Writing in Africa — Mende Kikakui

Sierra Leone, like many places in West Africa, is diverse. It contains at least 15 spoken languages, plus English, but more commonly spoken as a form of creole known as Krio. While Krio is spoken by the vast majority of Sierra Leoneans, in the southern region of the country, exists a regional lingua franca, spoken by more than 30% of the entire country’s population — Mende.

Mende is a tonal language spoken in Sierra Leone and neighbouring Liberia, and had its own form of writing system which has gone into relative disuse. But it was not always like this, in fact, it had gained widespread use by the 1940s. So what happened since?

Mohammed Turay is credited for the original invention of the Mende Kikakui script in the 1920s. Some of his motivation derived from his belief that British colonisation of the country was aided by literacy, something that Mende speakers lacked at that time. Therefore, he wanted Mende speakers to have the ability to read and write, and set upon devising a writing system for Mende.

The original Mende script was an abjad, called Mende Abajada. Mohammed Turay took inspiration from the Arabic Abjad, with letters from the Vai syllabary, to create a system which lacked vowel representation in syllables. Some sources also suggested that Mende Abajada characters were also inspired by the Mende pictograms and characters familiar to Mende speakers.

From this, Turay’s Quranic student, Kisimi Kamara, modified the script by changing character order, and also added a system of vowel representation, giving the 42 original characters of the script. This converted the writing system from an abjad to an alphasyllabary, like Baybayin (in the Philippines), where some of the patterns can still be picked out today, with dots in uniform locations.

Over time, Kamara, with his siblings’ help, added more than 150 characters to the mix that lacked the alphasyllabary consistency in the first 42 characters. This eventually made the Mende Kikakui script a syllabary, consisting of 195 characters. It was this version that was used and popularised in Sierra Leone, gaining a sizable following and helping Kamara to be established as one of the most important chiefs in southern Sierra Leone. This writing system was taught in schools in Potoru among other villages in the region, and was soon used in keeping records and writing letters. This fame, however, did not last.

The 1940s saw a period in which the British colonial government established the Protectorate Literacy Bureau in Bo, which aimed to teach the Mende people and speakers to read and write in the Latin alphabet instead of Mende Kikakui. This modified Latin alphabet contained 26 letters, way fewer than the 195 syllabic characters in Mende Kikakui. Over time, this writing system fell out of use, but the script still lives on, used by few people today. Despite its fall from popularity, it still gained digitisation status, being added to the Unicode in 2014. Can Mende Kikakui be truly considered a failed script? This question is up for debate.

The Mende Kikakui we see today is a syllabary written from right to left. The writing orientation is probably a relic of Turay’s inspiration from Arabic when he first devised the Abajada. With 25 consonants and 7 vowels represented, along with nasal vowels, Kikakui has achieved a wide representation of the phonemes in the Mende language. However, where this writing falls short is the representation of tones in the language. Perhaps distinction between words of different tones could be made by context, but resources surrounding the language and writing system are hard to come across online.

Mende Kikakui in all its glory. Some characters have multiple versions, but they still convey the same syllable.

There is a system for representing numbers as well, but I have not come across a succinct description of how this numerical system works. Many gaps in knowledge exist for this writing system, and the need to document and characterise this writing system persists, despite the widespread use of the Latin alphabet in today’s context. Just like several writing systems that follow in this post series, Mende Kikakui is relegated into obscurity.

Afterword

This continuation of the Writing in Africa post series takes a turn for the obscure, uncovering writing systems that have been rarely documented, and where resources are scarce. Should you have any resources surrounding obscure writing systems you want to share, feel free to reach out to me. Your help will go a long way in preserving and promoting interest in the little-known writing systems that still exist to this day.

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