I was 46 years old when I first started learning how to read and write in my native language. Although I read and write English, French and Arabic, I grew up speaking Mandinko with my family and friends in my home country of Guinea in West Africa. Dialects of the language, called by various names, are spoken partly or fully in five different countries. But as far as I knew, modern efforts made toward a written form had failed.
I have been an American citizen for 15 years. My home is New York City and here I have made friends, met a woman from Texas who became my wife, sired children and it is here that I see myself in the future. But I am an African at heart. So when I had my first son, it was important to offer him my heritage. One African friend, hearing me speak English to Djoume, questioned why I was not speaking to him in French. Another friend, hearing me speak French, questioned why I wasn't teaching him Mandinko. My wife, Greta, had always been curious about my home so as my youngest child approached school age, she encouraged me to take her, Djoume and his brother, Salif, to Guinea. It was there, in 2007, that I discovered that a written form of the language developed by a lone Mandingo man, had taken hold.
The Mandingo Empire, or Manden Kurufa, was a West African empire from about 1230 B.C. to 1600 B.C. The empire was founded by Sundiata Keita and became renowned for the wealth of its rulers, especially Mansa Musa I. The Mali Empire, as Mandingo was later known when the 17th century Arabs had no pronounceable equivalent for "- ding," had many profound cultural influences on West Africa, allowing the spread of its language, laws and customs along the Niger River. The Empire extended over an area larger than western Europe and consisted of numerous vassal kingdoms and provinces. But when the Arabs arrived, and later the French, French and Arabic become strong linguistic influences.
In 1949, Solomana Kante developed N'KO as a writing system for all the Mande languages of West Africa in response to what he felt were beliefs that Africans were a "culture-less people." He called it N'KO Script, N'KO being a unifying phrase for all Mandingo people which means "I say." N'KO came into use first in Kankan, Guinea, as a Mandinka alphabet and disseminated from there into other Mande-speaking parts of West Africa.
Our family's trip to Africa was eye-opening to Greta and the boys, as you might expect. They experienced life without electricity or plumbing for the first time and endured the necessary and often repetitive greetings for relatives and friends that often lasted for 15 minutes before other conversation ensued. What I didn't anticipate was that my own eyes would look upon something so new to me. A profound sense of belonging welled in me because of introducing my American family to my home country, but more so because of the discovery I made about my native language.
It began on an afternoon in a rice field. Djoume and his cousin were catching mice and I asked young Karefa if he attended the local government school, assuming that he was learning French. "No," he replied, "I attend N'KO school." This shocked me. I thought N'KO was a thing of the past, an attempt at national pride that had failed during the communist revolution. But here it was, nearly fifty years later, thriving. I realized that Djoume and Salif could learn to speak my native tongue too, that the N'KO language is the richest inheritance I can give my children. When I got back to New York, I immediately cleared a long wall in our small apartment and put up a chalkboard. The lessons began. Learning the N'KO alphabet and teaching it to my sons is the singular contribution that I can make in their lives. It brings tears to my eyes to see Djoume spell out my language on the chalkboard. He can point to a word and know where he comes from, know where I come from. Something powerful is being shared and passed from father to sons.
In Guinea, the introduction of the N'KO alphabet led to a movement in promoting literacy among Mande speakers in both Anglophone and Francophone West Africa. N'KO literacy is instrumental in educating citizens about social justice and equality. It started the movement to prevent violence, especially domestic violence, and promote freedom of choice in professions and religion. People are no longer considered illiterate if they don't speak French. Our own culture is alive and continues to be preserved. The written form of N'KO encouraged democracy and helps greatly in the efforts to fight unfair child labor and exploitation of women. In the 21st century, it's being used to talk about global warming and the decline of our natural environment. Ironically, N'KO is now taught at the University of Cairo, and N'KO Script is standard on computers. Complete changes won't come overnight, but we have a tool for communication and understanding, which is N'KO.
If N'KO can be used to talk about social values to 25 million Mandingo people, then I say that N'KO and text-messaging on a cell phone, may be the best things happen to Africa since the discovery of fire. Because energy, and the freedom to communicate -- with our voices, with our writing, with our children -- are the most powerful things to happen to all of us. My children led me to reconnect to my homeland and my native language. I thought I was raising my sons, but they and Greta are raising me to the best level of my being.