SARA LERNER: This is Microsoft Story Labs. I’m Sara Lerner.
In the 1980s, two kids in Guinea in West Africa took out pens and paper and started drawing.
They drew curves, straight lines, arches. They were constructing letters.
These kids had no good way to write in the language they’d been speaking since birth, so they built an alphabet.
Over the thousands of years that the Fulbhe – or Fulani – people have been around, no one had done that. Thirty years later, their written script has a name: ADLaM.
It’s spreading quickly among the Fulani around the world – and there are more than 40 million of them.
Now, anyone with the latest version of Windows can simply click language preferences, select the ADLaM script and voilà – they’re off. Typing into their computers.
This once-nomadic tribe can text each other, write blogs, author books… They can teach their kids how to read and write – and sing their own alphabet song.
[FATHIMA SHAW SINGS IN ADLAM]
ZAINAB SOW: Yeah, the fourth one, Fathima. She born May 28th.
SARA LERNER: Zainab Sow and her daughter Fathima are in their living room in Silver Springs, Maryland.
[ZAINAB AND DAUGHTER SPEAKING IN FULFIDE/FULANI]
SARA LERNER: It’s a weekday afternoon and Zainab’s kids are just getting home from school. She’s 38, has five children. She came to the U.S. from Guinea a little over a decade ago.
ZAINAB SOW: How I found ADLaM?
SARA LERNER: She learned the written script for her native language Fulani, what she calls Pular, two years ago.
ZAINAB SOW: When I was like 17, 18, I all the time thinking about that. When we going to have alphabet in Pular, how to read and write.
[ZAINAB AND DAUGHTER SPEAKING IN FULFIDE/FULANI]
One day I went to the internet then I type Fular alphabet. I saw ADLaM in Abdoulaye Barry Facebook. I ask him how to have the book, this ADLaM alphabet. He sent me the book, free.
[CHILDREN SPEAKING IN BACKGROUND]
ZAINAB SOW: I start teaching my children that alphabet: every week, two times a week.
FATHIMA SHAW: My name is Fathima and I am 6 years old, next year I’m turning 7.
Bonkee burure bilo tiki binta mo bayilo beyehe Bamako.
FATHIMA SHAW: What it means? Bilol and Binta married and they both went to Bamako.
ABDOULAYE BARRY: You know, whenever I go on Facebook, I see what people share. Kids learning. It makes me proud.
SARA LERNER: From their homes in Portland, Oregon, the Barry brothers continue to devote themselves to the script they first made as kids. The younger one:
ABDOULAYE BARRY: Abdoulaye Barry.
SARA LERNER: It was his idea as a 10-year-old back in 1989.
ABDOULAYE BARRY: When we were doing this as kids, we didn’t even know. We just wanted people to be able to write correctly in their language.
SARA LERNER: Now, even high school kids are writing books in ADLaM. People who never read before can read books, flyers – or simply notes from their spouses – in the ADLaM script.
And Fulani speakers all over the world are posting videos on Facebook and YouTube showing their progress as they learn ADLaM.
ADBOULAYE BARRY: It used to be there were more adults learning ADLaM, but nowadays we get more videos of kids, young kids as young as four, even three years old learning ADLaM.
SARA LERNER: Abdoulaye pulls out his phone and brings up a video.
ADBOULAYE BARRY: This girl is actually here. They live in Maryland.
[FATIMA SHAW READING]
ADBOULAYE BARRY: So she was basically saying her name is Fathima-tu, her mom’s name is Zainabu, and her dad’s name is Mohammadu and she lives in Maryland.
[FATHIMA SHAW CONTINUES READING]
SARA LERNER: Abdoulaye’s brother, Ibrahima Barry, jumps in. He remembers when Zainab first wrote them.
IBRAHIMA BARRY: Yeah, their mom. She basically saw this on the internet and she learned how to read and write and she called someone, they send her the books, now all her kid know how to read and write.
SARA LERNER: Zainab posted the video of Fathima in a Facebook group run by a woman in the Ivory Coast. In that group, the woman teaches ADLaM and shares videos her followers send in, from Maryland or from Nigeria, Gambia, the Netherlands.
[CLASSROOM OF CHILDREN SINGS ADLAM ALPHABET SONG, CALL AND RESPONSE IN UNISON]
SARA LERNER: She has 23,000 followers.
[CHILDREN CONTINUE TO SING]
Ibrahim and Abdoulaye devote an incredible amount of time promoting the script. But do they post on Facebook personally? Not that much, says Ibrahima.
IBRAHIMA BARRY: I don’t comment, I don’t write, because whenever they know this is Ibrahim writing…
SARA LERNER: It’s a little overwhelming, he says.
