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Documenting Mani, a disappearing language of Sierra Leone and Guinea


Language Mani
Depositor Tucker Childs
Affiliation Portland State University
Location Guinea
Collection ID 0153
Grant ID MDP0085
Funding Body ELDP
Collection Status Collection online
Landing Page Handle


Summary of the collection

The MDP documents a language about to disappear; it will likely be completely gone in a generation or two. The data were collected by Tucker Childs, co-PI Mamadou Camara of the University of Conakry, and Marta Piqueras now of Google (Ireland). The team documented the language as it could be remembered by its old speakers from three major sites: Morebaya in Sierra Leone, N’Kompan in Guinea, and Caton and environs in Guinea. Speakers have been audio and video recorded and much of what was recorded has been transcribed. The topics included descriptions of traditional cultural practices, process descriptions of farming and fishing, the two major preoccupations of the coastal people, and personal narratives. A particularly rich vein of narrative came when speakers were asked to compare life today to what it was like when they were young.


Group represented

All of the subjects interviewed are ethnically Mani, and most of them are very old. The area where Mani was historically spoken is certainly larger than that where it is spoken today. The Mani once occupied a much greater geographical area: at the beginning of the 18th century a Mani kingdom stretched from Sierra Leone north to the River Pongo in Guinea (Arcin 1907, as in Diallo 1974:36; see Moity 1957). Pichl 1980 states that the Mani were the first inhabitants of the coastal region between Freetown and Conakry, being later replaced by the Temne-Baga and still later by the Soso. The small numbers of Mani speakers and their marginal location are the results of war losses and one “victory”. The Mani fought unsuccessfully against the Temne for many years, losing great amounts of territory. Oral testimony relates how in the southern portion of the Mani kingdom in Sierra Leone, it was an invasion by the Temne that precipitated its downfall. More specifically, it was the kidnapping of a Mani king and the subsequent warfare that caused the disintegration of the kingdom. To help withstand the Temne, the Mani called on the Soso, with whose aid they finally withstood the Temne. Unfortunately, soon thereafter the Mani were culturally overcome by the Soso. The kingdom’s demise was likely more gradual. Contributing to the effects of the Temne attacks on the southern flank of the Samu kingdom was the more pacific but no less linguistically devastating advent of the Soso, who were themselves pushed into the Samu by the Fulbe in the 18th century. Several jihads expedited the process of the Mani acculturation to the Soso and their conversion to Islam. Forcible conversion to Islam came later in the 19th century at the hands of the “Tourelakaï”, warring Muslim Malinké on jihad (Diallo 1974:37). Morlaye Boyo Keita, an oral historian, relates how one of Sunjata’s lieutenants (Kalmasine) threatened the Mani who had fled to Matakan, a small sometimes island (connected by a narrow isthmus only during low tide) off the larger island of Kabak in Guinea, one of the more productive areas surveyed in 2000.


Language information

Speakers of the Mani language today, numbering a few hundred at most, occupy scattered, remote, and isolated pockets in the Samu (spelled “Samou” in Guinea) region straddling the border on the coastal plain of Sierra Leone and Guinea. No villages in Guinea can be found in which Mani is the dominant language, although distinct sections and sometimes entire towns are ethnically Mani. In Sierra Leone, however, Mani remains a sometimes daily language in a small collection of geographically close villages around Moribaya in Kambia District. These are the remnants of a Mani kingdom which once held suzerainty over the entire Samu region, stretching inland from the sea in a coastal band from Freetown to Conakry (north beyond Conakry to Baga country according to Moity 1957). Over time, however, the kingdom dissolved and contracted. The Mani lost ground in successive generations to more powerful neighbors and retreated to peripheral and isolated enclaves.

Mani belongs to a small group of less than twenty languages now known as Mel, an independent branch of Niger-Congo. It includes Temne, a widely spoken language of Sierra Leone, and Kisi, a vital language of Guinea spilling over into Sierra Leone and Guinea. Other Mel languages are small and many are endangered. The sub-group to which Mani belongs, Bolom, contains Kisi and three endangered languages closely related to Mani.

The geography of the area is coastal tidelands, consisting of an extensive low-lying sandy littoral, tidal estuaries, and mangrove swamps. The characteristic tree is the oil palm but other trees are plentiful as well, including the coconut, bamboo, and various other palms. The climate is tropical with a dry season (roughly November through May) and a wet season (June through October), although there have recently been instances of an early second rainy season. The heaviest rainfall of the rainy season occurs in June, but recently it has been preceded by a shorter set of rains in March, according to several farmers in Guinea. It was experienced in the second year of the study (2005), as well as further down the coast in Sierra Leone in 2007. The climate is generally hot and humid throughout the year (rarely below 30°C / 80°F) with sea breezes from the afternoon on.

