by Muhammad Fraser-Rahim

“We write in Arabic for the Learned to understand, and we write in Ajami for the unlettered to Understand”

Shaykh Usman Dan Fodio (1754-1817)

Last month, Al-Shabaab ‘s media arm, Al-Kataib released a series of videos in Swahili giving justifications and inducements for Kenyans to travel to Somalia to wage so called Jihad. And, Boko Haram, Africa’s equally violent extremist group, has carried out an uptick of video messages using local language, in this case Hausa,  to seek new recruits as they seek to diversify and win over new followers to their cause. Since 9/11, academics, practitioners and policymakers mostly from Western nations have learned from the challenges and difficulties used to counter the propaganda of violent extremists. Depending on your vantage point and which lenses you are viewing this problem set, it will likely determine what is an appropriate and effective response to challenge an extremist argument. However, African nations and developing nations for centuries have known for a long time how effective their local traditions and languages play in combatting violence and to resolving conflict. In either case this speaks to the increased importance of nuanced, and tailored responses that addresses the root causes at the neighborhood, community, state, national level and international level.

Messaging in Africa

On the continent of Africa, for centuries local communities have largely used oral traditions to convey messages that are transmitted from one generation to another. These messages, passed down through speech, stories, songs, folktales, fables, epic histories, sayings and proverbs convey a collected sense of identity from West, Central, North, South and East Africa. Historically, these stories which are shared in both small villages as well as large towns taught life lessons for children and adults and to share important aspects of their culture. In these stories and the delivery mechanisms in which they are conveyed, they provide entertainment, aide in imagination and provide the backbone of societal development to aide members of their society as they matriculate through womanhood/manhood and teach integral aspects of the community responsibility that aide all members of the society. [1]

These oral traditions which give rise to oral storytelling are integral in understanding the importance of message delivery in African societies and how tools of the past can be integrated in solving the contemporary challenges of violent extremism today. In West Africa, ranging from modern day Senegal, Mali, Nigeria, Niger, Chad, Guinea and Sierra Leone to name a few, the transmission of knowledge of cultural identity and history was used through oral tradition and performance. These oral storytelling events provide social and human morals within the community, and the storyteller’s tools were not just words, but non-verbal expressions, singing, facial expressions, rthymyic body movements and acting to make the stories memorable over time.

As such, oral tradition is non-written history and is instead spoken word history. For African societies throughout the continent, communities place heavy emphasis on these non-verbal means to communicate to convey culture, and provides opportunities for practitioners, policymakers and academics who seek local and tailored approaches to prevent and deter individuals who are susceptible to extremist propaganda on the African continent. These contextualized understanding of how messages will impact local environments and actually “stick” are important in order to better provide effective mechanisms for African audiences who are affected by various forms of recruitment tactics. Just as international bodies and African governments seek to find appropriate means to counter extremist’s narratives, so too do extremist groups themselves who live and are apart of these societies and are aware of the local environment.

African voices to counter extremism

In many communities on the continent, the griot (pronounced “gree-OH”) is a storyteller and oral historian who passed down the social history of a respected community. These griot storytellers kept the facts and important events of their time and had the responsibility to pass this knowledge on to future generations. Historically, the griots were advisors, ambassadors, negotiators, mediators and proved instrumental in matters of conflict resolution.

(Traditional griot performer in West Africa communicating to pupil)

It is roles like this throughout the continent that have provided peaceful alternative approaches to settle local and community level disputes, and serve as examples for approaches to resolve transnational conflict with violent extremists on the continent.

Throughout the continent of Africa, local means of communications have served as important mechanisms for both the individual and the community to internally and outwardly convey their attitudes. Therefore, many communities on the continent that are speakers of languages such as Hausa, Swahili, Fulfulde, or Wolof had no codified written language system to convey their expression, but were deeply sophisticated in their oral communications. Like today, much of the Latin based alphabetic script is used to write many languages including English, French, German and Portuguese. For those on the African continent, many borrowed from the Arabic script, and used Africanized version of the Arabic alphabet, collectively called, “Ajami.”

Ajami comes from the Arabic language which means foreigner or in its early forms non-Arab to describe mostly individuals from Persia or modern day Iran. However, over centuries of Islam acculturating on the African continent and making its way into Sub Saharan Africa, Ajami came to mean an African language written in Arabic script that was adapted to phonetically use for local usages and pronunciations across the continent. All throughout the continent of Africa you have local Ajami script used from a range of topics including Islamic religious sciences, family law code, interfaith/intrafaith dialogue and government affairs. [2]

(Ajami script used for telephone advertisement)

The Senegalese religious leader, Amadou Bamba in the 19th century used Ajami Wolof as a form of resistance in colonial West Africa and daughter of the 19th century Islamic revivalist Uthman Dan Fodio, Nana Asma’u used Ajami Hausa to convey love, peace and tolerance in Nigeria to her fellow countrymen and others in West Africa.

Ajami script provides a means for communities to express themselves in local traditions, and for the global community to learn about their history through their own words and personal lenses. All of which provides critical insights into how messages can be conveyed and resonated in local populations.[3]

Today, many Africans throughout the continent, mostly considered illiterate by “Western” notions of literacy by some, but deeply well-educated using their own local techniques provide insights into how effective government, civil society and community actors can deliver messages that work at the local level. Social scientists and researchers on violent extremism have indicated that messages are effective only when the delivery is seen as both credible and knowledgeable of the local environment. Using techniques that fuse oral traditions and techniques like Ajami Wolof, Hausa or Swahili can provide major inroads to successful strategies to prevent violent extremists appeal in taking root in local environments.[4]

Muhammad Fraser-Rahim is the Executive Director, North America for Quilliam International, a counter extremist organization and a Ph.D. candidate at Howard University specializing on violent extremism, African Islam and extremist ideology.

[1] John S. Mbiti, Introduction to African Religion, (Oxford: Heinemann Educational Publishers, 1975) 4.

[2] Ngom, Fallou, “Ahmadu Bamba’s Pedagogy and the Development of Ajami Literature”, African Studies Review, 52/1 (2009), 99-124


[4] Afrobarometer – Violent extremism in Africa