King Ibrahim Njoya, the ruler of the Bamum people in the Grassfields region of Cameroon, invented the Bamum script in 1896. Although the king was inspired by a dream to create an original form of writing for his people, he was likely influenced by the Arabic and Vai scripts that were already in use throughout the region. He solicited help from his subjects, inviting them to contribute symbols for his alphabet. The first version of Bamum contained more than 400 pictographic and ideographic characters. King Njoya continued to revise the script, and by 1903 he had reduced it to a phonetic syllabary of about 80 signs.
The script was used for administrative purposes and to chronicle Bamum history and culture, as seen in the literary documents still in the palace library and on display in the palace museum in Foumban, the capital city. King Njoya also opened schools to encourage literacy in the Bamum script. German and French authorities later closed the schools and tried to suppress the script as being a subversive threat to colonial rule.
Over the years, the Bamum script has been used to create color-illustrated lists of the Bamum kings and their reigns. Today, the script is also taught to students as part of their Bamum heritage and is the focus of a special script and archives project sponsored by the royal palace in Foumban, in collaboration with St. John's University, New York (for more information, see http://bamumscript.org/index.php
). As an important symbol of Bamum cultural and artistic identity, the script is displayed during ceremonies and paraded on signs through the streets of Foumban.