Roughly 11 years ago, Olivier Felix Mpele Mvoutou started to introduce a new writing system, with the ambition to save all the African languages that are on the way to extinction.
The whole new writing system named “ZOU”, based on 23 graphic alphabets, 7 vowels and 16 consonants, allows him to write down or draw anything perceptible to ear, a perfect choice for African languages, including his mother tongue Kikongo, which are rendered imprecisely by the most commonly-seen Latin alphabet.
“Like any other languages on earth that have their own scripts, the African people just do not have a solid system to write their own languages,” lamented Mvoutou, a Congolese who has been drowned for years in the bath of passion about languages. “ZOU”, a word in Kongo meaning the “voice”, stands out in particular to Mvoutou.
“The sound and the voice are something that make a language. This is the reason why I name the writing system ‘ZOU’.” he said.
“Since ‘ZOU’ is for all the African languages, I think this is the right word that really speaks to the people.” he explained. But rather than having all the credit to himself, Mvoutou the creation of ZOU is simply a “revelation” from the rich African cultural heritage, instead of an “intellectual creativity” of his own.
Though the graphic codes of ZOU seems a bit complex for outsiders, Mvoutou reassured that it only takes a few sessions to crack the code, even a couple of hours for students with an open mind. Besides being an expert at drawing the line with his eyes closed, Mvoutou is also a teacher that passes on the beauty of languages and his novel way of writing the African dialects to the younger generation.
On the week-end, Mvoutou always shows up in a small classroom on the outskirt of Brazzaville, Congolese capital, in front of a dozen of young minds that seek to join him in expanding the influence of ZOU scripts. “I join the course because I want to learn how to write our own language in our own way. I think it’s really important for us to protect our cultural heritage, especially our languages.” said Maria, an apprentice of ZOU for the last couple of weeks.
“When I saw the advertisement on TV, I was so excited, and I signed up for the course as soon as I could.” said Ines, another apprentice, expressing his joy to be “on board of a journey to protect their linguistic culture”.
Though only under two hundred people have understood the ZOU, Mvoutou still has great faith after receiving great support from Congolese scholars and possibly a chance to teach ZOU in the top university of his country.
“After I gave a lecture in Marien Ngouabi University, the professors and students were surprised to see a writing system with originality that is also easy to learn. I can tell you everyone left the conference hall with positive reaction.” he said, confiding that he was waiting a call from the University’s board.
But for Mvoutou, his ultimate and only goal is to save Kongo and other languages from disappearing. In the digital age, he is also trying to get ZOU on every smartphone on the continent, “a long shot well worth trying” in his words.
“Language is the soul of people. It is up to us to protect our cultural heritage by having the right way of writing and expressing our own language,” Mvoutou said.