Book Review: Afrikan Alphabets

Buy this book at! One of the assertive and creative ways people on the continent called “Africa” have adopted the personal computer outside the realm of music and film making is in the field of glyphic imagery or typography. At first glance, Saki Mafundikwa, his book Afrikan Alphabets, can be seen as a celebration of the African tradition of typography.

The opinion here is that this book can sit side by side with European typographic catalogues like The Postscript Font Handbook in order to remind the people who care that African technology is still useful and, the scholarly research shows, fundamental.

Saki Mafundikwa, founder of ZIVA—Zimbabwe Institute of Vigital Arts ( And, for those readers who are young and/or under-educated, you may not know that the mixture of the words “African” and “technology” (written in any Latin glyphs) means controversy. Saki Mafundikwa founder of ZIVA—Zimbabwe Institute of Vigital Arts (—takes this controversy into trouble when he describes with deliberate determination why the usage of the word “Afrikan” persists in his aesthetic, in his technical and historical prose. This specification, along with the subject matter itself, explains more than enough to me why it took the author decades to complete this book. Further, the difficultly surrounding obtaining a copy of this book (it is now available at or even visiting the ZIVA web site to me cannot be a simple tale of yet another Black man’s lack of “reliability.”

So when a member of Qalam, “a mailing list about the world’s writing systems,” makes an effort to correct alleged historical errors in the Saki Mafundikwa book, choosing to use the word “absurd” in the process—or when an apparently sympathetic reader of the book describes it as “eye candy” and takes the time to insist that they are taking the book “seriously,” my years of experience of how African scholarship is “received by the establishment” flood in. Hey dude, nobody is perfect but too many authors of African descent are absurd candy dealers by my informal count. My view of Saki Mafundikwa, his work in Afrikan Alphabets, is not confined in the container labeled “linguistics”—nor is it in the little ridiculous bottle of graphic design fragrance.

Saki Mafundikwa is wading deep into the ancient pool of humanity’s intellectual origin—and none of us born after the birth of Columbus are experienced swimmers. So, yes, when Mafundikwa states, “I cannot recall any African language that spells Africa with a c,” so many modern African errors are being made here:

First, it is an error to assume that the concept of “spelling” is universal instead of an administrative task descending from an Indo-European province of robust ethnicity.

Second, it is a grave, deadly error to assume that the letter “c” must appear in every African language. This almost subconscious assumption that Latin glyphs must be used by Black people to contain all of the meaning of African language—African consciousness—is clear, present, fragrant evidence of the power of European colonization. There are people with strong African features walking the Earth today by the millions who just “know” that the ethnicity of intellect is European without question. For these sad, stinky people, to remove European left-brain dominion means being left with a reptilian brain in raw, naked savagery.

Third, it is an error to assume that the African languages in use today, standardized and homogenized in Latin glyphs are to be respected as African languages from thousands of years ago. In order to avoid offending any proud, Black government officials who may happen upon these words, may I refer you to “Dr. Ernest N. Emenyonu: Achebe and the Problematics of Writing in Indigenous Languages”?

Now, in most strange African, post-colonial irony, my words will continue in these Latin glyphs you are reading right now… (and please, reader, know that the purpose here is not to “attack” or make inferior Roman, Latin glyphs; the intent here is to remind the reader that the Roman Empire used writing for specific purposes and it is foolish for a thinker of African descent to be satisfied and resting content with these imperial design goals).

The Pictograph, the Ideograph and the Syllabary

Saki Mafundikwa, his book, Afrikan Alphabets, rigorously distinguishes among the pictograph, the ideograph and the syllabary. This is a valiant effort to reawaken in a reader like me (held captive in Latin glyphs) that language symbol systems can represent sounds and/or ideas. What is more strange to a westerner is that a single symbol can be broken down into ‘anatomical’ parts—each part with an esoteric meaning beyond the serif. A native Asian reader with just a little curiosity knows this by heart.

It is clear that Saki Mafundikwa could have bogged himself down with the task of explaining in Latin glyphs concepts not supported by Latin glyphs. To me, when he writes:

The European colonizers claimed Afrikan territory with impunity, and thereby created new historical realities for the colonized. I have taken a cue from them and claimed the word alphabet; so for the title of this book, all writing systems become alphabets—hence Afrikan Alphabets.

Soothsayer’s Mirror by Victor Ekpuk he is moving with the Alexandrian speed of a conqueror to quickly complete his task. Without this decision, it is very likely that I would not have this book so I do not condemn while I complain!

It follows that the pictograph, the ideograph and the syllabary are all placed under the umbrella with the Greek root, alphabet. This certainly makes this book more accessible and friendly to young people with a western education.

Now that we have a nice, “classical” umbrella to shade us from the light of the Divine Sun, we can stroll through the wonderful museum of Afrikan Alphabets. Let’s go on this pleasant journey with an understanding of the limitations and artificial conditions.

Postmodern African Writing Systems

Song of the Cowherd by Victor Ekpuk One man’s painting is another person’s writing. The Victor Ekpuk “manuscript series” includes works like “Soothsayer’s Mirror” and “Song of the Cowherd” that juxtapose ancient African writing systems (e.g. Nsibidi signs) in modern acrylic paints on Islamic prayer board (walaha). Victor Ekpuk approaches the “triple heritage” idea of African tradition by producing one object with three main roots: western technology (in the paint and the painter’s tools/space), Islam (in the prayer-board medium) and the ancients (in the Nsibidi signs). Ekpuk elaborates (p. 111):

When I started exploring the use of ancient writing systems as a means of contemporary visual expression, the idea of the boards as media for literacy in Africa appealed to me. I was fascinated by their shapes as unique sculpture pieces and by their function as bearers of sacred texts.

