Digital preservation of Wolof Ajami manuscripts of Senegal (EAP334)

Aims and objectives

For centuries, Ajami (the modified Arabic scripts used to write African languages) have been deeply embedded in the history and culture of Islamised societies of West and East Africa. While playing an important role in the spread of Islam across Islamic Africa, Ajami has also provided the circuitry for the reverse flow of African influences upon Islam, and continues to be used by the speakers of more than ten major African languages for everything from poetry and historical writing to road signs and advertisements. With its roots intertwined with those of the madrasas of Islamic Africa, Ajami remains particularly important in rural areas where the Qur'ānic school is the primary education institution. Nevertheless, Ajami is little known outside the communities where it is used and is gradually falling out of use even in some of those. Many of the oldest and most precious Ajami manuscripts are in danger, and few of those with a scholarly interest in these materials have access to them.

This project will create a digital repository of Ajami manuscripts written by the members of the Muridiyya Sufi order founded in Senegal in 1883 by Ahmadu Bamba (ca 1853-1927). The reasons for the flourishing of Ajami among Murids can be linked to the desire for Wolof cultural autonomy, and the pedagogy and teachings of Ahmadu Bamba, who stressed the importance of physical work, Sufi education, and accommodative relations with the French colonial power.

Some of Bamba’s senior disciples developed a Wolof Ajami literature as they realised that the genuine conversion of the Wolof masses could only be achieved through writing that could be sung or read out loud to illiterate village audiences. This Wolof Ajami literature is extremely varied, consisting of satirical, polemical and protest poetry, as well as biographies, eulogies, genealogies, talismanic resources, therapeutic medical manuals, historical records, speeches, and instructions on codes of conduct. While the general biography of Ahmadu Bamba and his own Arabic writings are relatively well-known and well-preserved, the works of his senior disciples who communicated his teachings to the rural masses using Ajami are largely unknown outside their communities and are mostly kept unprotected in private collections and trunks in homes in the regions of Thies, Diourbel, Louga and Saint-Louis.

This project will focus on the manuscripts written by Wolof Ajami pioneers such as Khali Madiakhate Kala (1835-1902), Mor Kayre (1869-1951), Samba Diarra Mbaye (1870-1917), Mbaye Diakhate (1875-1954), and Moussa Ka (1883-1967). It is expected to make and preserve digital copies of at least 5,000 pages of endangered Ajami manuscripts following EAP guidelines.

The project will achieve the following goals: (1) it will preserve permanently and make available worldwide the works of the most influential and important Wolof Ajami scholars of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries; (2) it will increase our understanding of the expansion of Islam in rural, non-Arabic speaking areas of Senegambia through Ajami literature, and (3) it will constitute new resources that will enhance the quality of scholarly research and teaching of Islamic West Africa in general and the Wolof language, culture, society, and history in particular.

WARC (West African Research Center) in Dakar is the overseas branch of the West African Research Association (WARA), which has its US headquarters at Boston University. WARC has agreed to serve as the umbrella organisation for this project and to support it through its network of scholars and services. WARC will provide office space in Dakar for the duration of the project.

In addition, well-respected native scholars from each of the target areas (Thies, Touba, Diourbel, Louga and Saint-Louis) will be hired as on-site facilitators to introduce the fieldwork team to manuscript owners and assist in obtaining the approval of the copyright holders to make the materials freely available to scholars, students, and the public. The research team will work with these facilitators to make copies of the materials found in the field, to list and describe them, and to create preservation and access copies using EAP guidelines.

Three copies of the archives will be made. One will be deposited at WARC, one with the British Library, and one at Boston University library's digital repository.


The project team successfully digitised 5,494 pages, copying 29 manuscripts from 15 collections. The manuscripts primarily consist of Wolofal (Wolof Ajami) materials written by the members of the Muridiyya Sufi order founded in Senegal in 1883. The archival materials remain in the homes of the owners. Three copies were made and have been deposited at WARC (West African Research Center), the British Library and Boston University’s digital repository.

Read online the open access article: Murid Ajami sources of knowledge: the myth and the reality, published in the EAP Anniversary publication From Dust to Digital. The article can also be downloaded as a PDF (770KB).

The records copied by this project have been catalogued as: