My Francophone Road Trip, or Il faut patienter

Between April and May 2009, I spent some vacation time to travel around Guinea, Senegal, and Côte d’Ivoire, with the intention of revisiting my Peace Corps village (Bantankoli, Senegal), researching the scripts of N’ko, Loma, Garay, and Bété, and hopes of making it to Monrovia to present a paper on the Bassa Vah and Kpelle scripts at the 40th Liberian Studies Association conference.  All did not go as planned - I never reached Liberia, as I ran into banking and travel obstacles in Abidjan, which took out Plan A. Furthermore, Air Senegal International stopped all flights altogether, which took out my Plan B of catching a flight I had reserved for Dakar, in case I was not able to continue overland into Liberia.

I was able to make progress on most fronts, though, starting in Conakry with meetings with an N’ko writers’ association and a visit to their bookstore, then followed by meetings with a Loma cultural association.  The N’ko discussions centered around improvements to a romanization table intended for library use, and on improved text rendering behavior in existing Unicode fonts supporting N’ko.  Ibrahima Sory Condé, a sociology student who I had met last year at a Mandé Studies Association conference, helped to organize the N’ko discussions.  Jacques Onivogui facilitated meetings with elders who had learned the Loma script between the 1940s and the 1980s. With their permission, I digitized some of their materials for future reference.  Both Ibrahima and Jacques had me offer impromptu presentations to classes of students at a couple of high schools and a college English class, in the course of getting around in Conakry.

Continuing overland from Guinea, I took public transport into the Tambacounda region of Senegal, where for a couple of days, I collected some audio interviews with my old village and some of the neighboring villages.  Since I’d last been in the area twelve years ago, a rural hospital and several ecotourism camps had been established, but the environmental pressures from overgrazing left some pretty apparent changes on the landscape.  I continued onto Dakar from there, and touched base with Assane Faye, inventor of the Garay script he developed for Wolof in 1961.  He has been offering lessons in it to hundreds of people over the years, translated the Koran using it, and has a house filled with dozens of unpublished handwritten texts, some of which have been cited in secondary sources, but with little or no bibliographic control.  We worked together to digitize five of his texts, and the next day a previously scheduled outdoor press conference outside his home was held to discuss the history and usage of the script.  Before leaving Dakar, I had a chance to meet up with Gary Engelberg and Mame Dawur Wade at the Baobab Center, and to stop by the university library at Université Cheikh Anta Diop, where I had hoped to meet with Paul Diokh, the INASP (International Network for the Availability of Scientific Publications) coordinator for the country.  I missed connecting with him that day, but followed up via e-mail about access to documentation in French on e-resources.  A classmate of mine from graduate school, José Rivera, landed at the Dakar airport and we flew out to Abidjan (on a Kenya Airways flight, after Air Senegal International started cancelling their scheduled departures).

In Abidjan, José and I met up with a mutual friend and correspondent on the Vai script, Tombekai Sherman, who survived fleeing from both Liberia in the ‘90s and Bouaké when the civil war in Côte d’Ivoire started.  Both Guinea and Côte d’Ivoire are in the midst of their voter registration process, in the run-up to elections slated for late this year or early 2010.  We offered Tombekai some technical support on Vai, and made contact with the national museum to try and reach Frédéric Bruly Bouabré who, like Faye, had a house full of manuscript material in a script he had invented in 1956 for his mother tongue, the Guiberoa dialect of Bété.  As with Faye, I did find him and was able to digitize about five of these texts, although under less ideal conditions - sweat and flies got in the way between shots, and had to be mopped or shooed away.  The images are also less than ideal, being at slightly odd angles, but the content for these five is at least in some way, however provisionally, preserved.  In both cases, the materials are kept in tenuous household conditions.  Accession into an archive in the country would be ideal, although from seeing the collection at the national library in Côte d’Ivoire, at least, it’s questionable whether the conditions would be much better.  I did pick up contact information from some colleagues in Abidjan at the Université de Cocody, the Bibliothèque Nationale, the Ministry of Education’s Direction du Livre, and the Ministère de l’Enseignement Supérieur et Recherche Scientifique. I intend to follow up with the families in each case to suggest permanently depositing the papers at an established archive.  Recordings of recitations of the character inventories for Garay, Loma, and Bété were also made, corresponding to character lists produced by the speakers. 

While in Abidjan, I also made some efforts to introduce other librarians to access to JSTOR (Journal Storage), HINARI (Health InterNetwork Access to Research Initiative), OARE (Online Access to Research in the Environment), AGORA (Access to Global Online Research on Agriculture) and similar e-resources, although we were a bit hampered by bandwidth at each location.  Again, I followed up by e-mail after my trip, and one of the places that showed the most interest was the staff of the documentation center at the Ministère de l’Enseignement Supérieur et de la Recherche Scientifique, where Siaka Traoré is the Ivoirian INASP coordinator, and Madame Bernadette Badjo Monnet supervises a young, fairly technically minded staff.

Although I was not able to get to Monrovia as planned, the extra time in Abidjan did not go to waste:  one local publisher, Madame Mical Dréhi Lorougnon of EDILIS (Les Editions Livres Sud), had scheduled the opening of an annual fifteen-day period of celebrating local languages.  The activities included awards to the best writers, poets, and polyglot speakers of Ivoirian languages.

Charles Riley
Sterling Memorial Library
Yale Universit