The marks missing in Koumen
discovery of a previously unknown writing and communication tradition
in West Africa began with a recommendation in a book written by the
Malian writer and ethnologist, Amadou Hampâté Bâ (d. 1991). The
book is Koumen: Texte initiatique des Pasteurs Peul (Bâ 1961).
his book, Hampâté Bâ notes that, “… cattle are marked by
their owners with red-hot irons. There were, historically, sixteen
of these marks, each with a religious meaning. When using them,
invocations are repeated to ensure the protection and fertility of
the herd. Fourteen are presented below….”(page 13). In a
footnote he comments: “Two are missing. It would be good to
research those missing, together with their symbolism.”
1992 I was working in Senegal and collecting anthropological texts
from old men, especially of the Saafi ethnic group. I had a
in French) working for me whose father was a clan head, village chief
and noted traditional healer in this group. The son’s name was
Aliou Dione. I pointed out to him these fourteen “marks” and the
challenge given by Hampâté Bâ, to find the “missing two.” I
noted that the Bandiagara region of Mali where Hampâté Bâ was
from, was some 1,000 miles east of where the Saafi lived.
asked Aliou if he knew of these, and he said, “No, but I will ask
my father.” I made a photocopy of the fourteen, and these were
shown to the father. He replied to his son approximately this way,
“Sure, we know these marks. They are part of our raampa tradition
was dumbfounded. He asked his father why he had never told him about
these marks and raampa, when he knew he had been working for years
researching Saafi traditions and beliefs. The father said, “Of
course I haven’t told you, because raampa is only explained to a
few chosen older men, leaders, who are initiated into it. And you
were not one of them and initiated into it.”
the father, now an old man in his 80s, found out that Aliou was
interested, he was very willing to talk, to pass on to him what he
knew of the “marks.” He recognized that since the Saafi became
islamized, especially during the 1930s, the whole raampa tradition
largely had fallen into disuse. Islam frowned on non-Arabic
traditions so men felt inhibited to use it. New men were not being
initiated into the tradition. So the father said he was willing to
explain raampa, as he realized that the whole tradition was on the
way to being lost.
was now my turn to be dumbfounded. It immediately seemed to me that
we had stumbled onto something very significant in African
traditional culture. To my knowledge these “marks” and the
extensive communication and belief system that we found went with
them, and what they called “oral raampa” were unknown outside of
a few old men. And they were fast disappearing with this whole,
significant communication system and tradition. We were told that
very few ordinary Saafi themselves knew of raampa, such was the
secrecy with which it was held.
I asked Aliou to drop our other data-collecting projects and
concentrate on raampa, to find out as much as we could about it. I
would send him to all possible Saafi villages to try to find old men
who could and would explain to us as much as possible about raampa.
It seemed that much had already been forgotten, and no one person had
a complete knowledge of it.
he was more than willing to do this, walking miles in the hot sun,
riding in horse-drawn carts, sleeping on dirt floors, spending time
with old men, recording their descriptions, sharing their lives and
stories, and in all ways being completely dedicated to the
are the fourteen “marks” found by Hampâté Bâ, with their names
and glosses, reproduced from his book:
erect a barrier
found all the marks he presented, and not just the two others that Bâ
said were missing, but a total of over four hundred! Catalog numbers
from our catalog of raampa pictographs are given after each of
Hampâté Bâ’s glosses. We also collected scores of written
messages that used these “marks.” Later, we ran across a man who
seemed to be the most knowledgeable of all those we encountered, and
he told us that probably if we talked to all those who knew raampa,
we might find a total of two hundred “marks.” So our collection,
from all we could determine, far exceeded the knowledge of any one
that in this short presentation, I use the term raampa as the general
term for this writing, whereas it is in fact the Saafi-Saafi term.
The other ethnic groups that use the same writing have their own
terms, but for simplicity, I am using only one term as a cover for
Marks on cattle
comments as follows.
marks are general. They may be used singly or in combinations,
placing them in different locations on the animal.
animal may be marked on any part of its body, but tradition teaches
that they are to be placed where they will best increase the ‘luck’
of each animal.
may be at the head, on the neck, etc. Once an owner decides, he does
not change the marks on his animals.”
are pictures of cattle seen in Senegal with clear “marks.” Marks
may be permanent – traditionally burned into the hide with the tip
of a glowing stick; more recently with iron heated to a red glow.
They may also just be temporary, placed on the animal during healing
or magical rites. Note that we found one donkey is marked with a
rows: cattle with pictographs, donkey with pictograph; bottom row:
typical cattle herders
Does anyone in Senegal understand these marks?
fieldwork revealed that the same tradition or system of pictographic
writing and communicating reached across six language groups. Time
and resources did not allow us to contact other groups, but all the
groups we included in our fieldwork did indeed use the same system.
