost its trade connections with many of France’s trading partners, especially among France’s NATO allies; Guinea’s AOF sister colonies, however, traded with her unofficially.  As a Third World country producing raw materials to supply the First World industrial complex, Guinea was tied to the international marketplace, but it produced many of the same products as did other Third World nations that were constantly being encouraged by the industrialized nations to increase production.  One result of that was a decrease in Guinea’s share of the world market, forcing Guinea to find alternative markets.  With its doors closed to western capitalist markets, Guinea became a trading partner with the Eastern bloc nations.  Trade with Second World nations, however, exacerbated Guinea’s economic shortfall, as these nations were unable to purchase Guinea’s raw materials with foreign exchange, substituting instead manufactured goods.  They then sold Guinea’s raw materials on the world market, thus gaining foreign exchange that improved their own economies to the detriment of Guinea’s.  Although Guinea received Second World technology, she never did receive the support system that would have allowed  her to maintain and expand upon that technology.  Today Guinea is one of the poorest  nations in West Africa.

In the cultural sphere of Guinea’s national life, Sékou Touré opted to keep the French language; all documents would be written in French in the Roman alphabet, Guinea’s official language.  It seems that Touré chose the colonial language with an eye to national unity in order to avoid the conflicts that would arise over choosing one of the twenty ethnic languages as the country’s official language.  French  also served Guinea in the international market place where buyers and sellers were not likely to learn an African language because too many other language accessible countries produced the same products.  Guinea also continued to use the French system of education.  However, university training for Guineans was now sought in First and Second World countries.  Students received scholarships in the United States as well as a “free” education in the Soviet Union.  Although Touré had earlier implied that Guinea would be a Muslim state after independence, he imposed instead religious toleration in a country of Muslims, Christians, and African Traditional Religions; this eclecticism became the method of promoting national unity.

     Nevertheless, in the years following Guinea’s political independence, a large segment of Guinea’s Maninka-speaking population[7] has tried to return to African hands the cultural initiative by utilizing an indigenous alphabet created by the indigenous scholar and cultural leader named Souleymane Kanté.  While Sékou Touré, a Maninka-speaker himself, had encouraged Souleymane Kanté in this initiative, he did not choose to allow the use of the writing system known as N’ko as a national language/writing system.  Ultimately, though, Kanté’s research and promotion of learning in the maternal  languages may have directly influenced Touré, who had addressed the issues of indigenous languages/writing systems as a way to reclaim African culture by implementing his National Language Program (1968-1984).  

The N’ko Alphabet

According to informants,[8] Souleymane Kanté created the N’ko alphabet in response to two stimuli: a media-based challenge[9] that Africans have no culture because they have no indigenous system of writing and his growing realization that foreign writing systems could not fully express the inherent meaning of tonal languages as did  his maternal language, Maninka.  Kanté’s immediate reaction to these challenges was to disprove the denigrating allegations that “Africans have no culture” by creating an alphabet that would transcribe the twenty languages of the Mande language group as well as other tonal African languages.  Thus, in his role as a peasant intellectual,  Kanté was inspired to campaign against ignorance and illiteracy by providing a writing system  in order for his countrymen to acquire knowledge without having to depend upon outside  interpretation.  According to informants, he expressed the idea that Africans needed to learn their own maternal languages first, because learning in a second or third language often obfuscated the cultural  meaning of the text.[10]  The potential for indigenous literacy would enable illiterates to read and write, even  though they had been excluded from the colonial education system .  Kanté devoted four years (1945-1949) to research and application, trying to write the Maninka language first in Arabic script and then in the Roman alphabet.  In both cases he found that foreign alphabets could not transcribe all the tones produced by the spoken Mande languages.  As a consequence, while still living in Côte d’Ivoire,  he embarked on an entirely new project which was the creation of a writing system that would reflect the specific characteristics of Mande languages, especially their tonality.  The result was the N’ko alphabet.  Having developed  the alphabet, he called together children and illiterates and asked them to draw a line in the dirt; he noticed that seven out of ten drew the line from right to left .[11]   For that reason and in his efforts to make the alphabet easy to learn and easy to use, he chose a right-to-left orientation for writing it.  Finally, Souleymane Kanté gave his invention the culturally significant name, N’ko.  Informants have cited the cultural significance of his choice.  First, in all Mande languages the pronoun N means I and the verb ko represents the verb to say.  By choosing the name N’ko, I say in all Mande languages, Kanté had  united speakers of Mande languages with just one phrase. Secondly, the speakers of Mande languages also share the heroic past that had been recounted in the tale of Sundiata, an epic in which the glorious history of the Mande is expressed--a cultural dominance of men of valor who say N’ko, the clear language of Mali (Niane, 1989:87).[12]

After Souleymane Kanté had perfected his alphabet, informants also remember him becoming absorbed in creating reading materials using the N’ko script.  Kanté’s life-long passion then became the production of N’ko texts.  In this way he demonstrated his commitment to knowledge that should be written in the maternal language.  After returning to his native Guinea in 1958, Kanté worked assiduously.  He translated and transcribed Islamic religious texts and also works from the disciplines of history, sociology, linguistics, literature, philosophy, science, and technology.  Then he wrote textbooks for teaching the N’ko alphabet, and, like Samuel Johnson and Noah Webster had done, he created a dictionary for the written form of the Maninka language.  There are no dates for the translations of any of the above mentioned texts.  Other than the religious works being translated and transcribed first, informants know of no known order in which texts were chosen to be rendered into N’ko.  Kanté’s commitment was unparalleled.  After hand-writing these texts, an arduous task in itself, he would then create copies to give as gifts to teachers, thus encouraging N’ko literacy within the Mande community.  Teachers then made these texts available to students, who in turn reproduced additional books also by hand-copying.  Consequently, Kanté directly touched the lives of many of those who became literate in N’ko, and he was the prime mover of a type of cultural nationalism which gave people the pride of having a language that could stand in words and script alongside any other.

