Alternative emojis to debunk stereotype image of famine, war in Africa
London, Nov. 19, 2019 (AltAfrica)-Emojis have become a natural part of communication online, whether you’re messaging a friend on WhatsApp or commenting on a Facebook post. Emojis are ideograms and smileys used in electronic messages and web pages. Emoji exist in various genres, including facial expressions, common objects, places and types of weather, and animals.
But in January 2018, O’Plérou Grebet set himself a challenge. For every day of the year, the graphic design student, then aged 20, decided to design an emoji that reflected the culture of his home country, Ivory Coast, and the wider region of West Africa.
“I wanted to create a project to promote African cultures to change the image the Western media have of Africa: hunger, poverty and wars,” he said. “I wanted to show a different and positive side.”
Adopting a different theme each week, he shared his daily designs on Instagram. He started with food and drink – a topic that everyone identifies with. “People love to eat,” he said. He began sharing designs of foutou, (a bowl of mashed plantain and cassava) and gbofloto (fried dough balls) online. One of his favourite images, showing a plastic bag bursting with purple liquid, represents bissap (dried hibiscus flower juice). “I have memories related to it,” he said. “Women sell it in little plastic bags outside of schools, and I bought it from kindergarten to high school.”
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He didn’t tell his teachers or classmates at Abidjan’s Institute of Sciences and Communication Techniques about the project – but people soon noticed as it grew in popularity online. People began sending requests for new designs – anything from hairstyles to forms of transport. “I received congratulations and encouraging comments from many people across Africa and the diaspora, telling me my work is important and I should not stop,” he said.
An advertising agency sent Grebet an Apple Mac so that he could create designs for iOS as well as Android phones. This year he launched a compilation of the images, which have since been downloaded more than 100,000 times.
Grebet’s designs aren’t official emojis, because they have not been approved by the Unicode Consortium, a California-based organisation that reviews requests for new designs and sets standards for characters across different programmes and platforms. Grebet is working on a submission to the body. For now, images from his app, Zouzoukwa – which means “picture” in Bété, the language of the Bété people from the south-western Ivory Coast – can be used as stickers or standalone images.
The number of official emojis has increased rapidly over recent years – a greater range of skin tones are now available, as well as icons that represent different types of disability, such as canes or wheelchairs, and symbols that are gender neutral. But vast areas of life remain unrepresented.
“I think [Zouzoukwa designs] became popular because they fill a gap in digital communication for Africans. My work helps us to communicate more clearly, using emojis that represent how we live and what we want to say,” Grebet said.
One of his favourite designs is “You saw that?”, a facial expression that he says is used in Ivory Coast and means something similar to “I told you so”. After posting it online, people elsewhere in West Africa began sharing the meaning of the expression in their home country. “My [Instagram] followers from Cameroon commented that they also use this gesture, but as a warning sign, like, ‘If you do that, you will see what I will do,’” he said.
Another of his favourites is the Zaouli emoji design, a mask and dance from the Gouro people of Ivory Coast. “I love [the Zaouli design] because it’s a mix of many arts: painting, sculpting, music, dancing – and because I like its appearance too,” he said.
Tech companies should do more to make sure their products are representative, said Grebet, but he added: “At the same time, I think it’s not really their role, but today with social media we have tools to make our voices heard and impact [what] these companies create. He cited the example of the campaign group Emojination, which pushes for greater representation among the official set of emojis and helped Rayouf Alhumedhi, then a Saudi student in Germany, get approval for the the hijab emojis
Grebet has now created 376 different designs, and he hopes to keep going by creating images for countries across Africa. “My biggest dream right now is to travel to more African countries, discover their cultures, turn their popular and traditional cultural elements into emojis,” he said.