Design TED Conferences

The story of writing in Africa: Saki Mafundikwa at TED2013

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Photo: James Duncan Davidson

Photo: James Duncan Davidson

Saki Mafundikwa founded the Zimbabwe Institute of Vigital Arts, ZIVA, a Bauhaus-style school focused on African heritage. (“Vigital” denotes visual arts taught using digital tools.) It’s the first graphic design and new media college in the nation, and he wanted his students to understand the power of design–and in particular to understand “the long tradition of writing” in Africa. It’s a topic he commemorated in his book Afrikan Alphabets: The Story of Writing in Africa, and now he’s here to take us through just some of the writing systems of the vast continent.

The Adinkra symbols of the Akan people of Ghana and the Côte d’Ivoire, for instance, are some 400 years old and appear on cloth and art around the region. Pictographs by the Jokwe people of Angola represent the sun and the moon. In the Ituri society in the Democratic Republic of Congo, men create cloth from the bark of the tree; women paint on patterns based on the same polyphonic structures they use in singing, like a musical scroll celebrated in fashion.

It’s a lyrical, poetic trip through the writing systems of many African nations, and it matters for more than just theoretical interest. For Mafundikwa, African designers’ propensity to look to foreign influences is a wasted opportunity. Ron Eglash: The fractals at the heart of African designs Ron Eglash: The fractals at the heart of African designs  “Designers in Africa struggle with all forms of design. They are more apt to look outwards than inwards for inspiration,” he says. “The creative spirit is as potent as it has ever been. What they are looking for is right within their grasp, right within them.” Africa has a lot to offer to those who want to learn, in other words, including to those looking at the field of fractals within mathematics.

For instance, while the invention of the alphabet is attributed to Mesopotamia in 1600 BC, a more recent discovery suggests that this momentous occasion may have occurred centuries earlier, at Wadi el-Hol in the Thebes desert in western Egypt, where inscriptions dated from between 1800 and 1900 BC were discovered in 1998. “Only a few of these early inscriptions have been interpreted. But it’s clear: this is humanity’s first alphabet,” says Mafundikwa. It is time for African students of design to be inspired by their own continent’s incredible advances, and to remember the words of Marcus Garvey: “A people without a knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots.”

Saki Mafundikwa’s talk is now available for viewing. Watch it on »