 Guinea’s Cultural Revolution

When Guinea achieved its independence in 1958, Sékou Touré called upon all Guineans to return home to help build the new nation .[13]  Thus Souleymane Kanté returned from Côte d’Ivoire to a new social order.[14]  During the period of the 1940's through the 1960's, Guinea was in the process of reinventing itself politically and culturally at the local, regional, and national levels. 

It is in the midst of this cultural upheaval that the independence movement professed a desire to shed colonial, European trappings, and to tap into its African heroic/historic past.  Since the ethnicities embraced by Guinea’s national borders had never before been joined together, a nationalist rhetoric was developed which sent mixed messages about loyalty to the heroic past.  Harking to the grandeur of an African heritage, however, each individual ethnic group gave more allegiance to itself rather than to a greater Guinean nationalism.  At the national level, the Partie Démocratique Guinéen (PDG) agitated for a Guinean “National Consciousness;”[15] local ethnic groups continued the cultural re-identification process that had begun from 1944-1946.[16]  One of these, the Maninka speakers of Haute-Guinée had established the Union Manden in 1946  as a voluntary, mutual-aide association organized around a linguistic, ethnic, and regional base.[17] That action kindled interest in the glorious Mande past.  This mutual-aide association had been founded by Maninka-speaking political activists such as Sékou Touré and Framoi Berété the association had also performed the role of a regional political party with the ability to launch candidates in national elections, something the Maninka speakers had been unable to do in the 1945 elections.  Despite the desire of the Union Manden to give national expression to Mande discontent, it never developed beyond the position of being a local/regional cultural association.[18]  The conflict between Guinean nationalism and regional, ethnic cultural nationalism continued to manifest itself throughout the First Republic, particularly  in the implementation of the National Language Program (1968-1984).

The Role of Literacy in Cultural Revolution

Souleymane Kanté introduced Sékou Touré to maternal language literacy and maternal language education in 1958.[19]  Although Sékou Touré had praised the Mande-styled alphabet, he rejected the idea of the N’ko alphabet becoming the national alphabet of Guinea[20] because he believed it could not improve written communication among Guinea’s ethnic groups, and he knew that it would also obstruct communication with the outside world.[21]  Nevertheless, Sékou Touré rewarded Souleymane Kanté’s scholarly achievement by honoring him with a 200,000 CFA gift from the Guinean people for indigenous excellence.[22]  But he still refused to support or promote the alphabet unless Kanté could prove that more than half the population of Haute-Guinée used the technology.[23]  Touré further requested that Kanté repatriate himself and his family to his home country.[24]  Answering the call, Souleymane Kanté went to the area of Treicheville in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire, where he was met by a military truck sent overland by Touré to collect the Kanté family.[25]  The Kanté family moved to Kankan where Souleymane Kanté then became a merchant who taught N’ko on the side.[26]  Interestingly enough, however, the alphabet preceded Kanté’s arrival in Kankan.  It so happened that many of the initial students of N’ko had been merchants who had carried the new alphabet with them along trade routes to the farthest reaches of Mande-speaking West Africa.[27]  Informant family members reminisced that Souleymane had visited them in Guinea, and that they had visited him in Côte d’Ivoire.  He had taught them the alphabet, and they in turn had taught their neighbors.

It was Souleymane Kanté who introduced Sékou Touré to the concept of instruction in the maternal language; this attitude was also becoming a salient issue among other newly independent African nations.  Although Sékou Touré had rejected Souleymane Kanté’s Mande styled alphabet as the national alphabet of Guinea,[28] he did eventually accept the concept of maternal language education.[29]   Touré is reported to have introduced Kanté to his National Education Minister, Barry Diawadou, and to his Minister of National Defense, Fodéba Keita.[30]  Touré, however, excluded Kanté from policy making sessions as he worked together with his Minister of Ideology and Information, Senainno Béhanzin, in order to produce the model for a maternal language program that would accommodate Guinea’s multi-lingual society.[31]  Touré’s final proposal was then submitted to the rank and file of the PDG membership at the cell level within the villages, and the urban districts and quarters. [32]

One informant from Haute-Guinée had participated as a member of the party cell at the village level that voted on the proposal for teaching in the maternal language.  This informant was also a teacher who had participated in the actual selection and standardization of the Maninka language as written in the Roman alphabet.[33]  This informant explained that in 1958 Guinea had to struggle to regain its political, economic, and cultural independence.[34]  Thus, the country chose to free itself culturally by instituting the National Language Program: the Congress established a Commission National de l’Education to formulate the government’s policy; then the country’s teachers were called upon to contribute to the effort in two ways.  First, the teachers were asked to standardize their specific, spoken language to the Roman alphabet.  Next, they were directed to translate into the national languages modern scientific knowledge that had been written in French.[35]  Finally, the government intended to use its publishing house, Imprimerie Patrice Lumumba, to print textbooks for the project.[36]

