Living in the inhospitable area crisscrossed by the borders of Libya, Chad, Niger and Sudan, the Tebu – a non-Arab indigenous people – are experiencing an unprecedented cultural awakening, thanks to their first alphabet ever and a cultural centre.
“It’s something which doesn’t compare to anything else,” said Ahmed Koki, a Tebu-language activist from Libya, about the feeling of writing in his mother tongue.
It was autumn 2013 when Koki’s hometown of Murzuk, in Libya’s remote southernmost province of Fezzan, was being littered with the first publications ever written in the Tebu language – also called Tudaga – in Libya.
The Tebu were victims of Muammar Gaddafi‘s brutal assimilation campaigns seeking to eliminate indigenous cultures and languages.
Many Tebu in Libya were deprived of citizenship, preventing them from getting healthcare, education and employment. It was only after Gaddafi’s fall that Koki and his people could speak up for their rights.
I came across a book written in Tudaga. A friend had brought it across the border from Chad. It was the late nineties and we had to keep it secret as we would have surely gone to jail if Gaddafi's police found out.
Seven years after Gaddafi’s death, cultural manifestations of Libya’s non-Arab indigenous peoples, such as the Amazigh or the Tebu, are no longer forbidden, but instability fostered by two rival legislatures – the internationally recognised GNA and the eastern-based House of Representatives (HOR) – doesn’t help to support their language.
Despite the ongoing chaos in Libya, the Tebu managed to reshuffle in the so-called “National Tebu Assembly”, their main organisation in the country.
From a hotel in Tunis, Adam Rami Kerki, head of the NTA, described “widespread racism” in Libya.
“Many in Libya insist in rooting their identity in the Arab culture, but we had not heard about that until the arrival of Gaddafi to power in 1969,” said Kerki.
“We may not be Arabs but we are doubtless Libyans,” he added, as he referred to the lack of institutional support since the end of Gaddafi’s mandate.
As a former minister of culture in the National Salvation Government – the executive which was overthrown by the GNA in March 2016, Younis Tobway subscribed to Kerki’s assessment on the neglect of his people.
“We only get promises on paper and endless speeches highlighting the importance of diversity in Libya from whoever reaches power, but nothing ever happens afterwards,” Tobway told Al Jazeera by phone.
What the Libyan Tebu have achieved so far has been by their own effort, he said, explaining that they had already started working way before the 2011 uprising that deposed Libya’s former ruler.
“I still remember the first time I came across a book written in Tudaga. A friend had brought it across the border from Chad. It was the late ’90s and we had to keep it secret as we would have surely gone to jail if Gaddafi’s police found out,” recalled Libya’s only Tebu minister.
Along with the Tuareg – another non-Arab indigenous people – and the former Gaddafi loyalist tribe of Awad Suleyman, the Tebu have been dominant in Libya’s Fezzan region.
It’s a vast area sitting at a regional crossroads, linking Libya’s south to the Sahel and sub-Saharan migrant routes through northern Libya and onto Europe.
The absence of a central authority is more visible here than anywhere else in the country, with porous borders paving the way for smuggling of all types: people, oil, gold, weapons, drugs and even books when it comes to the Tebu.
Lying deep in the Tibesti Massif, a rocky mountain range in the extreme north of Chad which also spills over into southern Libya, Bardai has been the “capital” of overall Tebu culture for over a century.
In Chad, they are considered to be a prestigious community and their culture has never been threatened as in Libya.
In 1993, Mark and Sheryl Ortman reached that border area with their four children – the fifth would be born in Chad.
The American couple was working in the framework of a minority languages programme run by SIL (originally the Summer Institute of Linguistics), an NGO focusing on language normalisation in developing countries.
The Tibesti was their home until 1999, when a rebellion forced them to leave the region. By then, the Ortmans had already helped develop an alphabet for the Tebu language and they would return to Chad in 2001.
“We opted for a Latin-based alphabet as the national language in Chad is French; it serves as a bridge between Tebu and literacy in the national language,” Sheryl Ortman explained over the phone from the Tibesti mountains.
