Ajami Literacies in West Africa: Decolonializing Knowledge Production and Humanistic Inquiry

Presented by: DaiviĀ Rodima-Taylor

When: 8:00 – 9:00 am Section 2: Regions & Functions of Texts Continued; Panel 4, 4A

Abstract: Grassroots Ajami literacy has been historically high in Muslim West Africa. Ajami, a centuries-old practice of writing other languages using the modified Arabic script, is deeply embedded in local histories and socio-cultural practices. The Ajami literatures that have developed in West Africa are generally unknown to the scholarly community and the general public alike, largely due to lack of access. The history of Ajami refutes the claims that Africa lacks written traditions. The downplaying and devaluing of the significance of African Ajami traditions have long characterized the attitudes of Arab as well as European scholars and administrators of the colonial era, and their legacies still persist, perpetuating racial stereotypes and limiting cultural representation.

Our paper presents important new perspectives on the role of digital technologies in uncovering the historical and contemporary role of Ajami in mediating the economic, social, and political lives of West African Muslim communities, and decolonializing their Ajami heritage and present-day usages. It builds on our ongoing NEH-funded research project Ajami Literature and the Expansion of Literacy and Islam: The Case of West Africa, which seeks to spark broader understanding and further scholarly work on Muslim Africa by increasing access to primary sources in Ajami and utilizing an innovative multi-media approach. Through our interpretive research that will open up a comparative and sustained examination of the Ajami phenomenon in sub-Saharan Africa, we contribute to the novel understanding of literacy, showing its multiple forms, degrees, and custodians. We analyze the role of digital technologies and methods in studying and preserving African Ajami, and situate the decolonializing processes of Ajami knowledge production in a framework of broader productive transformations of the present-day humanistic inquiry.