The Foumbam Royal Palace, the former home of King Njoya of the Bamum Kingdom, who acknowledged the need to preserve the culture of his people during Cameroon’s colonization in 1896. Photo by Saki Mafundikwa.

Ima-Abasi Okon

Writing as Structure, Writing as Identity

Published  10/21/2021

Ima-Basi Okon's practice explores exhibition-making as an exercise in syntax, adopting linguistic and grammatical structures within her installations as a way of complicating the construction of knowledge. In this introductory essay to an interview with designer Saki Mafundikwa, Okon touches on questions of design, writing, culture, and power.


I am quick to confess that I am an easy sellout to a top piece of print, yet at times this has been thwarted by unresolved issues that I have with the graphic design profession. As an individual who mediates between art and design, I am careful not to shoot myself in the foot here. One such issue is the snobbery that implies that the right to a “correct aesthetic” is maintained by elitist art-school practices—a stench occasionally emitted when graphic design becomes Graphic Design: a term, notion, and construct. Terms and definitions are important because they have the potential to establish parameters of intelligibility by liberating relationships.

The relationship between the discipline of graphic design (by “discipline” I mean explicatory statements, abiding principles, and methods of analysis, including education as opposed to practice) and Africa appears to have little or no public harvest. But overwhelming evidence to the contrary, such as my father’s “vault” of TDK cassette tapes and 12ʺ vinyl records belonging to an array of soukous and highlife artists, and my mother’s archive of Ovation Magazine—not to mention the printed matter that’s produced and circulated in the continent’s metropolis—is hard to ignore. Celebrated designers such as Durban-based Garth Walker have also done well to dispel this inaudibleness. Yet it is still a faint sound. So quietly, I went looking for a perfect level of pandemonium.

I was introduced to Saki Mafundikwa, a typographer. Typography is that branch of graphic design concerned with how text appears in a given space. (In its inception, this space had always denoted the physical page: books, posters, newspapers—but it has now opened up to include vistas such as the screen.) It is the method by which language is given visual form. Emil Ruder, the Swiss typographer, stated that typography as a technology “has one plain duty before it and that is to convey information in writing.”1

Writing as Identity

We can consider writing a structure that has capabilities to support, prop up, and make permanent. Without it, the empires and innumerable trades that rest on it would be nonexistent. I believe it has become and continues to be both an agency and catalyst for memory, presentation, propaganda, and growth. Engendering and making provision for identity, allowing the storage of vast amounts of information to be retrieved at will while bringing together disparate groups. Just that question alone has my mind wondering about the many encounters I have with writing on a daily basis.

If I am not writing I am reading, if I am not reading I am writing. I think to read is to write. I am not referring to those instances where we pen a piece of text and you read over it, although that’s still valid. I am pushing a symbiotic notion that when you write you are also reading, and vice versa. I don’t believe you can separate the two. Although dependent on each other and occurring simultaneously, neither one is a passive pursuit. In the sense that to write is to articulate—to give form to thoughts, conversations, and dreams. To do this, you need to comprehend the matter you so desire to put down. Therefore before you can physically write you need to read within you, an activity that varies in time from person to person. The process is very true for reading. When you read, you write down, you make an imprint in your memory. Things become saved and sometimes overwritten. A process that is additive and accumulative. Each “performance” of reading alters, while recording and writing a new or extended history.

“What precedes typography, and by all means becomes its support structure, is writing. It is a representation of speech: mine, yours, and the world over. The very utterance through which language comes.” —Ima-Abasi Okon

A complex system of communication within which writing is an integral part. To critically engage with typography, one would first have to begin the process of mapping writing onto speech. Wherein lies the function of an alphabet.