We even found that a message written by a man from one language group
could be read accurately by a man from a completely different
language group. The language groups we found that used the raampa
- Saafi-Saafi (srr *) – Senegal, Niger-Congo language family,
- Serer-Sine (srr) – Senegal, Niger-Congo language family, Atlantic
- Pular (fuf) – (Fula) Senegal and Guinea, Niger-Congo language
family, Atlantic branch
- Hassaniyya (mey)—Mauritania, Afro-Asiatic language family
- Mandinka (mnk) (Mandingue) – Senegal and Guinea, Niger-Congo
language family, Mande branch
- Pulaar (fuc) (Toucouleur/Tukulor) – Senegal and Mauritania,
Niger-Congo language family, Atlantic branch
How is this pictographic writing system used?
Hampâté Bâ only called them “marks,” we will use a little more
technical term: pictographs. They could also be called ideograms or
hieroglyphs, but as the latter term is generally associated with
Egypt, it seems better to not use it. Raampa pictographs are graphic
symbols representing objects or ideas without expressing, as in a
phonetic system, the sounds that form their names. A few of the old
men “informants” that talked to us tried to describe phonetic
values for some of the pictographs, but I believe that as men
basically unschooled in linguistics, and barely if at all in literacy
in general, they were trying to make connections that do not in fact
pictographs were used singly or in messages comprising a string of up
to some twenty pictographs, at least from the examples we were given.
Some simple examples of the way raampa is used are shown here.
herder + cattle + creek + sunrise (069bsn + 009sn + 119sn + 121sn)
cattle herder drives his herd to the water hole at sunrise (to water
+ man + farming + hunting + fishing (112sn + 095sn + 131sn + 058sn
late honorable man consecrated his life to farming, hunting and
are messages given to us by raampa initiates. We of course did not
make up any messages used in this presentation. Of the more than
fifty messages we collected, many are difficult to interpret clearly.
The explanations we were given in many cases are hard to follow. Just
why this is so, I am not sure. Were our data collectors (enquêteurs,
in French) in too much of a hurry to really obtain the meaning? Were
the informants themselves clear as to the intent of the message? Are
cultural understandings that would clarify the meaning eluding us, as
with the example of the gecko, above? It would be most helpful if
more fieldwork could be carried out to fill some of the many gaps
left in our research.
were transmitted by writing on
Plant leaves, especially on the leaves of the plant known as the
Sodom apple or Giant milkweed (Calotropis procera). The leaves of
this plant are large, thick, with a surface like sandpaper.
wooden slates were made especially for the purpose by the Laobé,
members of the woodcutter caste. They were dyed with natural
indigo and could be erased and reused repeatedly. This is a
typical slate with a message written, with its gloss in French.
Rock tablets, i.e., flat rocks were used.
example of the use of rock tablets is given under "Uses in
Cotton homespun was used, as at least some of
societies grew, spun and wove cotton.
Messages were frequently written on the ground. An example would be a
message written on a path to hunters, warning of a fierce animal
produced blocks of a white chalk made from roasted and pounded bones,
that they used when spinning cotton to give it body and therefore be
easier to handle. This was used by men to write on the wooden and
rock slates, and on leaves.
individual pictographs seem especially interesting:
for the supreme God; the sky.
lived by the axe. When one died, his death was announced this way:
‘He will no longer carry his axe.’ This mark is placed on the
roof of the deceased man’s house. Therefore, the incantations begin
with an invocation to God. All secrets are revealed inside the house.
The Saafi man to whom this mark is given knows that he is being
summoned to a meeting in the house.”
the three sides represent birth, life, and death, as shown by the
birth life death
jaaniiw “the after-death abode” (086sn)
death comes reincarnation -- into the invisible or visible world.”
cuuh ½afku, God [behind] unborn fetus, pregnant (104sf)
the Saafi, the infant not yet born is only a spirit. This mark
symbolizes the descent of a spirit come to assist in the death. When
one sees this mark on a head of cattle, one knows that it belongs to
a motherless orphan in the Saafi family.
cuuh jip, God made the fetus descend, a newborn (103sf)
mark is a symbol announcing the birth of a newborn. For the Saafi,
everyone born comes from God and when he or she dies, everyone
returns to God in the heaven. The placenta that envelops the child in
the mother’s womb is protected by God. This is why, at the moment
of birth, it points to God, in looking toward the four cardinal
directions.” [Note: There is much in this explanation that is not
clear or even understandable to an outsider.]