Informants who had participated in implementing Guinea’s educational reforms also reminisced about the rationale behind the new policy.  The idea of literacy acquisition in French had been discarded as too complicated a procedure.  First, they observed, students would have had to learn the alphabet and, secondly, learn a new language.  Thus, the problem would be  simplified if people just learned a new alphabet to which they could apply the familiar maternal language.  The small number of people who were literate, because they had already mastered French, had the easier task.[37]  The government established two autonomous agencies to deal with the National Language Program: l’Institut de Recherche Linguistique Appliquée (IRLA) and the Service National de l’Alphabétisation (SNA).[38]

Twenty different languages had been identified as being spoken in Guinea; the program selected eight languages basing its choice upon the numbers of people using each one as a primary or secondary language. These were Maninka, Susu, Pular, Kissi, Guerzé (Kpelle), Tome (Loma), Oneyan, and Wamey.  Each became a lingua franca in its region or sub-region.  Although Mande languages were widely used in all four of Guinea’s regions, the Maninka form was selected as the dominant language to be taught only in Haute-Guinée.  According to the National Language Program, an illiterate adult Mande-speaking family living in Kankan would be taught the Maninka language written in the Roman alphabet, and the adults would be taught at work while the children would be taught at school.  Likewise, a Pular-speaking family, living in Kankan, would have the same experience, and even though they were non-Mande speakers, the language of instruction was Maninka.[39]

However, financial constraints are reported to have thwarted the immediate implementation of the National Language Program.[40]  The regional education directors for Haute-Guinée during this period believed that the infrastructure for the massive assault on illiteracy was non-existent, and despite the government’s commitment to provide free public primary education, the government failed to anticipate the additional funds that would be necessary to provide for materials written in the newly formulated and standardized national languages in the already estimated shortfall.[41]  Teachers themselves had to finance the standardization of the national languages by giving their time to the endeavor.  In 1965 Touré applied for and received UNESCO funding for a maternal language education program, called “Langue Nationale,” which the government implemented in 1967.[42]  UNESCO sent experts who assisted the Guinean government in standardizing local languages in the Roman alphabet.[43]  Although the preparation for the National Language Program had begun in 1959, the actual campaign for adults began in 1967; in 1968 the campaign entered the schools.  Both programs[44] were associated with Sékou Touré’s larger social program, “La Revolution Culturelle Socialiste.[45]

The resulting reforms implemented in 1968 consisted of two co-existing educational tracks--one for schools and one for adults and school leavers.  From 1968-1984 students in the public elementary schools were taught all subjects in the maternal language.[46]  During the First Cycle, in grades one through three, the language of instruction by which the students were taught was the maternal language.[47]  At grade four, they were introduced to an academic course in French, which they continued each year through grade six.  Academic subjects were still taught in the maternal language.  In the Second Cycle affecting the lower secondary grades seven through nine, students continued the program with an academic course in French and with the maternal language as the language of instruction.  To advance to the upper secondary level, students had to pass an exam, Brevet Elémentaire du Second Cycle Technique.  During the Third Cycle, students experienced a change in the language of instruction, and the language of instruction at the lycée gradually became French.[48]  To be admitted to the university level--the Fourth Cycle--students had to pass the exam for the Baccalauréat Unique.  In 1973 the Ministry of Education added a thirteenth grade that bridged the third and fourth cycles, and exams were administered at the end of the thirteenth level.[49]  The second track consisted of adults and school leavers who were given the opportunity to become literate (l’alphabétisation) by attending literacy programs in the maternal language before or after work either at their places of employment or at schools after the normal school day.[50]

           In preparation for the 1968 implementation of the National Language Program, each ethnic group was charged with standardizing the spoken language into a written form in the Roman alphabet.  Educators in Kankan, the capital of Mande-speaking Haute-Guinée, looked for people who possessed a rich vocabulary and who were very well informed who could participate in translating the diverse curricula into the maternal language.  It was then that the committee invited Souleymane Kanté[51] to participate in the standardization process.  They considered him an expert because while inventing the N’ko alphabet he had spent years trying to find the best way to write the Mande languages in the Roman alphabet.  He agreed to participate unofficially in the project.

Souleymane Kanté’s Indigenous Approach to Literacy

Although Souleymane Kanté assisted the government with the standardization of the maternal language — Maninka — he did not abandon his own literacy program.  Kanté disapproved of Touré’s National Language Program because it depended upon a foreign alphabet and on foreign constructions.  In fact, he held that if there were to be a cultural revolution that drew upon the African past, then African cultural forms should be its foundation.  Souleymane Kanté’s goal was to control Mande and modern knowledge through the use of a Mande language and literacy program.  He thus offered an indigenous alternative to the official National Language Program.  The two literacy initiatives, he believed, were not mutually exclusive.

Touré’s state-funded literacy campaign dominated the formal education scene.  Touré drew upon the existing infrastructure, its curricula, and its personnel.  Kanté, on the other hand, is remembered by informants as having taught N’ko in the market place.  He had taught the members of his own extended family and had recommended that others do the same.[52]  The “each one teach one” policy was actually a recommendation for each person to teach at least seven others.  Informants recalled that Kanté attracted many followers by demonstrating N’ko at social functions, such as funerals, where he opened his Qur’an written in N’ko and read the Word of God.[53]  Kanté suggested that everyone should learn N’ko and that those who refused would later regret their error.  Kanté’s literacy movement slowly gained support as it operated on the fringes in an informal educational environment that paralleled Touré’s state system.  Kanté’s movement possessed no infrastructure, no financial assistance, and no texts except the ones students copied for themselves.  The engine that powered the movement was a person’s desire to repossess Mande culture by controlling knowledge through Mande language and literacy.  Teachers were the key to the grassroots movement.