Due to globalization, the Latin alphabet, the most widely used writing system in the world, has dominated as an economic powerhouse. Yet the information age’s incessant use of web 2.0 technologies, having had a big impact on the way we communicate, has called for the creation of new web-based fonts of many scripts. This has caused the Latin alphabet used to write English and many other national languages to be in hot pursuit by Chinese and Arabic scripts in the digital realm. Attempts to meet the demands of access to information and new fonts are truncating parochial alliances both virtual and real. These non-Western groups are now utilizing communication in all its forms to “resume historical trajectories independent of the West.”2

On a smaller scale, but no less powerful, other challenges to the Latin script are happening elsewhere. In 2003, the ancient Berber script used to write Tifinagh (the language of the Tuareg, the chief inhabitants of the Saharan desert, now found in Algeria, Libya, Niger, Mali, and neighboring countries) was adopted over both Roman and Arabic alphabets by the administrative council of the Royal Institute for Amazigh Culture to teach Amazigh in Morocco. Likewise, the N’ko script, used to write the Bambara language (spoken by people in Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire, the Gambia, Guinea, Mali, and Senegal), has been modified into an app for easy tweeting.

The last two scripts are indigenous to Africa. Despite colonial suppression, they continue to be used today. Unfortunately, that cannot be said about the majority of other scripts that were developed and used throughout the continent. There are in fact many and they have a rich cultural and artistic history, but, as Saki puts it, their story is little known and in some cases has been erased.

Born and raised in Harare, Zimbabwe, Saki completed an MFA at Yale School of Art in 1985. He has since gone on to found Zimbabwe Institute of Vigital Art (ZIVA), Zimbabwe’s only school dedicated to design and new media. Studying design under the tutelage of Paul Rand at Yale, a seed was sown to look into African writing systems, and that Saki did. Twenty years later, Afrikan Alphabets: The Story of Writing in Afrika presents a collated introduction to the history and development of more than twenty alphabets. Leading us through pictograms, mnemonic devices, and syllabaries, Saki charts how writing has evolved and continues to evolve across Africa.

Aware that some of the systems documented do not satisfy the criteria to exist as an alphabet, Saki has nonetheless proceeded to call them as much. Contending for the place of pictograms, tally stick marking and scarification can be seen as forerunners of writing in Africa. Asserting the significant role that symbols have in African culture as forms of communication, Saki cites calabash carvings of the Kikuyu of Kenya, the Ishango bone from Congo, and the knotted strings of Nigerian Aroko as recordings of oral information. He thus renders void the idea that the majority of graphic symbols are purely decorative and instead advocates for their place within agencies/mediums of communication, apprehending such practices as proto-writing.

The chapter on historical systems is of particular interest, noting the personal achievements of King Njoya of the Bamum Kingdom, who acknowledged the need to preserve the culture of his people during Cameroon’s colonization in 1896. Initially created with 465 characters, the Bamum script, developed in accordance with handpicked artisans, went through several alterations during his reign. With the exception of the printing press he invented (which was later destroyed), King Njoya left a legacy of several manuscripts, maps, administrative notes, and records, including a calendar that detailed the history and culture of his people. This collection is now available to view at the Bamum Palace Museum in Foumban.

Portrait of King Njoya.
Portrait of King Njoya, Foumban, Cameroom, 1920. Image courtesy of Ibrahim Njoya, courtesy of Bamum Palace Museum.
Black text on a white background. Three versions of six iterations of Bamum developed over 30 years.
Three versions of six iterations of Bamum developed over 30 years, Foumban, Cameroon, 2003. Image courtesy of Bamum Palace Museum.

In another chapter, the modification and continuation of some of these Afrikan alphabets in South America and the Caribbean are mapped through Saki’s observation of the scattering of people through the Atlantic slave trade. He highlights the similarities between Nsibidi, an ancient ideographic script created by the Ejagham people of the southern part of Nigeria, and Anaforuana, which can be found in Cuba, Brazil, and Haiti. Likewise, in reverse, Vah, the writing system of the Bassa people, was restored to Liberia in the 1900s after being lost during colonization. Now taught in schools and used in literature and some newspapers, it was found to be actively used among Brazilians of Bassa origin. Enjoyably, Saki’s survey of these scripts reemphasizes Africa’s relationship with South America, a connection often blighted by an intense focus on the western hemisphere.

You’ve probably noticed that Saki spells Africa with a k. A-f-r-i-k-a. Maurice Tadadjeu’s foreword expands on this. However, the bite that I’ve come to appreciate in Saki’s diction is absent. So I inquired further, purposely provoking him. “I AM the Afrikan here and I decide how I want to spell my continent whether it pleases anyone or not” was the seasoned response I was after. I wanted to highlight that the sound in “Africa” is a k and not a c and that in Zulu, which he speaks, c is a click sound. It makes perfect sense for him and most African languages to use a k. I checked, and although my knowledge is not definitive, the examples I was able to find do in fact use a k. Tadadjeu points to the logic that non-African languages should take the spelling of African names from African languages. But due to limitations in number and the circulation of African writing scripts, the power needed to influence such a convention is lacking.

Although informal, Afrikan Alphabets presents a foundation for those wanting to expand further on the subject. And that they should, as Saki’s sojourn and the information distilled from such an endeavour challenges and alters accepted views of African history. With a focus on the graphic form of the scripts, Saki accepts that there is room for deeper levels of inquiry and a more rigorous approach to their epistemology. He is waiting patiently for the call of the Sankofa Adinkra symbol (a stylized heart or bird shape facing backward, connoting “return and get it”) to be answered by the next generation.

Image of Akan Adinkra Symbols.
Image of Akan Adinkra Symbols, Ghana, 2004. Image courtesy of Saki Mafundikwa.

Saki’s quest, represented both by his research into African writing systems and his move back to Harare to set up ZIVA, is not an aberration, as some might suppose. To leave an established post in an arena and economy that perpetuates both the culture and industry of graphic design (as both practice and discipline) to an environment where its culture and industry appear wanting could be considered rash. Likewise, too, the time spent in scholarly activity researching defunct scripts might seem impractical. Yet those who know Saki would perhaps in hindsight suggest that this has been a clear-cut path from the beginning. He is proudly African. He owns it as a title, even perhaps as a second name. Just watch his introduction to the TED talk he did in 2012. And his appetite for design? Clearly an aberration. The guys at TED probably realized this, too, since they asked Saki to grace their platforms once again in their TED2013 program. He will expand on his first talk, which was an introduction to Afrikan Alphabets, by dropping the bombshell that writing was invented in Africa and not Mesopotamia. Saki is full of bombshells, but not in a vacuous way. He indeed has the mettle and intellect to take us on journeys of revised narratives.

When I spent time with him, such sentiments were c-o-n-t-i-n-u-o-u-s-l-y confirmed. His indifference to my breathlessness as we made the steep ascent to Great Zimbabwe comes to mind. Looking around, Saki was preoccupied by the various letterforms created by coupled boulders and deep fissures revealed by nature’s wear and tear. This was slightly usurped by a conversation held the previous night over dinner, when it was concluded by virtue of his typographic sensibilities that the world is a mess!

What Saki has done with Afrikan Alphabets and continues to do with ZIVA is proof that graphic design is a nascent process happening all over the continent. What I mean is that graphic design is there and has been there. Just like his reasoning for the use of k instead of c, we may be looking for that which is called by a different name. And occupies a different sound that no Latin character can describe. A notion that the language we verse in today cannot support. And just as some of these scripts are long gone, so might be that which we are looking for. However, by presenting Afrikan Alphabets and a commitment to ZIVA’s objectives, Saki teaches us how to redraw this “Afrikan” creativity in a way that remains true.

So to return to where we began: Saki Mafundikwa is a typographer, an African typographer who hopes to encourage design students to learn from Africa’s rich visual heritage to advance not necessarily an African aesthetic, but an African attitude.

The Interview:
Afrikan Alphabets Extended: Ima-Abasi Okon × Saki Mafundikwa

  • 1—

    Emil Ruder, Typographie (New York: Hastings House Publishers, 1981), 6.

Further reading:

  • Ima-Abasi Okon is an artist based in London and Amsterdam. She works with sculpture, sound, and video to produce installations that explore exhibition-making as an exercise in syntax, adopting linguistic and grammatical structures within her installations as a way of complicating the construction of knowledge.

At Typegeist, we invite authors to write from their individual perspectives. Opinions expressed in the articles on this site are those of the respective authors, and do not reflect the views of the Typographic Design Center. Quill icon by Ariel Kotzer from the Noun Project.