Behold Nwagu Aneke: The Enigma that Discover a Writing Script that Resembles Ancient Hebraic Writing
(The Story of Africa Writer that did not Attend School and Yet Almost become a Professor)
Profile of Ogbuefi Nwagu Aneke
Ogbuefi Nwagu Aneke was a Prominent Son of Umueri(also mispronounced Umuleri), who in 1950s took the world by surprise, when he invented an indigenous west African writing script that’s look like ancient Hebraic writing. He hailed from Irueke- Adegbe Umueri from Ikenga Umueri. Prior to his divine assignment of inventing the script that would be later known with his name, he was a successful & Prosperous Land owner & Diviner(Dibia) of great repute.
The Nwagu Aneke script is a syllabary and some logographs that was developed by Nwagu Aneke for the Umuleri dialect of Igbo in the late 1950s. He claimed to have had no prior reading or writing skills. and that he was inspired by spirits who has revealed the characters to him. The script does not have any vowels but is similar to other West African scripts invented in the 19th and 20th centuries such as the Vai syllabary because it has characters for sounds that are not in the Latin script. Aneke had written over 100 textbooks worth of ant-colonial commentary works and diary entries such as The Spirits Implore Me to Record All They Have Taught Me and I Went Round the World before his death in a ghastly accident in 1991
The Origins of the Nwagu Aneke Script
On the eve of Nigeria’s independence in 1960, Ogbuevi Nwagu Aneke, who was well-known in his village as an unlettered but highly successful land owner and diviner (dibịa afa) suddenly announced to his bewildered and amused townsmen that he had been taught how to read and write by spirits (ndị mmụọ). Like Coleridge’s ancient mariner, he carried the story of his transformation from stark illiteracy to literacy to anyone who cared to listen. A few were impressed by the quaint characters which he poured out daily on cheap exercise books and called it an “Igbo shorthand”; but, as the great majority of his kinsmen watched him neglect his rights, privileges and responsibilities as a titled medicine man and head of his extended family, succumbing to poverty as he ignored the seizure of his property by land-grabbing neighbors while he devoted hours on end everyday writing, they concluded that he had either run stark mad or turned into a capricious fool. But Nwagu Aneke persisted in his story of spiritual revelation and the burden of a message for the salvation of the black man which the spirits had placed upon his head.
Now, this is his story. One night, when he went to bed, he was visited by strange beings who he later identified, as they persisted in visiting him night after night, as the spirits of his ancestors. According to Nwagu Aneke, these spirits asked him to go to the shrine of the earth goddess, Ajaana, at the holy village of Nneyi to perform certain rites of purification in view of the filthy life he had lead in the past, for he had been selected for a great mission on earth. One market week (izu) after this purification, the spirits returned. According to Nwagu Aneke, in one of his early books, dating back to the early nineteen-sixties:
“The spirits] told me that I would acquire the knowledge of reading and writing. They said that the work I had to do in the world were enormous, that the actions I would have to perform in the world were extensive. They said that it was not work that could be done from the memory that I had come to do, that the messages I had to deliver were not messages that could be carried fully in the memory, that the actions I had to take were not actions that could be borne in memory, otherwise, the people who now live on earth would say that I had run mad. So, it was necessary that I should obtain the knowledge of reading and writing.’
Ironically, the eventual sudden acquisition of the knowledge of reading and writing, which purportedly followed this spiritual revelation, turned Nwagu Aneke into a lunatic in the eyes of his people. Struck down, as he says, by Agwụ, the Igbo god of madness and creativity, he roamed the forests like a wild animal, for weeks on end, gathering the leaves of trees. According to him, the leaves even spoke to him as he approached them, like objects in Alice in Wonderland, urging him to pluck them, and as he despaired, a certain bird was quick at hand to spur him on, crowing like a cock:
“Gbadokwa ume ooooo!
Gbadokwa ume ooooo!
[Hold up your breath ooooo!
Hold up your breath ooooo!]
On returning home with sacks of the leaves of the trees, he claims that, as he copied the marks on leaf after leaf, spurred on by the spirits, each mark became associated with a distinctive sound, each of which, within the analytical framework of modern linguistics, can be said to represent a syllable. In this way, claims Nwagu Aneke, he succeeded, after some years of continuous and excruciating labor, in developing a complete syllabary for the writing of his native Umuleri dialect of Igbo, without ever stepping into a classroom. This syllabary is contained in the chart and the alphabetical list of characters presented in Appendix I and II respectively.
