Boston University professor Fallou Ngom disputes history's conclusion that none of the slaves abducted for their strong backs could read and write when they left Africa.
Centuries before Europeans started the slave trade, Ngom says, Africans across a swath of the continent just below the Sahara Desert were writing in their own languages.
As director of BU's African Language Program, the Senegalese professor is training the first generation of scholars to understand that writing system, known as Ajami. It developed as a modified form of Arabic as early as the 10th century to spread Islam to Africans. The little-known script remains in use today from Senegal in the west to Zanzibar in the east.
Unlocking the mysteries of historic Ajami texts that have been preserved but not translated, Ngom says, would likely yield new information not in the biased accounts of African history and the slave trade recorded in European travelogues, ship captains' logs and colonial archives.
"What Ajami tells us about Africa is yet to be known," says Ngom, 38. "Ajami would force people to rewrite many things."
The Ajami writings of slaves do exist in South America, he says, and others may be archived in the United States and United Kingdom but have been mistaken for unreadable Arabic. The true origins of the old documents may be unrecognized because it has been assumed no slaves could read and write until taught English or other European languages.
"There may be more Ajami documents in colonial archives the U.S. and UK and in the Americas in general than what is generally acknowledged, but the research in this area is quite limited and scanty due to several reasons, among which are Arab and white racism," says Ngom, who came to BU last year from Western Washington University.
Those documents, he says, could lead to the discovery of new information and African perspectives about the trans-Atlantic slave trade. He cites the example of Omar ibn Said, a slave in the Carolinas, who "wrote — actually in Arabic — as he was old and about to die, 'Lord, I want to go back and die in Africa.' "
Ngom says if Said, who was also known as Prince Omeroh, was literate in Arabic, he likely could have written in whatever was his own language, using Ajami, which is literarlly the Arabic word for stranger. "Theoretically, anyone who wrote in Arabic, could have written more in his own language," he says.
Ngom was able to absorb Ajami because he is literate in Arabic and several African languages, and also knew how to modify Arabic letters to express sounds that exist in those languages, but not Arabic. He compares the process to how the letter "n" is modified to make the ñ or nyay sound in Spanish.
This year at the African Language Program, about 30 graduate students are learning to read and write Wolof from Senegal, Hausa from Nigeria or Pular from Guinea in Ajami and the Latin script used to write English. In the future, the BU program plans to teach Swahili from East Africa and Amharic from Ethiopia in both scripts.
The students are pursuing graduates degrees in anthropology, health or history. Most have Foreign Language and Area Studies grants from the US Department of Education. Each will spend five years mastering the African languages.
"Undeniably, once we have trained the first generation of Ajami scholars who can read Wolof Ajami, Pular Ajami and all forms of Ajami from Senegal to Tanzania, there will be a lot of aspects of African history, African society, African knowledge that will have to change," Ngom predicts.
His goal, he adds, is "a more accurate understanding of Africa, and the perception of Africa in the eyes of Africans."