Reintroducing the Ndebe Project: An Igbo Writing System

It’s rare that I beat my chest or talk about the work I’m proud of because I’ve long been a believer that “self praise is no praise”.

The oldest readers of this blog will remember a little project I began at the end of 2008, which I started posting about sporadically online in early 2009.

At the time, I was a college sophomore juggling my fascination with precolonial Igbo culture with school work, and though I ordered every book I could get my hands on through my school’s InterLibraryLink to further my research, progress on the writing system for Igbo I was inventing (named the Ndebe project) dragged on at a snail’s pace.

Life happened, and even when I realised that modernising Nsibidi in those early days would not work out for my goal of something we could use all day long for great and mundane alike, I pivoted, centred myself, and refocused on my true vision to build a robust writing system for Igbo fit enough for daily use.

Most people have probably forgotten this project ever even existed, but over the past 11 to 12 years since I first thought of the idea, and embarked on a decade long research and design endeavour, I’ve been quietly heartened to discover, often to my pleasant surprise, that my work has not gone unnoticed, or unappreciated in some circles.

The Ndebe writing system I invented was featured and discussed in a presentation at University of California, Berkeley where it was considered as a candidate for digitisation and adoption into Unicode, thought it ultimately wasn’t selected.

It’s still humbling to me that a vision I created at 20 years old, was published and dissected in two books:

African Writing Systems of the Modern Age: The SubSaharan Region by Andrij Rovenchak

La Enciclopedia de Sistemas de Escritura (Encyclopaedia of Writing Systems) by Santiago Velasco and Jose Galán.

Ndebe has also been the subject of a number of academic papers at universities, and I honestly cannot even describe what a delight for me it is.

There were a lot of people who were hopeful about this project eleven years ago.

Probably, most of them have forgotten or given up hope, but I’m writing this post to say to everyone, that the Ndebe project is quite possibly the dearest undertaking to my heart that I have ever started, and though life has had its ups and downs, I never forgot it, and I never stopped working to see it through to completion and make writing Igbo in an indigenously designed writing system specifically tailored for our language a reality.

Over the years, I have gone back to refine the script, done more research about the phonological expression of Igbo across different dialects, and spent countless hours trying to solve the problems posed by writing a language that can sound markedly different across regions and dialects.

The original design is a far cry from the final script I am gifting to everyone today.

I had to stop being sentimental and continuously iterate until I came up with something that would work for everyone.

I made a conscious choice to decouple Ndebe from Nsibidi, and the project evolved from trying to restore Nsibidi to respecting that Nsibidi is a pictographic form of expression, and while that has its uses, it is not suited for the heavy lifting of daily writing.

And so I invented a brand new writing system for Igbo from scratch.

Ndebe is built from the ground up for Igbo by an Igbo woman.

Not just for the Igbo I speak, Onicha Anambara Igbo, but for the Igbo you speak, for any Igbo anyone speaks.

The Ndebe script adapts.

I deliberately designed it that way in 2009, but because of youth, I was stuck over how to overcome the design problems of a writing every Igbo person could use simultaneously.

It took me years and years of trial and error and research to perfect it, but I did.

And now, it’s here.

The Ndebe script is a formulaic syllabic writing system for Igbo that looks the same to everyone, but sounds completely different when read by Igbo people of different dialects.

Originally invented in early 2009 by me, and perfected over a decade, it is my contribution to the cultural progress of my people, and an intangible cultural inheritance help our language blossom for posterity.

I ask that you write it as much as possible, as publicly as possible, and that you share it with other people if you love it, and that you acknowledge me as its inventor (so no fake claiming you created it or I will come to your house and beat you.)

If you tag me or use the hashtag #NdebeForIgbo so I can see photos or videos or tattoos or art with your Igbo writing in Ndebe, that’s even more fun because I’d love to see what you do with it.

Please note: Commercial use of any sort requires express permission from me in writing with signed terms legally ratified.

This project has been exhausting and running in the background of my life for over a decade, but it is something I am truly proud of and fills me with happiness to have brought to fruition.

I wrote a book about the Ndebe script for Igbo.

It’s called Ndebe: A Modern Igbo Writing System.

You don’t have to buy it, but if you want to support the work I did, you can buy it here.

You can see the script for free, learn how to use it for free as long as you call it Ndebe and acknowledge me as its creator with a link to Ndebe.org

But if you want to, you can also buy the book I wrote which contains the story of the script’s history and development, a guide on how to use it to write Igbo, and a complete syllabary of the possible Igbo characters in the Ndebe script at Ndebe.org


Igbo kwenu!

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