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September 08, 2008
Saki Mafundikwa is a
maverick visionary who left a successful design career in New York
to return to his native Zimbabwe and open that country's first
school of graphic design and new media. Mafundikwa is the author
of Afrikan Alphabets, a comprehensive review of African writing
systems. He has participated in exhibitions and workshops around
the world, contributed to a variety of publications and lectured
about the globalization of design and the African aesthetic. In
going home and opening his school, Mafundikwa's ambition is
nothing less than to jump-start an African renaissance.
Mafundikwa was moved
to draw from an early age. Using a stick, he illustrated on every
surface he could find—on the ground, in the sand, even tattooing
his thighs and arms. He loved drawing letters in particular. Though
he had not yet heard of printing and thought typeset words were
done by hand, his aim as a child was to make letterforms as good
as those he saw in books.
His father, a schoolteacher,
recognized Mafundikwa's constant scribbling as a talent to
be nurtured. He enlisted his son to design classroom instruction
materials, and soon other teachers were making use of Mafundikwa's
artistic gifts, too.
Mafundikwa left Zimbabwe
as a young man in the late 1970s because his country was at war.
As some of his peers were being drafted into the colonial army and
others were joining the guerrilla force fighting for liberation,
he summoned the courage to follow a different path. He journeyed
to Botswana and declared himself a refugee. There, due to his high
school achievements, he was able to secure a scholarship to study
in America. Mafundikwa says, "Sometimes you have to leave
home to discover yourself. If I hadn't left home, I would
never have become a graphic designer, and I would never have discovered
It was at Indiana University
that he finally recognized his true calling. Though he'd chosen
a fine arts and telecommunications double major, Mafundikwa often
volunteered to design flyers for university parties. Another student
noticed his work and suggested that he really belonged in graphic
He was introduced to
two professors in the design department. Since he had no portfolio
to present, they queried him about his life and family. They were
intrigued when he mentioned his mother was good at embroidery and
crocheting, and that he drew patterns for her. Mafundikwa says,
"These people were smart enough to know that this was design.
[In Zimbabwe] we didn't know what it was, didn't have
a word for it, but it was design." He was invited to study
with them, and eventually changed his major.
Mafundikwa went on to
receive an MFA in graphic design from Yale. A flame was lit during
his application interview with professor Alvin Eisenman. Eisenman
was aware that certain African countries had writing systems, like
the hieroglyphics of Egypt, so he asked Mafundikwa if there was
a Zimbabwean alphabet. The idea that, in addition to the oral traditions
of the continent, African knowledge had been passed on in unique
written form centuries ago was a revelation to Mafundikwa. He became
passionately devoted to the subject, finally taking it on as his
New York was Mafundikwa's
next stop. There he worked at various jobs as an art director for
advertising and publishing (which he enjoyed immensely). He designed
and art directed for various imprints at Random House. In addition
to designing books, he took on a number of freelance jobs creating
promotional materials for popular recording artists. And he took
part in the media boom as part of the team developing the Fodor's
website. During this period Mafundikwa also taught a class at Cooper
Union called Experimental Typography. The topic and his instruction
elicited inspired work from his students.
At the end of 1997, Mafundikwa
decided he could be more useful in Zimbabwe than in New York. He
left a comfortable life and returned to his native land to open
the Zimbabwe Institute of Vigital Arts, or ZIVA. "Vigital,"
a word of his own creation, refers to visual arts taught using digital
tools. Ziva means "knowledge" in Mafundikwa's
native Shona language.
Through the school, Mafundikwa
tries to illuminate graphic arts as a viable career path for Zimbabwe's
young people. He says, "It was the most natural thing for
me to come home and start a school of design. Because I figured,
my god, how many hundreds of young people in Zimbabwe would never
know there is a field called graphic design. It was the right thing
for me to do, because I felt so fortunate that I was able to figure
At the outset, Mafundikwa
funded the school by cashing in his 401(k) from Random House. He
continues to pour all of his freelance design earnings into ZIVA
because the political climate in Zimbabwe has made it impossible
for him to garner other financial support.
Zimbabwe currently suffers
under its tyrannical leader, Robert Mugabe, a dictator who ignores
the voice of his people, refusing to recognize that they have voted
to replace him. Scores of supporters of the opposition have been
arrested and displaced. In April 2008, The New York Times published
the indelible image of a woman with a child strapped to her back
crawling under a barbed-wire border fence to escape. But while others
flee, Mafundikwa remains committed to his country and his cause.
He says, "We all live on this thread of hope that change is
going to come. That's why I'm still here. Those that
are not eternal optimists like me—they left a long time ago.
I believe in this country."
In 2004, Mafundikwa published
Afrikan Alphabets, a result of 20 years of research and a testament
to Africa's intellectual wealth. It is his hope that Africa
can imprint itself on the canon of graphic design. Mafundikwa says,
"The dream is for something to come out of Africa that is
of Africa." He knows it will be a monumental task, but he
is confident that his book and his school are steps in the right
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