Ancient African Writing Systems

I wonder if I am the only one that gets seriously disturbed when I see claims that ancient Africans (excluding the Egyptians of course) were not using any writing systems before Arabs came into the continent bringing Arabic script. I believe such an assumption taken as fact is not only erroneous but is  also one in several attempts to paint Africans as “lesser” in that everyone else in the world had writing systems except ancient Africans.

The truth of the matter is that ancient Africans were writing and there are several African writing systems even though most of them may be forgotten now. I have been following with keen interest Naijablog’s posts on the Nsibidi script yet the Nsibidi is not the only script that I’ve come across, there is also Tifinagh or Shifinagh, the written form of Tamasheq which is the language spoken by the Tuareg a nomadic people scattered through West and North Africa. Tamasheq is a southern Berber language and apparently bears significant resemblance to Pharaonic Egyptian. The roots of the Tamasheq writing system can be traced directly to the ancient Berber script that was used by the Numidians in pre-Roman times.



And we cannot forget the Ethiopian script, Ge’ez used in community that speak Amharic, Tigrinya and other Semitic and Cushitic languages. The Mande and Manding speaking people also invented their own writing systems.

I recall reading about the Opa Orayan, an ancient obelisk that still stands in Ile-Ife. Though I have never seen the staff, I’ve read that the staff is inscribed with what seems to be hieroglyphics. The author of the book I read was trying to establish an ancient Yoruba-Egyptian connection but it is entirely possible that back in the day Yoruba used writing systems.

Writing systems rise and fall while the hieroglyphs may be the most famous, there was also the Meroitic script developed around 300 B.C.E but overtaken by the Coptic alphabet with the coming of Christianity in Nubia in the 6th century A.D. Tellingly, no one has yet translated Meroitic script and it is referred to as a ‘little understood sub-Saharan language’.

I wonder why in the presence of all this, I grew up believing that Africans did not have any indigenous writing systems and still even today, it is generally accepted that Africans never invented any writing systems.

While it can only be guessed why these systems of writing eventually died off, I believe it can be generally accepted that despite any sort of popular belief ancient Africans were writing and communicating through symbols and different types of script. I believe that it is necessary for us to realise that some ancient Africans actually used one form of script or the other and not be surprised that some people thought it was a good idea to transcribe something and communicate within themselves.

I always remain devoted to deconstructing erroneous conceptions of African history. We live in a world that has placed more importance on certain histories at the expense of others so there’s always work to do!