Christopher W. Kouyaté |
la remise officielle
Songs of Kanté
kafa lu serede
is a better means of domination than the gun.”
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
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
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.
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.
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).
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
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.
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.
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
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
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
The N’ko Alphabet
Souleymane Kanté created the N’ko alphabet in response to two
stimuli: a media-based challenge
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.
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 .
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).
Souleymane Kanté had perfected his alphabet, informants also remember
him becoming absorbed in creating reading materials using the N’ko
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
Guinea achieved its independence in 1958, Sékou Touré called upon all
Guineans to return home to help build the new nation .
Thus Souleymane Kanté returned from Côte d’Ivoire to a new
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.
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;”
local ethnic groups continued the cultural re-identification process
that had begun from 1944-1946.
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.
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.
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
Kanté introduced Sékou Touré to maternal language literacy and
maternal language education in 1958.
Although Sékou Touré had praised the Mande-styled alphabet, he
rejected the idea of the N’ko alphabet becoming the national
alphabet of Guinea
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. Nevertheless,
Sékou Touré rewarded Souleymane Kanté’s scholarly achievement by
honoring him with a 200,000 CFA gift from the Guinean people for
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.
Touré further requested that Kanté repatriate himself and his
family to his home country.
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.
The Kanté family moved to Kankan where Souleymane Kanté then
became a merchant who taught N’ko on the side.
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.
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
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,
he did eventually accept the concept of maternal language education.
Touré is reported to have introduced Kanté to his National
Education Minister, Barry Diawadou, and to his Minister of National
Defense, Fodéba Keita.
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
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.
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.
This informant explained that in 1958 Guinea had to struggle to
regain its political, economic, and cultural independence.
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.
Finally, the government intended to use its publishing house,
Imprimerie Patrice Lumumba, to print textbooks for the project.
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.
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
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.
financial constraints are reported to have thwarted the immediate
implementation of the National Language Program.
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.
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.
UNESCO sent experts who assisted the Guinean government in
standardizing local languages in the Roman alphabet.
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
were associated with Sékou Touré’s larger social program, “La
Revolution Culturelle Socialiste.”
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.
During the First Cycle, in grades one through three, the language
of instruction by which the students were taught was the maternal
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.
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.
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
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
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
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.
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.
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. 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.
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
The Contest: Sékou Touré vs. Souleymane Kanté
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
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.
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
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.
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.
Touré’s motives cannot be wholly known,
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
capable of producing books of ten to twenty pages.
In 1971 when the machine broke down,
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
who helped Kanté as much as he could by printing small runs at this
Arabic printing press. In
Touré did nominate Kanté to the Conseil Islamique National,
but Kanté declined the appointment, saying that the committee meetings
would interfere with the time he needed to translate texts into N’ko.
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
Kanté sold the printed manuscripts for a small sum in order to
promote further literacy in N’ko in all segments of the
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, or killed by Touré’s government.
In this self-imposed exile,
Souleymane Kanté, informants remembered, continued to translate works
into N’ko and to collect and compile a text of Mande healing
Souleymane Kanté returned to Guinea in 1985 under the Second
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.
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.
ICRA-N’KO was officially sanctioned by the government in 1991 as a
non-governmental organization (NGO) for the promotion of N’ko.
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. 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.
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.
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
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.
.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,
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
Interviews with author 08 in Karifamoriah, 46 in Kankan, and 70 in
Conakry, in 1993.
interview 18, 5 April 1993 Balandou, Guinea.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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..
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.
51 with author, 22 June 1993, in Djankana; and interview 59 with
author, 28, June 1993, in Kankan.
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.
51 with author, 22 June 1993, in Djankana.
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.
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.
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.
68 with author, 17 July 1993, in Conakry.
64 with author, 15 July 1993, in Conakry.
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
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 with author, 10 May 1993, in Kankan.
55 with author, 24, June 1993, in Kankan.
55 with author, 24 June 1993, in Kankan.
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
66 with author, 16 July 1993, in Conakry.
The informant was a Directeur Regional de l’Education in
64 with author, 15 July 1993, in Conakry.
64 with author, 15, July 1993, in Conakry.
considered its program separate from the government’s national
enough, the UNESCO funds were not used for a pilot project in
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.
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.
du Domaine de l’Education et de la Culture, 1977:6-8.
60 with author, 9 July 1993, in Conakry.
of Education and Culture 1979 :36.
of Education and Culture 1979:9-10.
34 and 55 with author, 10 May 1993 and 24 June 1993, respectively in
Kankan were with one informant
34 and 55 with author, 10 May 1993 and 24 June 1993, respectively in
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.
Interview 60 with author, 9 July 1993, in Conakry.
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.
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
66 with author, 16 July 1993, in Conakry.
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.
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.
68 with author, 17 July 1993, in Conakry.
49 with author, 20 June 1993, in Kankan.
Hadj Kabiné Diané was a prominent businessman from Kankan who also
owned a business in Conakry and was a part of the National Islamic
82 with author, 10 August 1994, in Conakry.
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.
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.
62 with author, 14 July 1993, in Conakry.
62 with author, 14, July 1993, in Conakry; and interview 32, 8 May
1993, in Kankan.
32 with author, 8 May 1993, in Kankan.
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.
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.
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
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.
62 with author, 14, July 1993, in Conakry.
68 with author, 17 July 1993, in Conakry, and interview 69, July 18,
1993, in Conakry.
68 with author, 17 July 1993, in Conakry.
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.
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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Maninkakan Sariya, Grammaire Maninka 2e et 3e cycle.
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ظامىَ خبَمىَ وطيْ علْ ظش زئْ