Friday, April 30, 2010


African “Renaissance Man” Writing System

No known alphabet was ever invented by a European."

King Ibrahim Njoya, distinguished ruler, intellectual, and inventor, was 17th in a long dynasty of kings that ruled over Bamum and its people in western Cameroon dating back to the 14th century. He succeeded his father Nsangu (hn-SAH-hn-goo)[1] and ruled from the year 1889 until his death in 1933. He was succeeded on the throne by his son, Seidou Njimoluh Njoya.

Njoya's mother, Njapdunke, initially acted as regent until he reach majority. His own official rule was further delayed because his father's head was held by an adversary people. By tradition the head or skull of an ancestor is of ceremonial importance to the Bamum. The Germans would aid him in recovering the head and this, along with their allowing him relative independence, caused him to have generally good relations with them. Although an additional factor seems to have been a belief that fighting the Germans would prove counterproductive to his people. Hence he rejected the resistance proposals of Rudolf Duala Manga Bell.[2]

He also initially tried to adapt Western, and particularly German, ways to his society. In one experiment the uniforms of his soldiers were influenced by an idealized version of those worn by the Hussars. This experiment met with disfavor from Germans who either felt mocked or intimidated by Africans trained and dressed in a German-influenced manner.[3] He also studied Christianity for a time, possibly converting to it and also to Islam at a different point. After this he ultimately created his own religion that mixed Christianity, Islam, and Bamum traditional religion.[4]

Later his relations with the French would prove more negative and he died in exile in Yaounde.

The Shumom people are the people of Cameroon in West Africa. Their country is located between Nigeria in the West, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon and Congo Brazzaville in the South and Chad and Central African Republic in the North. Within Cameroon, the land of the Shumom people is located in the northern part. It is a land of massif plateau and mountains, valleys and vast forested land, a part of the great equatorial forest of West and Central Africa. Foumban is the administrative capital of the district.

In the beginning of the 20th century or perhaps earlier, the people of Cameroon were able to accomplish one of the most remarkable African achievements of the century: the invention of a self-sustaining and selfgoverning writing system and a printing device to document the histories of the people.

Sultan Ibrahim Njoya, whose father was killed resisting the German invaders, led the invention. The invention that started in the late nineteenth century (I 895 or 1896) was completed by the beginning of the 20' century in 1903. By the time of the Germans arrival, the writing system was in use in conjunction with the Bamum language, which is a tonal language, which means the meanings of a word will vary depending upon the tone with which the sound of the word is uttered. The system went through seven stages of development.

The first stage had over five hundred pictographs and the last stage has had only 35 syllographs, graphs designed to represent all the phonetic and tone sounds in the Bamum language of the Shumom people.

The first version of Shü-mom writing by Ibrahim Njoya (1897)


King Ibrahim Njoya developed a writing system called Shü-mom. He used it to compile pharmacopœia, design a calendar.

From a calendar written in 1897 by Ibrahim Njoya

Also, label maps that hold administrative records and legal codes—he even used to write a “Kama Sutra-like” book! Saki Mafundikwa correctly refers to him as a “Renaissance Man”—and most of these achievements took place under German Colonial rule! However, the French form of domination was less “tolerant”:

Detail from the Shü-mom syllabary by King Ibrahim Njoya, ruler of the Bamum (Cameroon, 1880–1931)

King Njoya opened a school in Fumban where many are trained to become literate and promote leaming in their own language. Several manuscripts and documents were produced, including the histories, laws and customs of the people and their neighbors. Two systems of writing were taught at the school: the Royal and the popular scripts.

King Ibrahim Njoya, ruler of the Bamum (Cameroon, 1880–1931) and inventor of Shü-mom writing, surrounded by other kings.

Not long after he had built a magnificent palace, the French took control of Cameroon. Their power was threatened by his achievements. They destroyed the printing press that he invented, destroyed his libraries, and burned many of the books he had written. The French soldiers threw Bamum sacred objects into the street. And finally, in 1931, they sent him into exile in the capital of Yaoundé where he died a broken man in 1933. Over the years, Njoya’s son and his heir Seidou Njimoluh quietly worked to preserve his heritage.



Ibrahim Njoya is credited with developing the Bamum script, a syllabic system for writing in the Bamum language. Prior to his reign at the end of the 19th century, the long history of the Bamum people was preserved primarily through oral transmission from one generation to the next in the manner of the African Griot tradition. This was largely true of many other African civilizations of the time. Recognizing the inherent danger of important historical facts being omitted or corrupted, he set out to establish a means of written recording of Bamum history. When his work was completed, his alphabet, called, A-ka-u-ku, contained 73 signs.