a dignitary (152sf)
initiated person receiving this sign, understands that the founder of
the village is dead. According to our society, he will be buried
under an earth pyramid, and each year people will come to the tomb in
veneration. The head of this type of person is oriented to the west,
with the feet to the east, and the face to the south. This sign is
not marked on cattle.”
of the two sets of eyes represents normal sight, and the other,
supernatural sight into the spirit world. Such a person is described
as having a “large head,” that is, can see both the natural and
xuytu “war, conflict” (107sn)
jam, peace (117sn)
after a conflict negotiations result in peace, two lances are broken
and left on display (e.g., at the entrance of a village) to signify
to all that peace has been reestablished. A traveler encountering
this sign along his route would be assured that he will find the
territory in peace.”
xeet de, “the Serer-Sine people” (093sn)
a full life worthy of burial in a pyramid, also death."
the ancestors who with the living form the Serer-Sine.”
a different interpretation, below under Uses in Healing.]
ne “the family, the home” (010sn)
three strokes represent God, man, and nature. Without all three there
is no family.”
batan njey “sunrise; a place that is only safe during the day, is
a dangerous place to be at night” (121sn)
mudan njey “sunset; sign of bad luck; a place very dangerous at
night because of bad spirits” (122sn)
pictograph has meanings on two levels --
instrument to hook something dropped in water”
conjure someone, bring them back home by occult means”
is often difficult to determine when similar pictograms have the same
meanings or which are different. Often our informants wrote with
their fingers or sticks on the ground, where the distinguishing
details were elusive. In addition, informants were typically
unlettered and not used to writing precisely for outsiders. All this
made us wonder at times, just how messages were communicated
accurately. These three examples illustrate our difficulties.
Which of A, B, and C have the same meaning?
A and C mean “sorcerer, witch”; B means “to bend.”
Other uses for raampa
men who used raampa used it as a secret code in a public
conversation. The various pictographs had names that were common to
the language (e.g., Saafi-Saafi), but had hidden meanings. So any
non-initiated person hearing the coded message would only hear a
nonsensical stream of words they understood, but to the initiated
hearer to whom the message was intended, the message would be
pictographs were also used in secret communications. A humorous
example was give to us. Suppose a bride-to-be was leaving her village
to go live with her husband in his village. (This was the custom in
this patrilocal society.) And suppose she was known by the elders to
be a busybody or gossip. As her baggage was leaving her natal
village, one of the elder practitioners of raampa would quietly write
this pictograph on it in plain sight:
(128sn.jpg). The pictograph represents a foot. So when the woman
arrives in her new village, while the elders are greeting her, they
will see the pictogram and understand the message meant for them.
They will understand that this new bride is a “walker”, i.e.,
that she gets into other people’s business. Therefore, the
understanding is that the village elders should know they will need
to keep an eye on her and seek to change her ways.
or women can be sorcerers and transform themselves magically into the
serpent called jaw (in Saafi-Saafi). The apparition of this serpent
is conveyed by written message, and all the old men who are
knowledgeable leaders become aware of it. When any of them receives a
raampa message concerning the appearance of the jaw, they call an
assembly of the village notables, who gather at the public place. The
news spreads rapidly especially among the old men. There they
announce the appearance of this serpent. Such an apparition of the
mystical jaw always causes worry in the village. A carved stone
tablet called ½al is placed at the center of the village to show the
urgency of the men’s secret society to meet (in order to take
magical counter-measures to repulse the danger of the jaw)."
–account given by Saaliyu Juuf from the village of Bir¥iraan, 89
years old in 1992, and recorded by Aliou Dione.
jaw « serpent téléguidé »
un vieux reçoit une tablette sur laquelle s’est dessiné un
signe en serpent, aussitôt il comprend le message. Ceci est pour
signaler la présence du serpent téléguidé (c’est à dire,
envoyé par un sorcier) dans le village. Ce vieux codé comprend
que le serpent est pressé de mordre. Ce signe est un serpent tenu
debout ; il est différent du numéro 122sf. Mais tenu debout
n’est pas pour la vache. » –account given by Songho
Ndoye from the village of Thiéo in 1997, and recorded by Aliou
Dione. Taken from the Saafi section of the raampa catalog.
xoor paÿ , the star that heals (093sn)
star with six points traced on the ground and hollowed out in the
middle was used during childbirth. When a woman had heavy bleeding
during delivery, the elders made her sit in the middle of the star to
stop the hemorrhage.”
