How a new alphabet is helping an ancient people write its own future
by Deborah Bach | Microsoft
When they were 10 and 14, brothers Abdoulaye and Ibrahima Barry set out to invent an alphabet for their native language, Fulfulde, which had been spoken by millions of people for centuries but never had its own writing system. While their friends were out playing in the neighborhood, Ibrahima, the older brother, and Abdoulaye would shut themselves in their room in the family’s house in Nzérékoré, Guinea, close their eyes and draw shapes on paper.
When one of them called stop they’d open their eyes, choose the shapes they liked and decide what sound of the language they matched best. Before long, they’d created a writing system that eventually became known as ADLaM.
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The brothers couldn’t have known the challenges that lay ahead. They couldn’t have imagined the decades-long journey to bring their writing system into widespread use, one that would eventually lead them to Microsoft. They wouldn’t have dreamed that the script they invented would change lives and open the door to literacy for millions of people around the world.
They didn’t know any of that back in 1989. They were just two kids with a naïve sense of purpose.
“We just wanted people to be able to write correctly in their own language, but we didn’t know what that meant. We didn’t know how much work it would be,” said Abdoulaye Barry, now 39 and living in Portland, Oregon.
“If we knew everything we would have to go through, I don’t think we would have done it.”
ADLaM is an acronym that translates to ‘the alphabet that will prevent a people from being lost.’
A new writing system takes shape
The Fulbhe, or Fulani, people were originally nomadic pastoralists who dispersed across West Africa, settling in countries stretching from Sudan to Senegal and along the coast of the Red Sea. More than 40 million people speak Fulfulde — some estimates put the number at between 50 and 60 million — in around 20 African countries. But the Fulbhe people never developed a script for their language, instead using Arabic and sometimes Latin characters to write in their native tongue, also known as Fulani, Pular and Fula. Many sounds in Fulfulde can’t be represented by either alphabet, so Fulfulde speakers improvised as they wrote, with varying results that often led to muddled communications.
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The Barry brothers’ father, Isshaga Barry, who knew Arabic, would decipher letters for friends and family who brought them to the house. When he was busy or tired, young Abdoulaye and Ibrahima would help out.
“They were very hard to read, those letters,” Abdoulaye recalled. “People would use the most approximate Arabic sound to represent a sound that doesn’t exist in Arabic. You had to be somebody who knows how to read Arabic letters well and also knows the Fulfulde language to be able to decipher those letters.”
Abdoulaye asked his father why their people didn’t have their own writing system. Isshaga replied that the only alphabet they had was Arabic, and Abdoulaye promised to create one for Fulfulde.
“At a basic level, that’s how the whole idea of ADLaM started,” Abdoulaye said. “We saw that there was a need for something and we thought maybe we could fix it.”
The brothers developed an alphabet with 28 letters and 10 numerals written right to left, later adding six more letters for other African languages and borrowed words. They first taught it to their younger sister, then began teaching people at local markets, asking each student to teach at least three more people. They transcribed books and produced their own handwritten books and pamphlets in ADLaM, focusing on practical topics such as infant care and water filtration.
While attending university in Conakry, Guinea’s capital city, the brothers started a group called Winden Jangen — Fulfulde for “writing and reading” — and continued developing ADLaM. Abdoulaye left Guinea in 2003, moving to Portland with his wife and studying finance. Ibrahima stayed behind, completing a civil engineering degree, and continued working on ADLaM. He wrote more books and started a newspaper, translating news stories from the radio and television from French to Fulfulde. Isshaga, a shopkeeper, photocopied the newspapers and Ibrahima handed them out to Fulbhe people, who were so grateful they sometimes wept.
But not everyone was pleased by the brothers’ work. Some objected to their efforts to spread ADLaM, saying Fulbhe people should learn French, English or Arabic instead. In 2002, military officers raided a Winden Jangen meeting, arrested Ibrahima and imprisoned him for three months. He was not charged with anything or ever told why he was arrested, Abdoulaye said. Undeterred, Ibrahima moved to Portland in 2007 and continued writing books while studying civil engineering and mathematics.
ADLaM, meanwhile, was spreading beyond Guinea. A palm oil dealer, a woman the brothers’ mother knew, was teaching ADLaM to people in Senegal, Gambia and Sierra Leone. A man from Senegal told Ibrahima that after learning ADLaM, he felt so strongly about the need to share what he’d learned that he left his auto repair business behind and went to Nigeria and Ghana to teach others.
“He said, ‘This is changing people’s lives,’” said Ibrahima, now 43. “We realized this is something people want.”
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