Some teachers were drawn from the existing state-funded pool of personnel.  Many others  were businessmen and workers who taught N’ko at their businesses or in their homes.   Most in the N’ko teaching force contributed their time without remuneration.  In some cases families of students gave gifts to their teachers at the end of the service in order to help support the teacher or school.  The process of learning N’ko took about four months.  Each N’ko teacher could teach three groups per year.  In the beginning students were mostly adults who later saw to it that their children were also educated in N’ko.  Armed with a blackboard, a tripod, and a piece of chalk, the N’ko teachers employed a methodology similar to that of Quranic school education —  memorization, imitation, and utilization.  Students would congregate at the compound of a teacher where they would copy the alphabet on slate or paper and then would use oral recitation as a tool for memorization and reinforcement.  The teacher conducted the class, but students, regardless of age, had the responsibility for leading the recitations.  Students who were quick and adept were recruited as assistants and eventually became teachers themselves.  Students copied the texts that Souleymane Kanté had translated and had transcribed to produce personal or family copies.  Those who became N’ko literate were well equipped to read the literature Kanté translated and transcribed, were able to communicate with others who were literate in N’ko, and could keep records and accounts for their businesses.  Some students undertook the task of recording the oral histories of older members of their families to preserve in writing first-hand knowledge.[54]

The Contest: Sékou Touré vs. Souleymane Kanté

An informal competition over the recasting of Mande culture developed as Sékou Touré and Souleymane Kanté seemed to wrestle with each other for the number of Mande speakers in Haute-Guinée who acquired literacy in the maternal language.  Maternal language literacy was the goal, but a personal issue seemed to revolve around the choice of alphabet.  Touré appeared to have the advantage because his program was heir to the already existing state program.  His selection of the Roman alphabet was prudent because the alphabet was already being used throughout much of the world, and local typesetting existed and was in place.  While a few maternal language textbooks were published, however, the translation and publication of other works in the maternal languages never materialized.[55]  Kanté worked at a disadvantage.  From the standpoint of infrastructure and funding, he lacked resources, and N’ko  required an innovation in typesetting that was not locally available.  Kanté, however, continued  to produce handwritten, translated texts in the N’ko alphabet.  These translations systematically spread throughout the Mande-speaking community as students hand copied them so as to have their personal copies for reading and teaching.

The two Mande-speaking competitors had developed opposing teaching methodologies.  On the one side, Sékou Touré used his government to impose the Roman alphabet upon children and adults through the state supported literacy program.  The concept of a National Language Program had been supported by the rank and file membership of the PDG.  But educators observed that the program’s implementation had a negative effect on learning French[56] as an international language of diplomacy and economics.  Because the educational system was universal only at the elementary level, students who failed the exams at the end of the Second Cycle never had the opportunity to continue French language instruction.  In addition, adults who were acquiring literacy through the program never had the opportunity to learn French because they were limited to the maternal language.  The goal was national literacy, and children and adults were becoming literate in the maternal language, and this limited them to regional participation.  By using the educative process in this manner, the government had effectively restricted the numbers of participants in the national arena, and, by so doing, restricted access to full knowledge of the French language itself.

On the other side, Souleymane Kanté had attracted students by focusing upon Mande culture.  Adults and children voluntarily learned the alphabet because it became culturally important to them.  Having learned the alphabet, students used it for correspondence and business, and they amassed handwritten translations of important religious, historical, and modern scientific texts.  The significance of N’ko literacy led to a personal understanding of a wide variety of knowledge.  Learning N’ko became a form of self-improvement because it was not promoted as the acquisition of knowledge for advancement in the political or economic structure of the nation.  Touré had clung to a limited vision--that of the European-conceived, nation-state which although striving for a Guinean national consciousness, could not leave the designated borders of the Guinean nation.  Kanté’s arena had been regional.  He created, nevertheless, a Mande consciousness that eventually drew together Guinea’s resident Mande speakers of Haute-Guinée and Guinée Forestière, and, more importantly, ultimately surpassed Guinea’s national borders by connecting all the Mande speakers in West Africa, for whom there are no formal European-style, political borders.

Although Touré’s motives cannot be wholly known,[57] informants have characterized his relationship to Kanté based on conversations with either or both men and through the events the informants themselves witnessed.  It appears that in the 1960's Touré had hoped to isolate Kanté from his work by directing (coopting) him into the National Language Program.  Kanté, however, would not abandon his work and proceeded with the teaching of the N’ko alphabet and with translating texts into N’ko.  Informants relate that Kanté wrote out texts by hand and used a Renault duplication machine[58] capable of producing books of ten to twenty pages.[59]  In 1971 when the machine broke down,[60] he journeyed to Conakry to ask the government for financial assistance in establishing a larger-scale print shop capable of duplicating works such as the N’ko version of the Qur’an.  While in Conakry, it was Al-Hajj Kabiné Diané[61] who helped Kanté as much as he could by printing small runs at this Arabic printing press.[62]  In 1973[63]  Touré did nominate Kanté to the Conseil Islamique National,[64] but Kanté declined the appointment, saying that the committee meetings would interfere with the time he needed to translate texts into N’ko.[65]  Making his home in Conakry in the early 1970's, Kanté continued to write documents by hand; then he took them to Al-Hajj Kabiné Diané for printing.[66]  Kanté sold the printed manuscripts for a small sum in order to promote further literacy in N’ko in all segments of the community.[67]  Kanté’s family and friends reported that the relationship between the two men continued to deteriorate until Sékou Touré’s death in 1984.  Thus, from the late 1970's through mid-1980's, Kanté was forced to leave Guinea on several occasions and to reside in neighboring countries under the threat of being arrested,[68] or killed[69] by Touré’s government.  In this self-imposed exile,[70] Souleymane Kanté, informants remembered, continued to translate works into N’ko and to collect and compile a text of Mande healing arts.[71]  Souleymane Kanté returned to Guinea in 1985 under the Second Republic.[72]

