dot-font: Afrikan Alphabets

The title of “Afrikan Alphabets” (Mark Batty Publisher, 2004) is a slight misnomer, as author/designer Saki Mafundikwa makes clear right from the start. Not all of the writing systems described or shown in his book are alphabetical; some are syllabaries, ideographs, or pictographs. But all of them are graphical systems of storing information, and they take a rich variety of forms. These forms are graphically displayed in the pages of “Afrikan Alphabets,” with descriptive text about both their context and the author’s personal journey of discovery over the course of twenty years.

I should make my own up-front disclaimer: This is not a review. Both the author and the publisher of “Afrikan Alphabets” are friends of mine, and I was the one who brought them together, so I have a personal history with this project; any pretense of objectivity on my part would be ludicrous. What I want to do here is simply point you to a book that I think is both important and entertaining.

Saki Mafundikwa is a graphic designer, typographer, and design educator from Harare, Zimbabwe, where he is the director of ZIVA, the Zimbabwe Institute of Vigital Arts. Saki spent 20 years in the United States, first as a student and later as a teacher at Cooper Union and designer at Random House, before returning to his native country to found ZIVA as a graphic-design and new-media training college. The original version of “Afrikan Alphabets” was the master’s thesis he completed for his MFA at the Yale School of Art. Over the course of two decades, while pursuing a career and raising a family, he worked on learning more about African writing systems, expanding his thesis into a book, and finding the right publisher for it.

When we showed several examples from his prototype of the book in a 1998 article about ZIVA by Eileen Gunn that I published in “U&lc,” the interest they stirred up was profound. “U&lc” had a global reach (one designer in Zimbabwe actually first found out about ZIVA from this article), and readers in several countries, especially in Europe, expressed disappointment that they couldn’t get their hands on Saki’s book. When Mark Batty, the former president of ITC and executive publisher of “U&lc,” started his own publishing company in 2001, it seemed obvious to suggest to him that “Afrikan Alphabets” might be a good candidate for his publishing program. Mark likes to bridge the gap, in creative ways, between the arcana of typography or fine printing and the popular culture of everyday life. “Afrikan Alphabets,” despite its starting out as a master’s thesis, is visual, personal, and easily accessible; far from being a dense academic study, it is meant to reach a wide audience, to open their eyes to something they knew nothing about, and to pique their curiosity enough to send them out looking for more.

A Very Personal Journey
One of the most fascinating episodes in this book is Saki’s account of a fairly recent trip that he undertook in order to find out more about the syllabary created in the 1890s by King Ibrahim Njoya for the language of the Bamum people, in present-day Cameroon. Despite repression by the French colonial government, the Bamum syllabary, known as Shü-mom, survived and was used in thousands of books and manuscripts; the current Bamum king, grandson of the inventor of the syllabary, has preserved these at his palace in Foumban and maintains the continuity of the Bamum tradition, although Shü-mom is not the common writing system of everyday life in Foumban. Saki’s tale of discovering the living tradition of King Njoya, along with his description of visiting Calabar in Nigeria to research the Nsibidi alphabet, communicates his ongoing excitement as he makes more and more connections among the many strands of writing that weave the history of Africa.

The other highly personal thread is Saki’s account of several visits to Cuba, where he found that in some ways African traditions are better preserved, and more respected, than in the lands they came from. The skein of music, art, and language that reached across the Middle Passage and took new forms in the New World connects the present-day lives of Africans both in Africa itself and in the worldwide African diaspora.

Rich Diversity
The various writing systems shown in “Afrikan Alphabets” take many forms and are used in many different ways. Some, like the Bamum syllabary, were invented as a general system for written communication within their society; others, like Anaforuana in Cuba, were meant to be used only by members of secret societies, as a way not of general communication but of encoding hidden knowledge. The visual forms they take are multifarious, from the linearity of the Somali alphabet, which, though unfamiliar, looks recognizably like a straightforward writing system, to the colorful, pictorial Bantu symbol writing of South Africa.

As an educator and a lecturer in many countries around the world, Saki encourages his students and listeners to pay attention to the indigenous writing systems and graphic styles of their own native lands, and to experiment in finding ways to bring those traditions into their work today. The last sets of written characters shown in the book are several alphabets designed by students at ZIVA — not new writing systems but the letters of the Latin alphabet inspired by African visual forms and ideas. They are just a beginning, but they are bursting with creative vitality.

Everyone I have shown the book to has been fascinated and energized by it. I showed it to some of the people who organized or attended a festival of African-American science fiction held recently in Seattle, figuring that “Afrikan Alphabets” might provide a host of ideas and inspirations for aspiring writers who deal in the currency of “What if…?” and “Just suppose…” This book is one of those small pebbles tossed into the common pool of our culture that will send ripples into many far corners and lapping onto many unexpected shores.

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Posted on: June 21, 2004

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