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Bamum Script: An African Writing System

The Bamum people are an ethnic group in the Republic of Cameroon with a unique writing system developed by their scholar-king, Sultan Ibrahim Njoya in the late 1800s. This guide provides curated Library of Congress research resources on the Bamum script.

Introduction

Manuscript Topographic Map of the Bamum Kingdom in Cameroon. Library of Congress Geography & Map Division. Image use with permission by Librairie HÉRODOTE.

Bamum Script, an African writing system, brings attention to one of the lesser known languages and scripts in the Library of Congress collections of more than 170 million items recorded in more than 470 of the world's languages and scripts. The Library holds material from Africa in European and African languages in its General Collections. Bamum is one of around 20 African languages written in non-Latin and non-Arabic scripts in the Library's collections. The Bamum people, sometimes called Bamoum, Bamun, Bamoun, or Mum, are an ethnic group in the Republic of Cameroon with a unique writing system developed by their scholar-king, Sultan Ibrahim Njoya in the late 1800s.

This research guide results from a convergence of the following three events. On April 7, 2021, the Library of Congress was host to a virtual lecture on African writing systems entitled "Africa: Writing Beyond Writing," the first in the three-part series of "Endangered Alphabets and Why We Write." The series features lesser known and endangered writing systems world-wide and serves to highlight African and Asian languages and writing systems within the Library's collections. Secondly, in March/April of 2021, the Library acquired a rare manuscript topographic map of the Bamoum Kingdom, credited to its ruler Sultan Ibrahim Njoya (1860-1933), that is a significant illustration of African history and culture. Sultan Njoya spoke and read the language of the German colonizers, and knew Arabic through his Islamic faith and contact with Hausa traders. He and his scribes created a form of writing for the Bamum language that completely differed from the Roman and Arabic scripts. Lastly, a series of technical documents authored by Charles Riley, Cataloger at Yale University Libraries, on encoding the Bamum script were brought to the African Section's attention.

The Bamum script remains a strong symbol of history, identity and heritage for the Bamum people. Using a thematic approach with a unitary listing of formats, this research guide provides material from the Library of Congress collections that contextualize the script in aspects of Bamum history, literature, art and geography.

About the African and Middle Eastern Division

The African and Middle Eastern Division (AMED) was created in 1978 as part of a general Library of Congress reorganization. AMED currently consists of three sections - African, Hebraic and Near East - and covers more than 77 countries and regions from Southern Africa to the Maghreb and from the Middle East to Central Asia. Each section plays a vital role in the Library's acquisitions program; offers expert reference and bibliographic services to the Congress and researchers in this country and abroad; develops projects, special events and publications; and cooperates with other institutions and scholarly and professional associations in the US and abroad.

As a major world resource center for Africa, the Middle East, the Caucasus, and Central Asia, AMED has the custody of more than one million physical collection materials in the non-Roman-alphabet languages of the region such as Amharic, Arabic, Armenian, Georgian, Hebrew, Persian, Turkish, and Yiddish. Included in these collections are books, periodicals, newspapers, microforms, grey literature, and rarities such as cuneiform tablets, manuscripts, incunabula (works printed before 1501), and other early African and Middle Eastern publications. Among the most prized items are also several sizable pamphlet collections on African Studies.

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