In 1984 when the Second Republic was established by Lansana Conté, the government withdrew its official support for Touré’s program, and Guineans were instructed to discard it. Touré’s National Language Program officially produced people who were literate in their spoken maternal language from 1968-1984.   The Second Republic then implemented a new program:  French became the single national language and the language of literacy.  Although maternal language radio programs occurred during the Touré regime, the new government has supported learning in the maternal languages systematically by producing radio and television programs of cultural and news content spoken in only three of Guinea’s maternal languages--Susu, Maninka, and Pular.

After his return home to Guinea in 1985, Souleymane Kanté lived in Conakry teaching his alphabet until his death from diabetes in 1987.  Statistics on the number of adults and children who know how to read and write N’ko have not been established yet.  Under Kanté’s direction, his disciples established the l’Association pour l’Impulsion et la Coordination des Recherches sur l’Alphabet N’ko (ICRA-N’KO) in 1986.[73] ICRA-N’KO was officially sanctioned by the government in 1991 as a non-governmental organization (NGO) for the promotion of N’ko.[74]  Only since then has the group actively begun to compile statistics based on the current number of students enrolled in N’ko classes.  This is done in the following manner.  Each teacher turns in a list of students to the local ICRA-N’KO association who records the numbers and sends them to the Service National d’Alphabétisation to be included in the year’s literacy statistics.  By looking at the numerical fragments, it can be seen that the number of students in N’ko classes had steadily increased from 1989 to 1994; however, it is not possible to say whether or not this was the result of an increase in the number of students or the result of better record-keeping.  Since a method of systematic record-keeping does not exist, a Literacy Survey of Kankan done in 1994 presents the first literacy statistics for the city.[75]  Canvassers interviewed each household about the languages spoken and about the alphabets which were used to transcribe those languages.  One would expect a competitive percentage of those who were able to read and write the Maninka language in the Roman alphabet after sixteen years of  Touré’s National Language Program.  The results of the survey are enlightening because they show that only 3.1 percent of the 128,000 plus indigenous inhabitants  (men, women, and children above the age of five) knew how to read and write in the “Langue Nationale,” while 8.8 percent knew how to read and write N’ko.[76]  Other figures show that among the people of Kankan 8.5 percent could read Arabic in Arabic and 14.1 percent could read and write French.   The “Langue Nationale” appears to have been discarded, while the N’ko alphabet appears to be blossoming.  Kanté’s N’ko seems to have become more universally accepted in Kankan.  Thus the ultimate advantage did lie with Kanté’s approach and not with Touré’s.


Since independence the Maninka speakers of Guinea have struggled against what they perceived to be western cultural imperialism--the elimination of neo-imperialism--cultural as well as political and economic--in the area of language and literacy.  As a conflict within the nation state, it reflects the ongoing struggle for autonomy.  Being literate in N’ko has become an important part of the current cultural Mande revival because the possession of N’ko means the repossession of the area’s cultural integrity. The N’ko alphabet has offered Maninka speakers a renewed capacity to make culturally significant choices, and they seem to have chosen N’ko as the indigenous alternative to the education of language/literacy  promoted by the western-influenced Mande speakers who have controlled government and religion since Touré’s time.  Persons seeking to learn N’ko have steadily created a ground swell of enthusiasm and support for learning the alphabet which has been spreading  from Mande-speaking Kankan to other Mande speakers throughout Guinea and also to Mande speakers residing beyond the borders of Guinea into neighboring states.


[1].This paper is based on the research in Kankan, Republic of Guinea in 1991, 1992-1993, and 1994, with the Assistance of a Fulbright Dissertation Research Scholarship for 1992-1993 and a West African Research Association Fellowship for the summer of 1994.

[2].The Ministry of Education and Culture under the auspices of the Guinean National Commission for UNESCO, Culture Policy in the Revolutionary People’s Republic of Guinea, (Paris: UNESCO, 1979), p.23.

[3].In the same year in the British colony of Nigeria, another post-colonial African, Chinua Achebe, also validated indigenous culture by writing his classic novel  entitled Things Fall Apart (1958).

[4].It is, however, difficult to divorce the broader issues of Guinea’s “Cultural Revolution” from ethnic ones, particulary the view that during the Touré and Conté periods (1958-1984 and 1984-the present, respectively)  the Maninka speakers may have been progressively disfranchised from the political process of the nation.  Touré did not empower all Maninka speakers but rather gave preference to the ones from his own area of Faranah.  Conté, on the other hand, is a Susu speaker who has systematically alienated the Maninka speakers since taking power in 1984.  However, his support of the Maninka-based grassroots literacy movement may be an attempt to change this.

[5].Sékou Touré’s archival documents including personal papers and correspondence were either destroyed or hidden after his death.  Consequently, there are no currently existing archives of the First Republic and the papers that are hidden are inaccessible.   With regard to the personal relationship between Sékou Touré and Souleymane Kanté, interviews provide the insight into this unrecorded area.  Of the informants providing information in this area, some were affiliated with N’ko but most were not.

[6].Lewin, 1984:67.