It is actually not that strange that a philanthropic organisation sets up an alphabet for a people whose existence is almost ignored by the rest of the world.
Ortman’s most immediate precedent might have been that of Wolfgang Feuerstein, a German linguist who did the same in the 1980s with the Laz – a Caucasian people living between the borders of Turkey and Georgia. Whereas Feuerstein was forced to complete his job from his village in Germany’s Black Forest, the Ortmans managed to stay and, eventually, become part of the community.
“Our children have grown up among the Tebu and, every day, I am increasingly aware of how much we have come to share,” highlighted the American linguist.
In the meantime, Edji Mahmoud, a local Tebu who had been working hand in hand with Ortman from the mid-’90s, came up with the idea of establishing a cultural centre in Bardai.
“After the fall of Gaddafi and then seeing the Tebu in Libya use all our work to publish newspapers and journals in our language, I thought we needed to step up once again and make Bardai the base of further language development,” remembered the 45-year-old, who was also involved in the birth of the alphabet.
His cousin had a small cement brick building which was unused and he agreed not only to share the place, but also refurbish it, adding terraces, buying tables and shelves.
By July 2012, the cultural centre opened its doors. Although everybody works on a voluntary basis, funds and books from private donors are also key.
“The focal point is a six-week Tebu-language course leading up to a highly publicised writing contest and finishing with an awards ceremony attended by all government officials, including the governor,” stressed Mahmoud before adding that all the activities at the centre allow his people to see that the Tebu language “does not have to take a backseat to any other language”.
According to Mahmoud, putting Tebu first has also the additional benefit of giving Tebu children a greater opportunity for success in the French language government school.
“Once they can read in their own language, the letters of the French alphabet actually make sense to them,” he said.
According to a report released by Amnesty International in July 2018, Chadian authorities cut spending on education by 21 percent between 2014 and 2016, undermining the access of many to schools and universities.
In many ways, Bardai’s centre also tries to fill that gap and much of what takes place there would not be possible without Anja and Simon Neuhaus.
This Swiss couple in their 30s wanting to see the rugged, isolated Tibesti Massif for themselves, agreed in 2011 to visit Bardai with Mahmoud and Ortman. Once there, they decided to join hands for six months to get the centre started in 2012.
They now spend half the year in Bardai and the other half at home in Switzerland, where they develop apps, enlarge the dictionary and produce teaching videos and cartoons.
The dictionary work is done in collaboration with Hassan Bedeimi, a Tebu linguist and publicist from Gatroun, Libya, who worked for years in secret during Gaddafi’s years and now shares his collection of 15,000 words with Simon.
“Alongside many other endeavours, our goal is to give the Tebu language status, to affirm that it is equally valuable like any other by publishing books, chiefly the dictionary,” Simon Neuhaus explained.
The Swiss linguist also helps to manage the centre’s website where all the publications in Tudaga, as well as videos and pictures from their activities, are available.
Even fellow Libyans are helping in this process.
In November 2017, a delegation of Libyan Tebus was invited to a workshop in Tripoli where Libyan Amazigh lecturers briefed them on their own language normalisation process.
The Amazigh also share the same story of repression under Gaddafi’s rule and they have been a source of inspiration for the Tebu activists since the beginning of their activities.
Over the past seven years, Amazigh school books have gradually been released and their language is taught at their schools.
There’s even an Amazigh Language Department at the university campus in Zuwara, an Amazigh coastal enclave.
Osman Hamid, one of the 10 Tebu who attended the course said he was “highly impressed” by the huge steps their hosts have made over the last years.
One of the first ideas he and his friends adopted from their Amazigh friends was a dictionary app.
The first Tudaga-Arabic-English-French dictionary, published in 2015, is now available wherever there’s internet. Borders, says Hamid, are now more porous than ever.
“Even in a country in shambles such as ours, these people have proved that you can achieve a lot if you have the will to do things,” said the 54-year-old chemistry teacher, who would “smuggle” Tebu books across the border back in Gaddafi’s times.