European ideas of African illiteracy are persistent, prejudiced and, as the story of Libyc script shows, entirely wrong
D Vance Smith is a medievalist and Old Dominion Professor in the Department of English at Princeton University. His books include The Book of the Incipit (2001); Arts of Possession (2003); and Arts of Dying: Literature and Finitude in Medieval England (2020).
Edited by Sam Dresser
Four different writing systems have been used in Algeria. Three are well known – Phoenician, Latin and Arabic – while one is both indigenous to Africa and survives only as a writing system. The language it represents is called Old Libyan or Numidian, simply because it was spoken in Numidia and Libya. Since it’s possible that it’s an ancestor of modern Berber languages – although even that’s not clear – the script is usually called Libyco-Berber. Found throughout North Africa, and as far west as the Canary Islands, the script might have been used for at least as long as 1,000 years. Yet only short passages of it survive, all of them painted or engraved on rock. Everything else written in Libyco-Berber has disappeared.
Libyco-Berber has been recognised as an African script since the 17th century. But even after 400 years, it hasn’t been fully deciphered. There are no long texts surviving that would help, and the legacy of the written language has been one of acts of destruction, both massive and petty. That fate, of course, is not unique. It’s something that’s characteristic of modern European civilisation: it both destroys and treasures what it encounters in the rest of the world. Like Scipio Africanus weeping while he gazed at the Carthage he’d just obliterated, the destruction of the other is turned into life lessons for the destroyer, or artefacts in colonial cabinets of curiosities. The most important piece of Libyco-Berber writing was pillaged and sold to the British Museum for five pounds. It’s not currently on display.
But Libyco-Berber also reveals a more insidious kind of destruction, an epistemological violence inflicted by even the best-intentioned Europeans. There are numerous stories of badly educated, arrogant Europeans insisting that Africans not only never did, but never could, write books. Even as sensitive a philosopher as the French sociologist and theorist Pierre Bourdieu, who had deep personal ties to Algeria, and who supported the Berber/Amazigh cultural movement, could essentially make the same assumption. He insisted that the Kabyle people, whom he lived among and studied for years, were pre-literate, although they used (and still do) the characters of Libyco-Berber. Bourdieu’s is a cautionary tale for intellectuals who are committed to social activism. The passion – the need – to do what’s right is all too often steered by the conviction that, precisely because we’re intellectuals, we know what’s right. For Bourdieu, for example, the very ability to think, to reflect about what’s right, is tied to literacy.
But Bourdieu’s observational mistake – the idea that the Kabyle weren’t literate – is actually not his most consequential misapprehension. That would be the idea that literacy is a supreme cognitive and cultural achievement. It’s one of the means by which universities shore up the value of their intellectual work – they police grammar, philology, literacy – in short, they define and champion rigour and ‘standards’. For those of us brought up within that system – even brought up, as I was, in a former colony (Kenya) – those standards might appear to be value-neutral. But they’re value-neutral only because they annihilate even the possibility of other values, of other modes of thinking or being. When Bourdieu went from the elite École Normale Supérieure to a Kabyle settlement, he saw, ultimately, the absence of what made the university, and his own mind, what it was. That supposed absence is the product of intellectual arrogance, yes, but it’s also part of a European cultural heritage.
There’s a depressing familiarity to the assumption made by Europeans that Africa is a site of lack. But that supposed lack is something that Europe has counted on since the destruction of Carthage. Indeed, the destruction of that ancient city by lake Tunis could lay claim to being the very lack at the centre of European intellectual culture. But that’s another story. At one point, Carthage was poised to become the greatest empire on Earth. It failed only because the great Carthaginian general Hannibal didn’t destroy Rome itself when he invaded Italy. If Hannibal had succeeded, Punic rather than Latin might have been the language of European intellectuals until the post-Enlightenment. Bourdieu’s own language might not have been a ‘Romance’ language at all, and his most famous term, ‘habitus’, might have been a Punic word. But then his whole project wouldn’t have assumed Africa to be a place deficient of literacy. Bourdieu might have been studying pre-literate Romans instead – or never have had the chance, as a member of a pre-literate group in the remote mountains of southern France…