Abdoulaye and Ibrahima Barry: Guinean brothers who created the first writing system in Fulani language

by Duke Magazine
Ibrahima and Abdoulaye Barry in Portland, Oregon
Image credit: Microsoft News

Abdoulaye and Ibrahima Barry are Guinean brothers of Fulani tribe. Fulani people were originally nomadic pastoralists who later spread across the stretch West Africa from Sudan to Senegal, and down to the Northern Nigeria with its descents along the Red Sea coast.

About 50 million Fulani people in African countries speak Fulfulde, also known as Fulani, Fula and Pular. With this growing population of theirs, they discovered the loss of syntax for their language. This led them to using Arabic and Latin characters to write in their mother tongue.

Be it as it may, the Arabic and Latin Alphabets could not accurately spell most Fulani words that require production of sounds. 

While growing up, Abdoulaye and Ibrahima, noticed how their father used to help his people decipher letters. Abdoulaye and Ibrahima did help sometimes, and from there they discovered the difficulty in reading the letters. 

Abdoulaye enquired from his father on why the people didn’t have their own writing system, he was then told by his father that the only available alphabet for them was Arabic.

This inquisitiveness of the brothers prompted them to create an alphabet for their native language, which eventually became known as ADLaM – an acronym for a phrase that translates to “the alphabet that will prevent a people from being lost.” 

In 1990, while Abdoulaye was just 10 years old and Ibrahima was 14, the two brothers, after school, would shut themselves in their room in the family’s house in Nzérékoré, Guinea, to draw on paper shapes that would make up their new alphabet. 

Image credit: Microsoft News

Reports had it that they would draw letters and together sounds to the shapes they formed. Within a short time, they had developed an alphabet with 28 letters and 10 numerals written right to left. They later added six more letters for other African languages and borrowed words, according to Microsoft News.

The brothers started teaching the characters with their younger sister as the first contact of teaching. They went ahead into their community and local markets. This new idea started getting prominence, and students were asked to teach at least three more people. The brothers further produced their own handwritten books and pamphlets and transcribed books in ADLaM.

On admission into the university in Conakry, the brothers developed  ADLaM, also started a group called Winden Jangen – Fulfulde for “writing and reading” towards that purpose.

Abdoulaye left Guinea for Portland in 2003 to study Finance, while Ibrahima stayed behind in Guinea to complete a degree in civil engineering while still working on ADLaM. 

On writing books, he started a newspaper that had news stories translated from French to Fulani. A friend, Isshaga, photocopied these newspapers and Ibrahima distributed them to Fulani people, all in an effort to spread ADLaM. With the rising awareness about his work, some people are criticizing its reality in comparison to French, English, or Arabic languages.

In 2002, Ibrahima was arrested by military officers during a Winden Jangen meeting and was imprisoned for three months. He was never told why he was arrested and not charged with anything. “Maybe they feared that he was trying to instigate something bigger because they did not understand the script,” Abdoulaye once said.

Being jailed did not discourage Ibrahima from getting on with his new writing system. In 2007, he also moved to Portland, where he studied civil engineering and mathematics while writing books. 

At this time, the spread of ADLaM is already going beyond the shores of Guinea. Countries like The Gambia, Ghana, Nigeria, and Sierra Leone have had people there teaching and learning the new system.

The brothers were convinced at that juncture that their writing system is about to ignite a life-changing impact, thereby enabling literacy among millions of people across the world.

However, with this growing success, they got to a hurdle of being able to get the alphabets onto computers. Their first trial of getting ADLaM encoded in Unicode, the global computing industry standard for text was unsuccessful. They proceeded to hire a Seattle company to make a keyboard and font for ADLaM.

“Since their script wasn’t supported by Unicode, they layered it on top of the Arabic alphabet. But without the encoding, any text they typed just came through as random groupings of Arabic letters unless the recipients had the font installed on their computers,” Microsoft News wrote in 2019.

Its report stated Ibrahima’s decision to refine the letters the Seattle font designer developed by enrolling in a calligraphy class at Portland Community College. 

The instructor, who got touched by Ibrahima’s story, helped him get a scholarship into a calligraphy conference at Reed College in Portland, where he met Randall Hasson, a calligraphy artist and painter who has been vastly experienced on ancient alphabets.

With Hasson’s help, ADLaM became one of the major topics at a calligraphy conference in Colorado a year after the two had met. At that conference, Ibrahima got introduced to Michael Everson, one of the editors of the Unicode Standard. 

With Everson’s help, the brothers put together a proposal for ADLaM to be added to Unicode. In 2014, the Unicode Technical Committee approved ADLaM and the alphabet was included in Unicode 9.0 and was later released in June 2016. 

To conquer the challenge of ADLaM working perfectly well on desktop and mobile devices with strong social media connections, Andrew Glass, a part of the Unicode Technical Committee and a senior program manager at Microsoft, helped the brothers get the needed support at Microsoft. Eventually, Microsoft developed an ADLaM component for Windows and Office within Microsoft’s Ebrima font, which also supports other African writing systems.

ADLaM support was included in the Windows 10 May 2019 update to allow users to type and see ADLaM in Windows, including in Word and other Office apps.

Microsoft’s support “is going to be a huge jump for us,” Abdoulaye, who is now 39, said last year in Portland. Today, hundreds of thousands of people around the world have learned ADLaM, and there are ADLaM learning centers in Africa, Europe and the U.S.

Many Fulani people, who had never learned to read and write in English or French, are now able to connect around the world and have a sense of cultural pride, said Abdoulaye “Bobody” Barry (not ADLaM’s creator Abdoulaye), who has also learned and taught ADLaM.

“This is part of our blood. It came from our culture,” he said. “This is not from the French people or the Arabic people. This is ours. This is our culture. That’s why people get so excited.”

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