Needless to say, Nwagu Aneke’s story has a familiar ring with echoes in many situations associated especially with the birth of religion across the world and across the centuries. We are reminded in particular of Prophet Mohammed and his message of Islam. Like the message of Islam, the message of Nwagu Aneke is a radical restatement of traditional values against what the inspired receptor of supernatural revelation regards as alien and alienating orthodoxy. In the 100 or so extant exercise books filled with his messages, Nwagu Aneke restates the vitality of a triad of God, elemental deities and spirits who govern the world and control the interaction that should exist between human beings and these forces as well as other human beings and other creations against what he sees as the antithetical religion of Christianity and the spiritual nullity of Western civilization. These forcefully rendered arguments for a radical return to the roots of a truly indigenous African system of values and thought-patterns run through Nwagu Aneke’s daily diaries, his comments on the events of the day and his other writings. These are currently being transcribed into the Roman alphabet, translated and edited by members of the Nwagu Aneke Research Team for critical study as literature, philosophy and social commentary.
Let us now proceed to the issue at hand – the features of the script itself and its potentials as a medium of alternative literacy in indigenous African languages. We need no apologia for this exercise. The script exists, and unlike the systems which have established themselves in Africa as legacies of Arab and European colonialism, it is a local manifestation of a wider West Africa phenomenon which has grown out of purely indigenous resources. If we must be as circumspect as we should be in planning mass literacy programs for Africa, indigenous resources of this kind need to be thoroughly examined for any alternative insights which they may provide, for what Nwagu Aneke describes as visitation by spirit beings may be nothing other than an expression, in terms of the traditional Igbo world view, of what in the rational philosophy of the West would simply be described as either pure inspiration or the fetishization of the power of reading and writing.
The Features of the Nwagu Aneke Script
As should be clear by now, the Nwagu Aneke script is essentially a syllabic form of writing. It belongs to the phase in the evolution of writing systems at which various conventional characters are used to represent the syllables of a language (see Appendix 1 for the syllabary of the Nwagu Aneke script). However, as in all writing systems, including the Roman and Arabic scripts, a few logographs (characters representing complete words or morphemes) subsist in the system. These logographs which are contained in the box in Appendix I, may well be of some special interest in view of the world view and philosophy promoted through the medium of the script; but we are yet to fully understand their significance.
Respectively preceding and following the syllabic phase in the evolution of writing systems are the pictographic and ideographic phases, on the one hand, and the phonetic or alphabetic phase, on the other hand, the latter being the phase to which alphabets of the kind found in the Arabic and the Roman scripts belong. All these phases, which are not necessarily in strict chronological-evolutionary sequence, have manifested themselves in various parts of West Africa where more than thirty different types of indigenous writing systems are known to exist, and the Nwagu Aneke system is clearly part of this wider West African phenomenon.
Pictographic writing seems to have evolved from the rock art and symbolic markings on surfaces and bodies by early man. It is a form of writing in which man made use of simple pictures to represent his experiences. Thus, for example, a stylized picture of the sun [ O ] would be understood as representing the sun while such a picture of a person [ ^ ] would be understood as representing a man or a woman. A string of such pictures could be used to tell a story as in many early scripts. There are traces of picture-writing in Nsibidi—the writing system employed Chukwuma Azuonye / The Nwagu Aneke Igbo Script: Its Origins, Features and Potentials 5 by the Igbo, Ibibio, Efik and Ekoi peoples of the Cross River Area of south-eastern Nigeria in pre-colonial times for various documentary, cultic, erotic and other expressive purposes (see Maxwell, 1905; MacGreggor, 1909; Dayrell, 1910 and 1911; Talbot, 1912; Jeffreys, 1934; and Kalu, 1982). Nsibidi is however not exclusively pictographic. It contains elements of the ideographic system of writing, showing that it probably belongs to the transitional stage between pictographic and ideographic writing. Thus, in Nsibidi, while the stylized characters [ ) ] and [ ( ] are used pictographically in isolation to represent man and woman respectively, they are also used ideographically, in various combinations, to represent various ideas connected with manwoman relationships. For example, the figure of a man and a woman backing one another with a line (pillow?) between them [ )I( ] represents a quarrel between husband and wife while marital love is represented by the figure of a man and a woman locked into one another [ () ]. Such ideas can be intensified by the addition of one or more strokes. For example, violent marital discord is indicated by strokes suggestive of sparks of fire from the discord, thus:
In a few characters, such as the one for a prostitute [ ], we can see a clear link between pictographic and ideographic representation. The wide open legs of the whore is unmistakable in this strikingly pictographic ideograph. The provenance of such ideographs may be traced back to age-old decorative and symbolic markings on human bodies such as the Igbo uli (see Willis, 1987) and mnemonic markings on other objects and surfaces such as the yam-marks of the Western Igbo (see Thomas, 1913, III:183). Other possible sources are the more elaborate forms of graphic symbolism associated with magical and religious rituals in most West African societies which have been discussed in some detail in Dalby (1968).
