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Sara Lerner

Audio by Sara Lerner


Building an alphabet: 'We just did it'

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IBRAHIMA BARRY: My name is Ibrahima Barry.

ABDOULAYE BARRY: Abdoulaye Barry. Sometimes I just feel like people are so grateful for – beyond what, you know, maybe we deserve.

SARA LERNER: This is Microsoft Story Labs. I’m Sara Lerner. We’re sitting in Ibrahim Barry’s living room in Portland, Oregon. He and his brother Abdoulaye Barry talk about the first-ever alphabet for the language Fulfulde of the Fulbhe people, also commonly known as Fulani. The brothers themselves created this script when they were kids in the 1980s, back in Guinea, in West Africa.

ABDOULAYE BARRY: Every country is basically using a different name for the language. In Guinea they call it Pular with one A. In Senegal and Mauritania, they call it Pular with two As. If you go to Mali and Burkina Faso, they call it Fulfulde all the way to Nigeria and other places they call it Fula.

IBRAHIMA BARRY: Also in Nigeria they call us Fulani and the language also Fulani language. Most of the English languages use that one.

ABDOULAYE BARRY: A 7-year-old French kid who is born in France, going to school there … when he goes to school he would only need to learn how to read and write, but the Guinean kid of the same age that goes to school, he will have not only to learn how to read and write, he will also have to learn a completely new language, a language that’s only used at school…

Letters were actually written in the Pular language, but using the Arabic script ... people would just use the most approximate Arabic sound to represent the sound that doesn’t exist in Arabic. You have to be somebody who knows how to read the Arabic letters well and who also knows the Pular language well in order for you to be able to decipher those letters. That’s why people would come to my dad.

IBRAHIMA BARRY: People used to take their letters … when my dad is not there, they just ask us to read for them or even my dad sometimes if he’s there, he’s tired, he just tell them: go see my son, he gonna read for you.

Once I was in the market to my dad’s shop. Some ladies come and she told me she want me to write a letter for her. So I started writing the letter and she said, "You know, I wish I could write … because the thing I wanna tell you, just – I don’t feel that I want to tell you this."

That give me more energy to teach people in the market because we found that when we teaching people with ADLaM script, it just take them two to three weeks and they able to write in our language.

Yeah I used to write everything by hand ... I used to take the handwriting copy to the university where I used to study, they have a printing facility there. I used to pay them to make copies of the books or the newspaper.

I kinda more remember what the reaction of the people, the feeling of the people when they read the newspaper, some of them used to cry.

ABDOULAYE BARRY: You know, if we knew everything that we had to go through and if we were not kids when we started this, I don’t think we ever would have done it. Because if you’re an adult, you think of all the pros, the cons you start planning in your head. But if you are a kid, that’s why I say. If you are a kid, it’s just amazing what you can do because you just do it. You don’t think of anything! So we just told our dad and then we just did it.

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