October 05, 2007
This semester, seven St. John’s undergraduates are
distinguishing themselves as the first group of university students
in the world ever to formally study Bamum, Africa’s
second-oldest existing language. If the students meet their goals,
they will have gained a conversational level of fluency in Bamum by
the end of the semester.
The students are currently studying the phonetic structure of
Bamum through a three-credit language class, taught on St. John’s
Manhattan campus by one of Africa’s leading linguists. In November,
they will travel to Foumban, a traditional warrior kingdom in the
West Equatorial African country of Cameroon, where Bamum
originated. For four weeks, the students will engage in an
additional for-credit immersion course focusing on the original
Bamum “scripts,” an alphabet comprising 80 African characters, used
by the Bamum people before Cameroon was colonized by the French in
the early 20th century. According to scholars, the Bamum scripts
are in danger of becoming extinct.
The student plunge into Africa is part of the University’s newly
the World: Africa program, which allows St. John’s
undergraduates to spend a semester in three different continents,
fully immersed in Africana-studies courses.
After spending the first third of the semester in Manhattan,
students enrolled in Discover the World: Africa will embark for
Rome, where they will stay rooted for several weeks before
concluding the semester in Foumban, a Muslim city of 100,000
citizens. There, students will gather for classes on the grounds of
the Royal Palace of Bamum Kings and receive an official welcome
from the king, El Hadj Sultan Ibrahim Mbombo Njoya.
Over the course of the semester, students will take a total of
six immersion courses — two in each continent — for a total of 18
credits. All but one course will explore various facets of African
culture, including the continent’s history, politics and
anthropology. (While in Italy, students will engage in one course
on the history and culture of Rome.) Upon graduating from St.
John’s, each student will receive a minor in Africana studies.
The cost of the program, including airfare, room, board and
travel, is identical to the cost of a typical semester at one of
St. John’s three New York City campuses.
“The education these students are receiving is exceptional,” says
Associate Professor of History Konrad Tuchscherer, Ph.D., director
of the program. “It’s also unprecedented. As far as we know, the
Bamum language has never been taught at a college or university
anywhere in the world.”
Preserving Africa’s Second Oldest
An expert in African history and language with a specialty in
written traditions, Tuchscherer explains that only a tiny handful
of Foumban citizens can interpret the original Bamum scripts.
“All the old gravestones, the writing on the walls, the old
documents — it’s all written in the Bamum language, but the problem
is that the Bamum people can’t read it,” he says, noting that Bamum
is one of the continent’s few traditional written languages still
For this reason, Tuchscherer and a few of his African colleagues
have set the ambitious goal of resurrecting the scripts. Through
the “Bamum Scripts and
Archives Project,” the St. John’s professor has translated
scores of centuries-old Bamum texts, organized literacy campaigns
that run through many of Foumban’s schools, and engaged in other
outreach initiatives in order to keep the language alive. The
project, which Tuchscherer has co-directed for the past six years,
is funded by the British Library
and the U.S. Department of State.
Tuchscherer’s research activities have earned him several
academic plaudits, and according to Rob Heater, U.S. Vice Consul in
Cameroon, he is recognized by many as “the foremost authority” on
Bamum language and culture. Heater adds that the trip to Cameroon
by the St. John’s students is “one of the largest initiatives” ever
undertaken to preserve Foumban literature.
When the semester draws to a close, Tuchscherer’s hope is that
the students will return to the United States with a basic literacy
in Bamum and a desire to safeguard it from extinction. The
students’ ability to speak the language has already begun taking
shape through an immersion course currently being taught on the
Manhattan campus by Abdoulaye Laziz Nchare, Ph.D., who hails from
the Foumban kingdom. According to Tuchscherer, Nchare, currently
pursuing a second Ph.D. from NYU, is among the most respected Bamum
scholars in the world.
“The stars aligned in our favor that he happened to be in New
York this semester,” says Tuchscherer, who had met Nchare on
previous occasions in Cameroon.
Up until the last century, Foumban was a warrior city, and the
Bamum people are still proud of their combative history, says
Tuchscherer. Many men still dress in warrior regalia and decorate
their faces and bodies with traditional paint.
Living side-by-side with the Bamum citizens, the St. John’s
students will learn how to wash their own clothes by hand, cook
their own food (the Foumban culinary staple is pasted corn) and
tend to some of the local crops.
“This is not a field trip,” says Tuchscherer. “Students will be
totally immersed in society, fully submerged in a traditional
‘grassfields’ kingdom, without the ability to draw back into their
own little world.”
Because the Bamum people do not speak English, Tuchscherer says
there will be an element of survival to the student experience. “If
they want to be able to ask for food, they better show up for their
language class,” he says, tongue in cheek.
Students also will be expected to participate in service-based
activities, in observance of St. John’s Vincentian Mission to offer
aid to the world’s poor. One of the group’s goals will be the
creation of an HIV/AIDS public-service radio campaign, which
Tuchscherer expects will broadcast across Cameroon. The project is
co-sponsored by the U.S. embassy.
In addition, students will take part in various service
activities sponsored by the Daughters of Charity, a community of
women religious founded by St. Vincent de Paul and St. Louise de
Marillac, who maintain a heavy presence in the country.
Students are excited.
“The continent is rich with history, traditions and beautiful
people,” says junior Ubah Hamoud, a 21-year-old psychology major
who is originally from Africa. Calling the program a
“once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” she adds: “It will provide me
with the greatest opportunity to visit the continent I am
originally from, and help me rediscover my heritage.”
Throughout the semester, each student enrolled in Discover the
World: Africa will remain engaged in an independent research
project, geared toward an individual aspect of Africa. Students
will gather much of their data through personal interviews with
African citizens and government officials. Upon their return home,
each will submit a research paper to at least one academic journal
or national or local magazine or newspaper.
Many of the students’ research topics — the malaria and HIV/AIDS
epidemics, for example — revolve around health care and social
justice. One student is researching the Kenya Airways plane crash
in Cameroon earlier this year that killed more than 100 people, and
another is exploring the
Emily Santoro, a junior journalism major from Washingtonville,
NY, has yearned to visit Africa since she was six years
The Discover the World initiative “works out so well for me and
my dream of working in Africa as a journalist,” says Santoro, who
will continue her research on HIV/AIDS when she arrives in Foumban.
“I don’t know of many journalism majors who, at 20 years old, are
traveling to Africa, saving one of its most beautiful languages
from going extinct, beginning an independent research project, and
taking classes on top of it.”
Discover the World: Africa is the third global living, learning
and service program introduced this year by St. John’s University
faculty and administrators. Last January, the University launched
its inaugural Discover
the World: Europe program, and in May, it unveiled Discover
the World: Latin America.
Tuchscherer says he hopes that Discover the World: Africa will
become an annual St. John’s program.