Bamum script and archives project: saving Africa's written heritage

Dr Konrad Tuchscherer, St John’s University, New York
2005 award - major research project
£ 54,800 for 15 months.

Report on this project, from the BBC World Service radio programme 'The Strand', broadcast on 28 November 2008 Listen now [MP3, 4mins, 50sec 2KB]
Reproduced here by kind permission of the BBC World Service.
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At the Bamum Palace Archives – a small dusty room inside the walls of the palace – are held over 7000 documents, many of which pre-date the arrival of the first Europeans in 1902. These documents are written in African languages and transcribed in an indigenous African writing system – the Bamum script of the Cameroon Grassfields.
One book chronicles, from the Bamum perspective, the arrival of the first German military officer and trader. Other books are devoted to the founding of the kingdom, to an invented Bamum religion (fusing Christianity, Islam, and traditional beliefs), to traditional medicine, and even to the art of love. Many leading families in Foumban, the capital of the Bamum Kingdom, also have important documents. One family’s collection includes early Bamum script on banana leaves. Another collection is particularly important, containing thousands of documents on family and kingdom history, transcripts of speeches given by the Bamum King in the early twentieth century, documents dealing with medicine, commentaries on Islam and magic, and – perhaps of greatest interest – many beautiful maps of the Bamum Kingdom with place names and geographic features identified in the indigenous Bamum script.
The above documents are all endangered. The documents in the one-room Bamum Palace Archives, for the most part, suffer less from the ravages of environmental destruction than those in private collections, but the environmental damage is still immense. Another threat to documents is theft and sale, fuelled by the international trade in Bamum art and antiquities.
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The goal of this project, then, is to transfer the most significant privately owned Bamum script document collections to a rehabilitated Bamum Palace Archives. Microfilm or digital copies of collections – those in both private hands and in the Bamum Palace Archives – will be deposited in the library archives of the University of Dschang, which is the nearest university, to be made freely accessible for researchers in Cameroon. The outcome will be saving for future generations the most significant pre-industrial and non-western holding of indigenous script manuscripts in all of sub-Saharan Africa.
In the early twentieth century the Bagam people of Cameroon employed a pre-modern alphabet for record-keeping, correspondence, and for farming calendars. Today not a single document exists in Cameroon in the Bagam script, the alphabet having disappeared without a trace. The only known example of the Bagam script is held in the Haddon Library of Cambridge University, deposited by a British military officer who served in Cameroon in the First World War. Immediate action is necessary if Bamum is not to suffer a similar fate.