star is considered sacred. When a person is wounded, he or she should
trace this star on the ground, then collect sand from its six points
and heap them in the middle. Then he should sprinkle some of the sand
on the wound, and within three days it will be healed.”
another interpretation above, by different informant, under
« Individual Pictographs »]
frequently presuppose require cultural understandings
pictograph representing a gecko is
(062sf.jpg). But simply knowing it represents a gecko will not help
interpret a raampa message. The cultural belief about geckos is that
they are a sign of bad luck. We were told, “The gecko is the worst
evildoer that God created. If it cries at night it predicts good
rains but if it lays eggs continuously it predicts poor rains. It is
a sign of bad luck; it is taboo to kill one.” Therefore if the
pictograph of a gecko is used in a message, the context will indicate
if it stands for a prediction of a poor or a good rainy season, or
impending bad luck, etc.
Are these pictographs related to any other writing system?
reviewed scores of writing systems, modern and ancient, to try to
find some other writing that would seem to be related to raampa. My
search extended as far as China, and north to Europe and the British
Isles. One set of writing symbols seemed to stand out as most like
raampa, far more than any of the many other writing systems reviewed.
This was Linear A, from the eastern Mediterranean from about the
period 700-500 B.C. No one has been able to link Linear A symbols to
a specific language, although the closely related Linear B was after
many years of uncertainty, shown to be an early form of written
Greek. The bibliography at the end of this paper gives references to
Linear A and Linear B.
is a comparison of the symbols of Linear A, also called Late
Phoenician, and raampa.
Late Phoenician/Linear A letters are taken from a publication of the
Museum of the Alphabet, and xxxfn or xxxsf pictographs from the
raampa catalog from David Maranz.
are many sets of early, middle and late Phoenician letters, as
presented in the countless publications that deal with the subject.
The choice of which to use here is difficult to defend statistically,
as any comparison with raampa will depend on the Phoenician letters
of the historical period one chooses. Also, ancient letters varied in
shape from region to region. I have chosen the alphabet provided in
the book, The Alphabet Makers (Moore 1990). For those who may not be
familiar with the differences between Phoenicia and Carthage, note
that originally Carthage was settled by Phoenicians, but with time,
Carthage developed and competed with the motherland and became a
force in its own right in a relationship similar to that of the
United States and England. Consequently, Carthaginian culture was
also that 18 of the 22 raampa pictographs in the table above are from
the Pular (fuf) ethnic group. It appears that the Pular have been
more traditional in using raampa, than the Saafi and Serer, who seem
to have created many more pictographs and used the system in more
creative ways than the Pular. This impression may simply be the
result of limited research among them. We will suggest in the Summary
at the end of this paper that the Pular are a prime area for further
research into raampa.
I was first struck by the apparent similarities between Linear A and
raampa, it seemed totally absurd that it could be more than
coincidental. Then I found several clues that indicated it might not
be so absurd as first appears. One of the many papers written on the
enigma of Linear A is given in the bibliography.
I found a series of papers written by Kathleen Hau of the University
of California, Berkeley, published in the journal IFAN (Hau 1959,
1961, 1964, 1967). In these papers Ms. Hau makes a connection between
some ancient inscriptions on elephant tusks in Nigeria and Linear A.
So I thought I might not be as crazy as I was beginning to think.
I read the English translation of Hanno the Carthaginian's treatise
dating from the 5th to 6th centuries B.C. recounting his
circumnavigation of Africa (Hanno the Carthaginian, 1995). From it
and its description of sailing along the coast of West Africa, and
Phoenician, that is, Carthaginian, trading colonies, a reasonable
claim can be made that their southernmost permanent trading colony
was at the mouth of the Senegal River. Maps are inserted here to show
the locations of Carthage, and Crete which has been found to have
been a center of Linear A usage, and a map of Senegal, pointing to
the Senegal River, and to the Bambouk gold mining region.
region pointing to Carthage and Crete.
to mouth of Senegal River
showing the Senegal River and the Bambouk gold mining region.
some of the great gold mines of antiquity were located near the
headwaters of the Senegal River. The area where the rich gold mines
were located has been called Bambouk, Bambuhu, etc . It is pointed
out on the Senegal map. Therefore it is reasonable to hypothesize
that the Phoenicians must have sailed up the Senegal River and traded
in gold. Moscati (1968) writes that the purpose for Carhaginian
reason for Hanno's voyage, and for Punic colonization in general
along the African coast beyond the Pillars of Hercules, is… the
search for precious metal, this time gold (p.184).
that Punic is derived from Punici, the Roman name for Carthage, which
was from Poenici, from Phoenicia.]
