PRE-COLONIAL societies in Africa south of the Sahara had oral cultures. The folk memory and wisdom were transmitted by the elders to the younger generations by means of stories, recitations and songs, often done convivially around an evening fire outside village dwellings.
The remarkable spread of Islam across the Sahara in the seventh and eighth centuries, and along the coast of East Africa from the tenth century, brought classical written Arabic to the elites of several societies; but this affected only a minority of the continent's language communities.
When, in the latter decades of the nineteenth century, white missionaries from several European countries evangelised on the coasts and subsequently ventured into the unknown interior of West, Southern and East Africa they tried to learn an array of local, predominantly tribal, languages. The German-inspired academic study of philology was coming into fashion and influenced language observation methods in Africa.
These languages then had no writing, so missionaries transcribed words and sentences using the Roman alphabet. This alphabet failed to register pronunciations in all their subtlety and there were funny misunderstandings. The eminent Nigerian novelist, Chinua Achebe, pokes fun at this in a middle chapter of the widely read Things Fall Apart, where members of a village congregation snigger at a word that means 'buttocks' when unhappily mispronounced in a sermon by the white missionary.
Many of the first African language grammar books, dictionaries, hymnals and Bibles, carpentry, bricklaying, farming and health manuals were written in longhand, typed and carbon-copied and subsequently printed by foreign missionaries. One example was the scholarly Bishop Steere, who supervised the completion of the Anglican Cathedral in Zanzibar towards the end of the nineteenth century. He laboriously compiled and published the first Kiswahili-English dictionary. He also published Swahili Exercises, a practical grammar generally used by white missionaries, traders and colonial administrators in those territories of East Africa where the language was widely spoken. I remember in Tanzania dipping into the fourteenth reprint of Steere's work, published during the 1960s, when, in the late 1980s I taught occasional English lessons to students in a seminary near an office where I was doing rural development work for an aid agency. Kiswahili has no separate words for relative pronouns such as who, whom, which and the like. Instead concording letters are inserted in the midst of other words in a Kiswahili sentence to express relative dependency. In the seminary classroom I taught relative clauses by transcribing examples of Kiswahili sentences on the blackboard with their English equivalents.
Textbooks and readers of all kinds have been important educational tools in primary and secondary schools, and at third level institutions throughout modern Africa. Until the 1960s missionary and government schools and vocational training centres used textbooks and readers mainly published in metropolitan countries such as Britain and France. Some books …