Bamum script and archives project: saving Africa's written heritage (EAP051)

Aims and objectives

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.

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.


Report on this project, from the BBC World Service radio programme The Strand, broadcast on 28 November 2008

[MP3, 4mins, 50sec 2KB].

Reproduced here by kind permission of the BBC World Service.

The Bamum Script and Archives Project is a landmark project that has not only preserved priceless manuscripts for future generations, it has also sensitised an entire community to a shared goal of rescuing cultural patrimony and inspired a revival in learning the Bamum script. As a result of this project, for the first time in years people are reading and writing the Bamum script which is written in important books and inscribed on important cultural markers throughout the Bamum Kingdom which for decades have not been read or understood.

In specific terms, the following has been achieved:

  • Rescue and acquisition of important manuscript collections throughout the Bamum Kingdom and beyond (Bamenda region) and permanent deposit in the central repository (APRB) in the Bamum Palace. All of the documents rescued were threatened by environmental conditions and human handling.
  • Protection, repair, storage, and physical organisation of all documents, including collected documents and those previously held by the Bamum Palace. All documents stored in acid-free folders and boxes, with safe storage on shelving units (at the beginning of the project many documents in the palace were heaped in a decomposing pile on the floor).
  • Organisation of documents and specific collections, along with the assignment of identification numbers
  • Organisation of archives with a functional system of storage and retrieval
  • Photographing each document, backing up documents, and deposit of digital copies with the British Library's Endangered Archives Programme
  • Listing of all documents which required painstaking examination of each document, many of which were written in early variants of the Bamum script
  • Participation in a Unicode initiative to create a functional Bamum script font enabling titles of Bamum documents to be recorded in their primary form (in the future, the Bamum script will be available on all computers and usable in emails and on the internet).This includes ancient and modern variants of the script.
  • Commencement of efforts to enact legislation to thwart the illicit removal and/or sale of Bamum documents by art collectors.To support our efforts, the Bamum King has made a proclamation that no documents in the Bamum script made by deceased scribes may be bought, sold, or removed from his kingdom without authorisation.
  • Establishment of an open and accessible archives (APRB) with hours of operation and access to documents by researchers and the wider public. Most Bamum students from local schools, as well as many students from universities across the country, have made visits to Foumban to see the archives.

The material is organised into 3 distinct groupings which represent designated areas in which documents are held: (1) modern archives, (2) reserve archives, and (3) museum. The modern archives, a physically rehabilitated site occupying a traditional treasure room in the Bamum Palace, holds documents from around the kingdom collected, preserved, and copied through the sponsorship of the EAP. The reserve archives, copied and preserved through EAP sponsorship, is located in the palace office of the late Sultan Seidou Njimolouh. The museum, located in the Bamum Palace, contains documents on display. In total, the APRB digital collection amounts to 13,473 images organised into 2,714 document files.

The Archives du Palais des Rois Bamoun (APRB) houses all original documents and digital backups. The Ambassador’s Fund for Cultural Preservation (U.S. Department of State) provided funds to support the physical rehabilitation of the archival site itself, which included repair of broken wooden floorboards, repair of holes in wooden ceiling, stabilization of roof, repair of broken glass windows, installation of functioning electricity system, installation of new doors and door handles, installation of high caliber locks on doors and security bars outside windows, painting, installation of custom made bookshelves that surround the inner walls of the archives, construction of a desk for the archivist, construction of a large research table for researchers, and fireproofing the archives (including the purchase of a fire extinguisher). The APRB has been completely rehabilitated physically and is an excellent repository for long term care of documents. All documents are kept in acid-free folders and boxes on sturdy shelving units. Humidity and temperature are monitored every day in the APRB.

Outside of the APRB, permanent digital backups of documents are held by the British Library. In the future, upon completion in 2011 of the University of Dschang’s new school (devoted to art, material culture, and architecture), the APRB will place back-up copies in its new library. The Bamum Sultan, El Hadj Ibrahim Mbombo Njoya, is one of the key individuals involved in the establishment of this school (the land on which the school is being built was given by the king), so it will make a great partnership for the Bamum Palace. The old University of Dschang Library simply does not have the resources to handle a backup collection – it lacks computers, its microfilm readers are broken, and it does not have regular electricity.

The records copied by this project have been catalogued as: