African Alphabets - Saki Mafundikwa

Making a good impression

At first glance, graphic design is rarely related to Africa. For cultural and historical reasons. The importance of the oral tradition and the recent dominance of European languages by colonialism led to the idea that African languages as a whole had no written forms or that they had been designed very recently.

We usually associate the calligraphy and alphabets with the European ones. [paragraph modify from the original]
Lacking sufficient printing and industrial structures, the printed materials were never really able to bloom in Africa. Therefore, the Roman alphabet and with it the entire Western graphics have been spread in African cities through advertising.

From Ghana's Adinkra symbols that are centuries old, to geometric decorations painted on the walls of houses by South African women… through the alphabets designed in the early twentieth century in Guinea to the patterns of wax fabrics worn in West Africa, the African continent is actually filled with writing systems and designs of its own. A new generation is emerging thanks to this graphic legacy and the impulse of Saki Mafundikwa. For the record, we took the opportunity to talk about his TED conference in our "Say Africa" playlist.


Saki Mafundikwa - Evolve or die

In 1997, Saki Mafundikwa puts an end to his brilliant career as a designer in New York and flies back to his native Zimbabwe to open the first graphic design school and new media of the country:  ZIVA (Zimbabwe Institute of Vigital Arts). Clearly underlined by the slogan "Evolve or die" on the school site home page, his ambition is nothing less than to initiate an "African renaissance". As he recounts in detail in his book Afrikan alphabets (check out his TED conference, on the ingenuity and elegance of the ancient African characters), the African continent is full of alphabetical scripts, syllabic hieroglyphics, ideograms, either very old or newer.

We know better where we go when we know where we come from. It is probably with this saying in mind that the Zimbabwean designer crossed Africa from East to West, in search of those records. He followed the footsteps of the African diaspora beyond the Atlantic, to Cuba and South America. Some alphabets he transcribed are very old, such as the Tifinagh of the Tuareg people.



The Bambara alphabet. The Bambara alphabet was transcribed by Woyo Couloubay around 1930. This language is spoken by more than 3 million people in Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast, Gambia, Guinea, Mali, Mauritania and Senegal.


Syllabic Loma alphabet. This alphabet, meant to be read from left to right, was created in the 30s by Wido Zobo Liberia.


Nsibidi alphabet (South Nigeria). Dating back from the eighteenth century, the Nsibidi script was originally invented by Ejagham people from south Nigeria. This language has been developed prior to the "Ekpe men" or "Leopard" secret societies. The signs are engraved on objects or painted on clothing using the bogolan technique (dyeing technique based on a decoction of birch leaves, mpécou bark, fermented mud and a mixture of soap and chlorine). 


Vaï alphabet. Listed in 1820 by Dualu Bukele, it is based on signs used by the elderly added to different pictograms used in certain rituals. The Vaï alphabet comes from Liberia and Sierra Leone regions. It contains 190 phonemes (a phoneme is the smallest sound unit of a language spoken). On a side note, transcripts of the Bible and the Koran into Vaï have allowed the diffusion / assimilation of new monotheistic religions throughout Liberia, that are today practiced by around 105 000 Vaï people.

 Original article Grapheine 

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