The Nwagu Aneke script has been erroneously described by the Nigerian press as Nsibidi, and Nwagu Aneke himself tended to accept this erroneous description in one of his books entitled The Spirits Implore Me to Record All They Have Taught Me (D13); but, as has been noted above, the script belongs to a different system and phase in the evolution of writing. It is syllabic, with the basic CV syllables of Nwagu Aneke’s Umuleri dialect of Igbo represented by the characters presented in Appendix I. But this syllabary, like the syllabary of ancient Hebrew and many other ancient scripts, does not have characters for vowels per se. Consequently, it does not have any place for V syllables. This means that a number of words in the language which contain syllabic vowels cannot be fully represented in the script. For example, the common name, Obioma [O-bio-ma] which contains two V syllable [O] and [o] can only be realized in the script as bi-ma, thus: O bi ọ ma
A new initiate into the script can therefore only read words of this kind by recall or in context (see Azuonye, forthcoming). Because of this deficiency, a number of characters are used somewhat logographically to represent many different words in different contexts. Thus, the character [ ], bi, will not only represent the word O-bi, as in the above example, but also u-bi (farm), i-bi (scrotal elephantiasis) and e-bi (porcupine), depending on the context. Similarly, Chukwuma Azuonye / The Nwagu Aneke Igbo Script: Its Origins, Features and Potentials 6 the character [ ], ma, will represent, in addition to o-ma (beautiful; good), such other words as a-ma (village-square), u-ma (character), and the like. The Maseorites solved this kind of problem in the ancient Hebrew script in which YAHWEH, for example, was originally written as YHWH without vowels, by creating a system of vowel characters for the script. The Nwagu Aneke script is yet to be subjected to such a complementation.
However, neither Nwagu Aneke nor any of the other exponents of indigenous writing in West Africa regards such complementation a necessary refinement. Before his tragic death in an automobile accident on June 2, 1991, Nwagu Aneke had been engaged for about three years as a Writer-in-Residence in the Division of General Studies at the University of Nigeria, but he spent his time writing the numerous messages from the spirits rather than pay attention to such a purely mechanical matter although his attention was drawn to it from time to time. Oblivious of any deficiencies in the systems believed to have been received directly from God through the instrumentality of the ancestral spirits, Nwagu Aneke and his counterparts elsewhere in West Africa have been content to promote their scripts as media for alternative literacy counteracting the white man’s claims to intellectual and cultural superiority by reason of the possession of the power of the written word capable of transmitting messages across time and space and providing the graphic infrastructure for technological development. Thus, as in the case of the Vai script of Liberia (see Wilson and Wynkoop, 1834; Koelle, 1849; and Hair, 1963), Nwagu Aneke claims in his books that the gift of writing from the spirits is proof not only that the black man has the same technological ability as the white man but that he will take over from where the white man, will sooner than later be forced to give way (F24: I Went Round the World).
The project, which was initiated by the late Professor Donatus Nwoga at the Institute of African Studies, University of Nigeria, Nsukka (Nwagu Aneke Research Project, 1990), is currently relocated in the Department of Africana Studies at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, USA Chukwuma Azuonye / The Nwagu Aneke Igbo Script: Its Origins, Features and Potentials
Culled from Chukwuma Azuonye of University of Massachusetts Boston ‘s write up on “The Nwagu Aneke Igbo Script: Its Origins, Features and Potentials as a Medium of Alternative Literacy in African Languages “