I was surprised and saddened to learn of the passing of Dr. Sonja Fagerberg-Diallo last month. (Un article en français ici.) Her quietly remarkable career was cut short last month at age 58 by a sudden critical illness. She is particularly known as a linguist specialized in Pulaar (a dialect of the Fula language) and for her long-time work on literacy and publication in Pulaar and other Senegalese languages through ARED (Associates in Research and Education for Development), a small non-governmental organization she headed in Dakar.
Others will be able to write more thorough tributes to Sonja's work and contributions than I can. Among past descriptions of ARED include a description on the UNESCO Institute for Lifelong Learning and a 2004 paper by John Hutchison. All I can do is say that Sonja's work was important to me as a language learner, and later one of the inspirations for much of what I've been trying to do with Bisharat (which although quite different in its mission and approach from ARED, shares a fundamentally similar vision). Nevertheless, I thought I could also offer a few snapshots from my personal perspective. Although I did not know her well, I did have the opportunity to meet her and members of her immediate family over the years, to benefit from her learning materials and example, and to visit the ARED offices.
I first met Sonja in 1984 at the Peace Corps/Mali office in Bamako at about the time that Peace Corps bought into a run of her instruction books (lessons and glossary/grammar) for Fulfulde Maasinankoore, another dialect of Fula. Previously there had been no such learning material for volunteers, so this was a great help to many of us. Then in 1985 when I was in an orientation to Guinea for the first group of volunteers to go there since 1967, it turned out that Sonja's husband Boubacar, was the one running it.
During the time I was in Guinea I had to transit through Dakar several times and had occasion to visit them twice, first on Gorée island and then in Fann. Sonja very kindly shared with Peace Corps/Guinea (which by then was only me) a prepublication version of her instruction manual for the Pular of Fuuta Jalon. (By odd coincidence, one of the villages I worked in - Timbi Madina - was where Boubacar's mother lived, and I occasionally would stop in to say hello - just as a matter of courtesy.)
One thing I really appreciated in Sonja's learning materials for diverse varieties of Fula was the perspective of the language as a whole (as opposed to treating each dialect as an isolate). This was helpful in my negotiating some differences between Maasinankoore and Pular, as well as later research, travel and study.
When I began graduate studies at Michigan State University, I found that Sonja was known for her work among linguists there, such as Prof. David Dwyer, who made possible my work on a Fulfulde lexicon, and was good friends with noted historian of Senegal and West Africa, Prof. David Robinson. I had occasional direct communication with her notably concerning the lexicon, which was compiled from extant sources including her extensive glossary for her Maasinankoore (mentioned above). Some years later, one of the communications involved the possibility of developing a larger on-line Fula dictionary and we agreed that a good framework for this would be Christiane Seydou's notable dictionary of Fula roots (the language is based on nomino-verbal roots and it is logical to organize a lexicon by them).
While in Niger I made the connection with Prof. Martha O'Kennon concerning machine translation online for Fula, and in that process also connected her with Sonja, who in turn helped Martha with some points (we focused mainly on Pulaar and to a lesser degree on Maasinankoore).
In 2005 I had the chance to visit Sonja at the ARED office in Dakar (as mentioned in the 2005-9-12 posting on this blog). It was at this time that I got a fuller impression of the extend of ARED's publication efforts over the years. Sonja also related some anecdotes about how a few of the people who became literate in Pulaar went on to write and publish in the language. All of this being a testimony to the work of Sonja and the ARED staff - and indeed of the vision that motivated them.
Finally I crossed paths with Sonja last year at the ACAL/ALTA conference in Gainesville, Florida (which was mentioned in the 2007-9-21 posting on this blog). I had the chance to sit down and talk with her about some technical aspects of ARED's work, but most notable was her address to the conference in plenary on March 23, "Publishing as the Documentation of a Language: The Role of Literacy and Publishing in both the Standardization and the Development of the Pulaar Language" (I hope the paper will be included in the proceedings). This was a really nice introduction to the vision and work of ARED.
Sonja's vision as I understand it might be stated this way: Literacy and education are key to development in its fullest sense, those must include and begin with first languages in order to be most effective, and programs that work at the grassroots are a key element to successfully accomplishing all of the above.
These are just a few personal recollections that in no way do justice to Sonja's career. One hopes in any event that the results of her efforts, which although cut short were still considerable, will inspire others to keep ARED and similar initiatives going and growing.