[7].By 1990 there were approximately sixteen million speakers of the twenty languages that are classified as Mande radiating out from the Mande Heartland extending across the international borders of ten West African countries.  The Maninka speakers of Guinea reside in the regional area of Upper Guinea adjacent to the Mande heartland which lies just across Guinea’s border with Mali.

[8].To protect the identity of the informant or informants, data on the interviews only include the interview number, date, and location.  The informants represent two distinct groups, 50 percent are within the community of N’ko practitioners and 50 percent come from outside the N’ko community some of whom have never heard of the alphabet.  All interviews were done with the author and research assistant in cities, towns, villages, and homesteads in Guinea unless otherwise indicated.  Interviews were conducted randomly as informants were available, or as arrangements were able to be made to travel to the town or country when the informants were not close to the Kankan area.  I have in my possession the audio tapes in Maninka and the written translations in French.

[9].Souleymane Kanté  accepted a challenge posed in 1944 by the Lebanese journalist Kamal Marwa in his racially offensive and culturally insensitive remarks published in an Arabic-language publication, Nahnu fi Afrikiya [We are in Africa].  Having conducted research on African culture in British and French colonies, Kamal Marwa concluded that Africans were inferior because they possessed no indigenous written form of communication.  Marwa's statement “African voices [languages] are like those of the birds impossible to transcribe" reflected the prevailing views  of many colonial Europeans.  Although the journalist acknowledged that the Vai had created a syllabary, he discounted its cultural relevancy because he deemed it incomplete.  Personal Interviews with author 08 in Karifamoriah, 46 in Kankan, and 70 in Conakry, in 1993.

[10].Group interview 18, 5 April 1993 Balandou, Guinea.

[11].Interviews 62 and 70 with author, 14 & 18 July 1993, respectively, in Conakry, and interview 09 with author, 11 March 1993, Kankan.  Souleymane Kanté's experiments, reinforced by his acquisition of Arabic literacy as an Islamic scholar, were responsible for the selection of this right to left orientation. It cannot be known if this was a political statement rejecting African deculturation by Europeans.

[12].Interview 70 with author, 8 July 1993, Conakry.  It is evident that this interviewee associates Kanté with his own ethnic pride in the heroic/historic Mande past as they are descendants of the Ancient Kingdom of Mali.

[13].Johnson 1978:38.

[14].Goerg, 1992:365.

[15].Defined by Victor Du Bois as “a feeling among the citizens of the young republic that their destiny is somehow linked to that of other peoples with whom in the past they have never shared a sense of kinship or identity.”  “Guinea,” Political Parties and National Integration in Tropical Africa , eds.  James S. Coleman and Carl. Rosberg, Jr. (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1964), p. 199.

[16].DuBois, 1964:186.

[17].Morgenthau, 1964:224.

[18].Sure-Canale, 1970:144.

[19].In interview 60 with author, 9 July 1993 , in Conakry, the informant said that as a Mande speaker himself, Sékou Touré sincerely admired Kanté’s invention but that he was a political man wanting to promote national unity.  In interview 80 with author, 20 July 1994, in Conakry,  the informant, a personal friend of Touré, said that Touré wanted to support N’ko but that the other members of the BPN and his cabinet did not.  

[20].Choosing the Mande Language as the national language of Guinea or even institutionalizing the Mande-styled alphabet for orthography in Guinea would have caused ethnic rivalries between the Mande speakers and the other ethnic groups in Guinea.  Additionally, despite the author’s claims of N’ko’s universality, it was not in the sense of mutual intelligibility.  For example, the N’ko alphabet would accommodate the tonality of the twenty languages found in Guinea.  However, Mande speakers could write the Mande language in N’ko, Susu speakers could write the Susu language in N’ko, and the Pular speakers could write the Pular language in N’ko, but while the script was the same, the languages would not be mutually intelligible.  Thus, the reader would have to be multi-lingual.

[21].Interview 09 with author, 11 March 1993, in Kankan; interview 60 with author, 9 July 1993, in Conakry; interview 68 with author, 7 July 1993, in Conakry; interview 80 with author, 20 July 1994, in Conakry; interview 59 with author, 28 June 1993, in Kankan; and group interview 84 with author, 15 August 1994, in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire..

[22].In group interview 43 with author, 18 May 1993, in Kankan, one informant stated that Sékou Touré had promised Souleymane Kanté that he would build a school for N’ko.

[23].Interview 51 with author, 22 June 1993, in Djankana; and interview 59 with author, 28, June 1993, in Kankan.

[24].There is some confusion about the manner in which this occurred.  Some informants have said that Sékou Touré sought out Souleymane Kanté in Abidjan after hearing about the alphabet through the grapevine.  Interview 51 with author, 22 June 1993, in Djankana.  Others insisted that Souleymane Kanté went on his own to Conakry to present the alphabet to Touré.  Interview 59 with author, 28 June 1993, in Kankan.  One informant claimed to have taught Sékou Touré N’ko after which Touré told the informant to invite Kanté to visit him in Conakry.  Interview 80 with author, 20 July 1994, in Conakry.  Regardless of who initiated the interview, the informants concur on the rest of the story.  In interview 81 with author, 9 August 1994, in Conakry, the informant reasserted the claim that the informant in interview 80 with author, had in fact taught N’ko to Sékou Touré, but that when the political arena heated up, Sékou abandoned his studies.

In group interview 84 with author, 15 August 1994, in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire, we visited the house where the Kanté family shared a room and spoke with neighbors who witnessed the military truck moving the family back to Guinea.

[25].Interview 51 with author, 22 June 1993, in Djankana.