IBRAHIMA BARRY: When I wake up in the morning I can have like a thousand text messages, or missed calls, sometimes 4,000 messages.
SARA LERNER: And this from a humble guy, to say the least. Ibrahima has best friends who went decades thinking he was merely a person invested in ADLaM’s growth, not – you know – the one who actually invented it. Ibrahima never told them.
In college, he handwrote an ADLaM newspaper. Nowadays, he often stays up most of the night editing books from strangers all over the globe, and writing new short books himself.
IBRAHIMA BARRY: Is very hard job, though. Usually you can see my eyes. Maximum that I sleep is four hours.
SARA LERNER: All this borne out of a couple kids playing around, trying something out.
SARA LERNER:[Interviewing] I imagine the bigger picture of literacy was another thing you weren’t thinking of when you were that little.
ABDOULAYE BARRY: No. Absolutely not. But now, as we work on it, that’s also one of the things that keep us motivated to work and standardize the language.
SUWADU JALLOW: If you don’t understand a language, how can you be able to innovate anything?
SARA LERNER: Suwadu Jallow is 25, an accounting whiz at the University of Washington in Seattle.
SUWADU JALLOW: Spending like twelve years in school just to learn a language. I felt like we could do - we could do better than that.
SARA LERNER: Suwadu is pursuing her masters of Accounting, on a coveted full-ride scholarship. Back in Gambia, where the official language is English and she spoke Fulani at home, she knew nothing of this written script, ADLaM. She found out about it after she moved to the US, and quickly studied up. She says she’s been longing for this, wishing for it since she was a kid.
SUWADU JALLOW: ‘Cause right now my mom probably won’t understand anything that’s been on the news if it’s, like, if they speak English…so my mom will watch the news and not even have any idea what they talking about.
ANDREW GLASS: It is a lot easier to teach a person a new writing system for their language that they already speak than it is to teach them a language so that they can become literate.
SARA LERNER: Andrew Glass is a senior program manager at Microsoft, who works on text and keyboards. ADLaM is now available in Windows, and Andrew is one of the people who helped it get there.
For a computer scientist, his background is unique, as has he has a Ph.D. in Sanskrit and Buddhist studies. He’s been working with ancient scripts for decades, but of course he’d never had the chance to meet someone who invented a script.
Andrew says he’s excited that kids in places like Nigeria and Sierra Leone will be able to do their homework in ADLaM.
ANDREW GLASS: You know, we take the ability to see the teacher write something on the board and press an A on the keyboard and have an A show up in the document completely for granted. And we do not know how many hours people worked in order to make that possible. You know, the people in the ADLaM communities in Guinea and Sierra Leone… They should have that same ability to take it for granted that their computer can render ADLaM script as well.
SARA LERNER: And they will. It’s been growing exponentially in the last few years.
ZAINAB SOW: Any language, they have reading, writing…
SARA LERNER: Zainab Sow in Maryland seems to be bursting with pride as her kids read ADLaM.
[ZAINAB SOW’S CHILDREN READ IN FULFULDE/FULANI]
ZAINAB SOW: ...they writing and reading, that language no going to lost, see? That’s important.
SUWADU JALLOW: To me I feel like it’s gonna be widespread and everyone will use it eventually and I can just see being able to text with my mom…
SARA LERNER: Suwadu Jallow again, in Seattle.
SUWADU JALLOW: I’m just really excited about that, even the old – old grandmas will be able to text each other in Fulani. That will be like one of the biggest things ever.
SARA LERNER: The Barry brothers both say they can hardly believe how many people are now studying ADLaM.
Over the years, the brothers persisted in their efforts to spread their script, even as they dealt with roadblock after roadblock. And there were always opponents – some of them close friends – who felt this writing system would keep the Fulani people behind.
The Barry brothers say that’s OK.
IBRAHIMA BARRY: If even not all the people like it, the fact that my mom is able to read and write, I’m so happy.
ABDOULAYE BARRY: The fact that my mom can take a newspaper and read and be informed … Her mind is open. Just by reading the newspaper that’s in ADLaM. So even if it was just left to that for me, it’s like, we’ve achieved something beyond, you know, what we could ever imagine.
SARA LERNER: But it’s not just their mom. It’s so many moms. And grandmas. And nieces and nephews and husbands and wives – and market sellers and high school students...
SUWADU JALLOW: The hard work is just amazing. They’re like, they’re basically an inspiration to every Fulani or every African to be able to love themselves ... and do anything possible to be able to protect their language from dying.
SARA LERNER: This is a production of Microsoft Story Labs.