The paintings I execute on walaha do not make statements about Islam; rather they are an attempt to forge an intercultural marriage of form and script.

The extensive research of Saki Mafundikwa uncovers Nsibidi signs in regions now called Nigeria, Cameroon and even Cuba—as celebrated by contemporary Cuban artist Alexis Gelabert. It is very important to know that African writing systems were transplanted to the “New World” (see “Post Columbian African Writing Systems” below).

Lilian Osanjo of Kenya in 1999 used a graphic form of Maribou Storks to produce “Kaloli,” an alphabet for an UNESCO Workshop at Makerere University in Kampala Uganda. According to Mafundikwa, Lilian Osanjo is a ZIVA student and for his students he “…hopes that this experience whets their appetites to do more experimental work in the field of typography. [p. 138]”

Kaloli Alphabet by Lilian Osanjo

Colonial African Writing Systems

My crude definition of a ‘colonial African writing system’ is any set of forms that deliberately matches one or more Latin glyphs. Saki Mafundikwa is of course more generous and he calls these (with the exception of 1922s Somali Script and The Mande Syllabaries of the early 1900s) “New West African Writing Systems.” These include:

  • Wolof (1961, Senegal)
  • Manenka N’Ko (1940s or 1950s, Souleymane Kantè of Kankan)
  • Fula (1963, Adama Ba of Mali)
  • Fula Dita (1958–1966, Oumar Dembele of Mali)
  • Bete Script (1952, Bruly Bouabré of Côte d’Ivoire)
  • Gola (Liberia? The ancestors of the Gullah people?)

An African “Renaissance Man” Writing System

The superstar personality in Afrikan Alphabets is the 17th king of the Bamum of Cameroon, Ibrahim Njoya (pictured below).

King Ibrahim Njoya

King Ibrahim Njoya developed a writing system called Shü-mom. He used it to compile pharmacopœia, design a calendar, label maps, hold administrative records and legal codes—he even used to write a “Kama Sutra-like” book! Saki Mafundikwa correctly refers to him as a “Renaissance Man”—and most of these achievements took place under German Colonial rule! However, the French form of domination was less “tolerant”:

Not long after he had built a magnificent palace and built schools for his people, the French took control of Cameroon. Their power was threatened by his achievements. They destroyed the printing press that he invented, destroyed his libraries, and burned many of the books he had written. The French soldiers threw Bamum sacred objects into the street. And finally, in 1931, they sent him into exile in the capital of Yaoundé where he died a broken man in 1933. Over the years, Njoya’s son and his heir Seidou Njimoluh quietly worked to preserve his heritage. [p.83]

Just in case one forgets about what the Germans can do as colonial masters, recollect with “A. Tolbert, III: African Victims of Nazi Extremism” here in the kinté space. The images below show more Shü-mom works:

Shü-mom Calendar Shü-mom (First Version) Shü-mom Glyphs Shü-mom "Vowels" Shü-mom Glyphs (Detail) Shü-mom Portrait of King Ibrahim Njoya 18 Bamum Kings (Detail) 18 Bamum Kings (Detail)

Columbian African Writing Systems

The most astonishing news in this book is the fact that African writing systems survived the horrors of slavery. In “Systems of the Afrikan Diaspora” (p. 113), Saki Mafundikwa introduces Anaforuana of Cuba, Djuka of Suriname and Bassa Vah Script of Brazil. Note that nothing is mentioned for us Africans descending in North America!

Anaforuana comes from the peoples of Calabar and Congo—specifically “the Ejagham people of southeastern Nigeria and northwestern Cameroon.” The Ekpe ways of these people used the Nsibidi script and, through captivity, this translated into the Abakua ways that use Anaforuana.

The Djuka Syllabary is the writing of a people that were stolen into the “New World” in large family units. Doing this proved to be a mistake for the enslavers because this people unified and organized under their shared world view, escaped into the rain forests of Suriname in South America and became classified under the term “Maroon.” Saki Mafundikwa elevates the Djuka writing system to the supernatural when he reports:

In the early 20th century the Djuka devised their own writing system, a syllabary not unlike its West Afrikan counterparts, the Banum and Mande syllabaries, which were being developed simultaneously. All drew from a tradition of West Afrikan pictograms and ideograms. Just before the appearance of Halley’s Comet in 1910—in a famous case of synchronicity—a Djuka named Afaka Atumisi had a dream in which a spirit prophesied that a script would be revealed to him. He subsequently devised a series of syllabic characters for writing the Djuka language.

Ancient African Writing Systems

Starting on page 11 with “Roots of Afrikan Alphabets” in Afrikan Alphabets and ending in the Ethiopic section of “Historical Afrikan Alphabets” (page 51) are the ‘ancient African writing systems’—the roots of these systems are free from the influence of European colonialism. These include:

What should be a glaring omission that exists without explanation for the serious student of African writing is the absence of what is called “Ancient Egyptian Hieroglyphics.” Easily this one category alone could have overwhelmed the entirety of Afrikan Alphabets but it does deserve mention because placing this African writing system somewhere in the “Near East” only serves more colonial masters.

However, Saki Mafundikwa is protected from making a perfect mistake. When we look carefully at the Bantu (Ancient South African) symbol for “wisdom” (see below), we have a “coincidence” of the Old Kingdom of Africa and the so-called Bantu peoples:

Afrikan Alphabets: Bantu Symbols (Detail)

This Bantu Symbol for “wisdom” uses forms that are very similar to the Old Kingdom word for what is called in English, Ausar or, worse, Osiris. It should be clear by now that Saki Mafundikwa, his book Afrikan Alphabets, is a supernatural experience that transcends history, typography, linguistics and the visual arts. It should leave us with a rejoicing yearning for more of what is truly Afrikan.