[26].According to the informants in group interview 08 with author, 8 March 1993, in Karifamoriah, at the time only Maninka speaking long distance traders were merchants in Abidjan.  When the exploitation of the Sefadou diamond mines in Sierra Leone began, many of these merchants carried the ability to write and teach N’ko with them into the new market place.

[27].Prior to independence, many Guineans were dispersed throughout West Africa.  Some were employed by the French as bureaucrats, teachers, or as railroad transportation workers.  Others, such as the large number of Maninka speakers, were dispersed along West African trade routes.  For example one informant’s father had been the railroad station master at Bobo Dioulasso, Burkina Faso, in 1944.  Interview 07 with author, 6 March 1993, Kankan; Niane, p.93.

[28].A participant in the political scene during the First Republic who had been  the Directeur Regional de l’Education in Kankan commented that the rejection of Kanté’s alphabet was divisive among the leaders of Touré’s government whose sentiments were more or less subjective.  Interview 64 with author, 64, 15 July 1993, in Conakry.

[29].Touré, 1981:13-16.

[30].Interview 68 with author, 17 July 1993, in Conakry.

[31].Interview 64 with author, 15 July 1993, in Conakry.

[32].Johnson, 1978:55. In Touré’s  attempt to reconnect to the African past, he organized the party structure  to imitate the organization of village councils.  The system appeared to consult the common man on every major government decision.  Ideally, the idea originated at the cell level and gained acceptance as it moved to the high ranking leaders of the Bureau Politique National, BPN.  In this case the idea originated at the top and was presented for approval to the Comités d’Unité de l’Education.  The hierarchy from lowest to highest rank are the following: cell (village & urban quarters), Bureau Federal (regional), Comité Central, and finally to the BPN (The Comité Central and the BPN had a shared membership).  The BPN then convened a Congress for open discussion on the issue if it were of national importance.  The issues were debated by the members of the Bureau Politique National, the Comité Central, the Bureau Confederal de la CNTG, the Bureau National des Femmes, the Bureau National des Jeunes and five member delegation from each Bureau Federal.  In interview 64 with author, 15, July 1993, in Conakry, the informant described a similar scenario.  Du Bois presents the organization of the PDG in his political commentary, pp. 200-205.  UNESCO, pp 26-30.

[33].Interview 34 with author, 10 May 1993, in Kankan, and Interview 55 with author, 24 June 1993, in Kankan.  The first interview of the informant revealed the necessity of a second interview that focused upon his participation in the implementation of the National Language Program.

[34].Interview 34 with author, 10 May 1993, in Kankan.

[35].Interview 55 with author, 24, June 1993, in Kankan.

[36].Interview 55 with author, 24 June 1993, in Kankan.

[37].Interview 64 with author, 15 July 1993, in Conakry; interview 60 with author, 9 July 1993, in Conakry; and interview 55 with author, 24, June 1993, in Kankan.

[38].Interview 66 with author, 16 July 1993, in Conakry.  The informant was a Directeur Regional de l’Education in Kankan.

[39].Sano, 1976:3-4.

[40].Interview 64 with author, 15 July 1993, in Conakry.

[41].UNESCO, 1976:42.

[42].Interview 64 with author, 15, July 1993, in Conakry.

[43].UNESCO considered its program separate from the government’s national campaign.  Interestingly enough, the UNESCO funds were not used for a pilot project in Haute-Guinée.  The program targeted 3,500 illiterate and newly-literate industrial workers in Conakry and 75,000 illiterate farmers living in lower Guinea (the Susu language), middle Guinea (the Pular language), and the forest region (the Kissi, Guerzé, and Toma languages).  UNESCO, p. 42-43.

[44].Interview 64 with author, 15 July 1993, in Conakry; group interview 46 with author, 19 June 1993, in Kankan; and interview 55 with author, 24 June 1993, in Kankan.

[45].Ministère du Domaine de l’Education et de la Culture, 1977:6-8.

[46].Traoré, 1976:265.

[47].Interview 60 with author, 9 July 1993, in Conakry.

[48].Ministry of Education and Culture 1979 :36.

[49].Ministry of Education and Culture 1979:9-10.

[50].Interviews 34 and 55 with author, 10 May 1993 and 24 June 1993, respectively in Kankan were with one informant

[51].Interview 34 and 55 with author, 10 May 1993 and 24 June 1993, respectively in Kankan.

[52].Souleymane Kanté’s recommendations were that each person was obligated to teach seven other people.  Group interview, 08 with author, 8 March 1993, in Karifamoriah.   In interview 05 with author, 3 March 1993, in Kankan, the informant said that the instructions were to teach the family, so he taught all of his children.

[53] Interview 60 with author, 9 July 1993, in Conakry.

[54].Those who were literate in N’ko were spoken of as preserving for posterity the oral histories of elders.  Interview 05 with author, 3 March 1993, in Kankan.

[55].Sécrétariat d’état à l’Idéologie--Service National d’Alphabétisation, Sori ni Mariama (Teheran, Iran: Franklin Book Programs, Inc., no date) and l’Académie des Langues Conakry, Maninkakan Sariya, Grammaire Maninka 2e et 3e cycle, (Conakry: Institut National du Livre de Guinée, 1980) are examples of texts produced for the literacy program.

[56].Interview 66 with author, 16 July 1993, in Conakry.