author refers to the interest in gold, but several descriptions of
trading accounts by Phoenician or Carthaginian sources omit any
reference to gold. This is thought to stem from the attempt to hide
from outsiders the fact of trading for gold, to keep out the
most famous "fact" about the commerce of Phoenicians and
their descendants that are variously described as Carthaginians or
Punics in West Africa is the linkage of salt and gold. Yet Herodotus
is the main source about the Periplus of Necho and "Hanno"
is our main source about the Periplus of Hanno and if the first does
mention gold, he does not connect it with salt: "Hanno"
refers to neither (Bourne 2010).
archeological research has found that the proto-Saafi people were
resident along the middle Senegal River basin in antiquity. See
the hypothesis of this paper is that roughly during the 6th to 5th
centuries B.C. the Carthaginians were using Linear A-type writing and
traded along the middle Senegal River area. The local people saw the
writing and understood the significance of using these symbols. They
either did not learn the phonetic values of the symbols or they were
forgotten in the intervening centuries. They therefore in at least
recent times they have just used them as pictographs, and have passed
them on to this day, along with the creation of many more than the
original twenty-something number in the early Phoenician
How far beyond the Senegal-Mali region is this writing known?
wish I could answer this question, but I retired from work in Africa
before I could look into it. I did have one experience in Cameroon
that provides some hints. I was in northern Cameroon in 2000,
visiting a hospital for just a couple of days. I happened to find
that the chaplain was from Nigeria and had grown up in a family of
Fulani cattle herders. I had with me a sheet of printed raampa
pictographs, and I showed him and his wife the paper. They both
stared at it for an uncomfortably long time, finally looking to me,
and saying, “Do you know about this?” I said I had only heard of
it and would like to learn more. Then they both said with finality,
“We don’t know anything about it,” and handed the sheet back to
me. To me, their identical reactions were very strange, if they
indeed knew nothing. Coupled with this, I asked the man to take me to
talk to some of the old men cattle herders who were staying at the
hospital to attend to sick relatives, or to just allow me to go talk
to them on my own. He would never allow me to visit any of them.
Taken together, I would assume that some form of the raampa
pictographs were known to him and he did not want outsiders, perhaps
especially a Westerner, to find out about them.
What should be done next.
does this discovery lead us? Even in the late 1990s, when we returned
to some villages to ask some of our informants for more information,
we found many had already gone on to join their ancestors. Now, well
into the 21st century, there would be fewer available for further
study. One of the purposes of trying to get this discovery into the
public domain, is the hope that some researchers will be available to
do more field work, and enlarge our understanding of raampa and
associated systems before all knowledge of them is lost.
would hope field work could be done especially in Guinea-Conakry, as
men we contacted from there included some of those most
knowledgeable. Also, there are still many relatively pristine
villages in the Futa Jallon mountains, where much traditional lore is
still relatively intact. Another probable fruitful region would be
the Ferlo of Senegal, again, more untouched by outside influences and
a center of cattle herding.
of the Senegambia region of West Africa, there are millions of Fulani
cattle herders scattered across Africa south of the Sahara. It is
hard to imagine that this developed system of communication is
unknown outside of the far western reaches of cattle raising where I
of the works of writers from antiquity may also reveal connections
between Phoenicians and Carthaginians and their trade in gold and
other goods from West Africa. Mention has already been made of Hanno
(1995). Further clues as to contacts between the Mediterranean and
coastal Africa may be hidden in these writings. These may provide
clarification of the hypothesis of Linear A writing diffusing south
of the Sahara. For instance, Herodotus (IV, 196) is cited in Hanno
(1995:3), as writing that Carthaginian gold was obtained through
trade along the west coast of Africa. A good source for accessing
these documents in English translation is the Perseus Digital Library
at Tufts University, available online.
could imagine that the discovery and interpretations of raampa are
unique in the study of ancient writing systems. Here, actual
practitioners have been available to explain far more than could be
determined through mere discovery and study of written materials
alone, as with writing found in archeological excavations. In the
case of raampa, a great deal of esoteric knowledge has been passed on
to us by its practitioners. This assumes that raampa is ancient. From
the evidence, it could hardly be concluded otherwise.
End Notes and bibliography
Ethnic group names are from Ethnologue: Languages of the World, 2009
edition, SIL International. Three-letter designations are from the
Language Code Index, also from the Ethnologue:
that the bibliography includes works that may shed light on
raampa-related matters, not just references cited. Readers will note
the absence of recent publications. The author is long retired and
has not attempted to keep up with the literature. Titles that are
presented may be helpful and of some interest. Many are from sources
rather obscure or difficult to access, so that their presentation may
assist in further research.