Local economies are based on fishing and farming. Fishing includes freshwater, tidal, and open sea fishing with boats constructed from both single tree trunks and sawn planks; the latter type of boat is used on the open sea. Farming focuses on rice but also involves the cultivation of cassava, peppers, and other vegetables. Coconut and palm products figure prominently in the local cuisine. Another significant activity is salt extraction through the processing of saltwater from the ocean during the dry season; in Mani the process is known as yàr ǹyɛ̀l or ‘salt cooking’. Charcoal production is a less common activity, one of the few not tied to a subsistence existence. Large-scale agriculture includes cooperatives, e.g., rice-growing on the island of Kabak, and a number of large plantations, e.g., oil palms, pineapple, bananas. In Guinea most of these plantations are the legacy of colonial (French) banana plantations depending on impressed labor and still controlled, for the most part, by community outsiders. In fact, the Forécariah préfecture, within which the Guinea Mani area is located, was once devoted entirely to banana plantations, much of it worked with impressed labor.


Special characteristics

This set of readers and the primer with a history are the first published materials in Mani. The scholarly publications mentioned above are virtually the first modern publications on the language.

2012. Mani Buk 1-4 (A set of graduated Mani readers) and Kasabi cɛ ŋɔ aMani acɛ (A History of the Mani People), as told by Morlay Boyo Keita to Foday JD Camara. Portland, OR: JJJ Publications, Inc. (Distributed to classes in Tangbaya, August 2013).

Of special interest is the history of the Mani people, as told by renowned Mani historian Morlay Boyo Keita.


Collection contents

Audio recordings: 36; Photographs: 700; Video recordings: 13. Databases (data and metadata): Lexicon (2,310 entries), Concordance (1,803 entries), Recordings (36 entries), Subjects (104 entries), Towns (58 entries), Transcriptions (28 entries), Videos (13 entries).

In addition, we developed a primer and a set of readers (4 levels).

On the scholarly side there is a grammar of Mani and a number of academic papers.


Collection history

The pilot stage of the project took place in 2000, but the bulk of the data was collected during the time of the grant itself 2004-06. All materials (audio, video, photos, and other material have been analyzed and processed for archiving at ELAR.


Other information

None of the data in this collection may be used as evidence in court.


Acknowledgement and citation

To refer to any data from the collection, please cite as follows:

Childs, G. Tucker. 2009. Documenting Mani, a disappearing language of Sierra Leone and Guinea. Endangered Languages Archive. Handle: Accessed on [insert date here].

Funding support for the bulk of the Mani Documentation Project came from the Hans Rausing Endangered Languages Documentation Programme (ELDP), at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. Support for the pilot study was provided by the Endangered Language Foundation (New Haven, CT), the Bremer Stiftung für Kultur- und Sozial-anthropologie (Bremen, Germany) and the Fulbright Hays Commission (USA). Later work formed a special part (the filming) of the Project Documenting the Kim and Bom Languages (DKB), which itself was also supported by the ELDP but also by the National Science Foundation (Award Number 652137).

The work could not, of course, be accomplished without the members of the project research team, as well as a great number of native speakers, most of whom are listed below. Others who contributed were the responsables à l’Université de Conakry, University Gamal Abdel Nasser de Conakry: Dr. Ousmane Sylla, Recteur ; Dr. Alpha Mamadou Diallo, Vice Recteur Charge de la Recherche ; Dr. N’Fally Kouyaté, Directeur des Relations Extérieurs et Transport, Mamadi Douno, Directeur adjoint des Relations Extérieurs et Transport, et Ansoumane Camara, Doyenne de la Faculté des Lettres et Sciences Humaines. Particularly helpful were members of the Centre d’Étude des Langues Guinéennes: Djibril Batchily, Salilou Diallo, and Morlaye Camara.

The following officials and citizens on site in Guinea contributed as well: Forécariah: Henri Haba, Préfet de Préfecture de Forécariah; Sonah Mamadi Condé (Secrétaire Général Chargé de l’Administration; Benty: Facinet Touré, Commandant de la Région d’Opérations Maritimes, Abdulay Jean, Président de la CRD district de Benty, Lieutenant Pouna Constant, Sous-préfet du CRD de Benty, M. M. Conté (Secrétaire Communautaire), Abdoulaye Gassima, Secrétaire de la Jeunesse; Caton: Coléah Camara (Chef du district de Palatougou), Lamine Soumah, Chef du secteur de Caton, Sékou Modet Camara, Notable de Caton; Palatougou: Iyadi Sylla, Morelaye Boyo Keita ; N’kompan: Imam Musah Camara.

The officials and citizens of Sierra Leone in Moribaya were similarly helpful: Pa Dikali Foday Turay, his wives Maseray and Marie, and his son Amara; teacher Ibrahim Bangoura; the teachers of Moribaya elementary school: Francis Sheku Turay (principal), Foday Malik Bangura, Tonko Turay, and Hassan Asanabi Camara as well as his father N’fasorid Camara.

I am also grateful for the support of my family, who just barely tolerated my long absences.

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