[57].According to this informant, the government could not fight the N’ko alphabet directly.  It was necessary to formulate a political strategy to eliminate N’ko, either to isolate the author so that he would abandon it or to exile the author so that the population would forget about it.  Interview 59 with author, 28 June 1993, in Kankan.  In interview 68 with author, 17 July 1993, in Conakry, the informant stated that the government used Kantè in the National Language Program because he was the only one who could translate all of the necessary terminologies.

[58].A local merchant, Sékou Diané, is remembered as having given Souleymane Kanté money to buy this machine in Abidjan.  Interview 29 with author, 3 May 1993, in Kankan.

[59].Interview 68 with author, 17 July 1993, in Conakry.

[60].Interview 49 with author, 20 June 1993, in Kankan.

[61].El Hadj Kabiné Diané was a prominent businessman from Kankan who also owned a business in Conakry and was a part of the National Islamic Council.

[62].Interview 82 with author, 10 August 1994, in Conakry.

[63].In interview 51 with author, 22 June 1993, in Djankana, the informant was unable to cite the exact year but situated the event as after the aggression of 22 Novembre 1970 and after Kanté’s return from his pilgrimage to Mecca which corresponds to the age of one of his children.  In interview 09 with author, 11 March 1993, in Kankan, the informant established the date as 1973.

[64].Sékou Touré established the council and charged it with defending Islam and its principles in Guinea.  Anyone appointed to the council was known as an Islamic scholar.  The informant, who was nominated to the council in 1977, does not remember Souleymane Kanté attending any meetings.  He did not deny the possibility that Kanté was nominated because he described Kanté as being an intellectual and a religious scholar.  Interview 61 with author, 13 July 1993, in Conakry.  In interview 62 with author, 14 July 1993, in Conakry, the informant said that members of the council were chosen based on their knowledge of Islam.  In interview 51 with author, 22 June 1993, in Djankana, the informant clearly remembers Kanté attending at least one meeting.  Interview 32 with author, 8 May 1993, in Kankan.

[65].Interview 62 with author, 14 July 1993, in Conakry.

[66].Interview 62 with author, 14, July 1993, in Conakry; and interview 32, 8 May 1993, in Kankan.

[67].Interview 32 with author, 8 May 1993, in Kankan.

[68].Interview 80 with author, 20 July 1994, in Conakry, the informants described Touré as being disquieted by leadership problems he was experiencing with Guinea’s intellectuals.

[69].In interview 59 with author, 28 June 1993, in Kankan, the informant told the story that Souleymane Kanté had related to him.  The government had supplied Kanté with transportation to Romania for treatment of his diabetes in 1974.  Assisting the Guinean government, the Romanian government institutionalized Kanté in a psychiatric facility where an attempt was made on his life by lethal injection.  Kanté refused the treatment and escaped death.  Kanté convinced the doctors to release him, since, in the end, his condition was a death sentence.  Later in Conakry he met the person who had been the Guinean ambassador to Romania at the time of his incarceration.  The ex-ambassador thought that Kanté was deceased.  Interview 31 with author, 8 May 1993, in Kankan, interview 62 with author, 14 July 1993, in Conakry, and group interview 46 with author, 19 June 1993, in Kankan.

[70].Interview 31 with author, 8 May  1993, in Kankan.  In interview 51 with author, 22 June 1993, in Djankana, the informant explained that Souleymane Kanté left for Bamako around 1975 because of warnings by “certain persons” to leave Conakry because Sékou Touré was going to have him arrested.  In interview 62, 14 July 1993, in Conakry, the informant stated that the person who warned Kanté was one of Touré’s cabinet ministers.  In interview 59 with author, 28 June 1993, in Kankan, the informant stated that on his escape route to Bamako, Kanté was detained by police demanding his destination.  He told police that he was going to a village to receive medical attention for his diabetes.  Believing that they were ensuring Kanté’s return, the police took his identity card and allowed him to pass. Kanté crossed the border into Mali. 

[71].Interview 59 with author, 28 June 1993, in Kankan.  In group interview 30 with author, 4 May 1993, in Bamako, Mali, the informants reported that Kanté taught N’ko and collected data on Mande healing arts for approximately five years.  In interview 62 with author, 14 July 1993, in Conakry, the informant stated that courtesy of a member of the Malian government, Kanté received a Malian identity card and a Malian passport.  In 1982 Kanté returned to Abidjan to collect data on the Mande healing arts.  In group interview 84 with author, 15 August 1994, in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire, the informants reminisced that Kanté told them that he had returned to Côte d’Ivoire in political exile.  He told them that Touré was jealous of his invention.  They approximated the time spent with them in Côte d’Ivoire as two years in Bouaké and six in Abidjan interspersed with  trips to Bamako.

[72].Interview 62 with author, 14, July 1993, in Conakry.

[73].Interview 68 with author, 17 July 1993, in Conakry, and interview 69, July 18, 1993, in Conakry.

[74].Interview 68 with author, 17 July 1993, in Conakry.

[75].Literacy Survey of Kankan, 4 August 1994.  There are no complete literacy statistics at any level.  The numbers represented in the survey offer a beginning point at which literacy statistics can be assessed and can be later measured in percentages.  I conducted another Literacy Survey of Kankan, July 2000.  When I have finished imputing the data, I will be able to determine whether or not there has been growth in the numbers who are literate in N’ko over the last six years.

[76].The literacy survey showed that 14.1 percent of the population knew how to read and write French, 8.5 percent of the population knew how to read and write Arabic in the Arabic script, 8.8 percent of the population knew how to read and write [Maninka language] in N’ko, and 3.1 percent of the population knew how to read and write [Maninka language] in the Roman alphabet [Langue Nationale].


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