Njoya is also credited with having invented a hand-powered mill for grinding corn.

Palace built by King Ibrahim Njoya in 1917 His grandson, Ibrahim Mbombo Njoya, a present-day Sultan in Cameroon and the latest ruler in the Bamoun Dynasty, has established a school in the magnificent palace built by his grandfather, in which schoolchildren are once again learning the Bamum script developed by King Ibrahim Njoya.


Tragically the most important documents are taken away by colonial masters out of Cameroon and they are housed in the French and British Museums. The Germans and later the French did not want to see the flourishing of a literary tradition among the Bamums. Not only they killed or exiled their leaders; they also violently banned the use of Shumom, thereby condemning the people to colonial dark age.

The remarkable accomplishments of the Cameroonians is in line with the long and glorious traditions of the inventions and use of writing systems, perhaps beginning with the hieroglyphics of the Ancient Egyptians whose earliest pictographic writing now dated to be 3400B.C.

The Shumom writing system was invented and used in such a participatory democracy where all the members of the society are asked by the king to participate in the project. King Njoya, the able and visionary leader, ordered his constituency to contribute symbols for the writing system.

Shü-mom “Vowels

In so doing not only he succeeded in ensuring a wide range of ideographic ideas to choose from, but he also paved the way for eventual acceptance of the system by the whole nation. This process combined with mythology would place the system as permanent cultural asset and legacy of the people.

King Njoya mythologized the invention of the Shumom writing system as follows:

"When King Njoya was asleep one night he had a dream. A man came and before him saying: 'Oh King, take a wide, flat piece of wood and mark on it a man's hand. Then wash the board and drink the water.' The king took a plank and made a mark as the man directed, and handed it to that man who also made a mark thereon and returned the plank to the King. In the dream there were many people sitting around, all schoolboys, and they had paper in their hands. They all made marks thereon and passed on what they marked to their neighbors.

"When it was daylight the King took a wide plank and marked thereon a man's hand. He then washed the plank with water and drank it, as the man in the dream directed. The King now summoned many of his courtiers and told them to mark out many things and to give names to all these things so that the result would be a book. In this way man's speech could be inaudibly recorded.

"Njoya asked whether the populace would be able to understand this silent speech. His courtiers replied: 'No, if things are done as you wish, no one will be able to interpret these marks.' Njoya asked whether it would not be as well to carry out his suggestions, and they replied: 'It is no use, no one will understand the meaning of these marks.' Njoya said to them: 'Go, sleep and ponder over the matter till it become clear.'

"The next day he summoned all his courtiers again and asked them, saying: 'What now do you think about this matter, this book business?' They replied that if he did as he suggested no one would be able to interpret the marks. Njoya said he agreed with them, and told them to leave the matter with him and he would try, and if the problem were too much for him he would abandon it. Nevertheless his courtiers were to make many signs, all different, and to bring them to him. He also made many signs.

"The King now collected all these signs, and called in Moma and Isiah (two Mohammedan Mallams) to help him plan. Five times he consulted with these two and by then he understood enough. When Njoya consulted with them again the problem was solved. Then he called together many of his courtiers and taught them the signs. Many people leamt and King Njoya was very pleased."2

King Njoya's magnum opus in the royal script ran to 1,100 pages and its replica is now with the Pitt-Rivers Museum of Oxford. The published text regarding the writing system was the combined works of MDW Jeffreys and Madam Dugast of France in 1950 under the title: L'Ecriture des Bamum and it was published in France.

King Njoya had also successfully surveyed and produced a map of his nation. This is also a remarkable feat by itself. Just imagine the natural and progressive development of the people of Cameroon without the rude and violent and destructive intervention of European colonialism!

The African Writing Systems Website Project presents the original and the final forms of the Shumom writing system. The original pictographs are truly magical with their artistic renderings of the lives and imaginations of the people. It was a joy reproducing them in their entirety.


American Traced Cameroonians said...

This is a very interesting article. I was in Bamun in December 2010 and Mfom al-Haji Ibrahim Mbombo Njoya, (Sultan) gave us a book of the writings.

Tawani Anyangwe said...

As a Cameroonian, I find this very interesting. I discovered our native writing systems a long time ago by mistake: while painting "juju" masks and drums.
The question was always: what are these writings, glyphs or signs? Only to realize much later it was the sculptor signing their name.

Tawani Anyangwe said...

As a Cameroonian, I find this very interesting. I discovered our native writing systems a long time ago by mistake: while painting "juju" masks and drums.
The question was always: what are these writings, glyphs or signs? Only to realize much later it was the sculptor signing their name.