Earth day, Woodstock concert, Vietnam war, Hippies…what do they have in common?
The Peace Symbol.
The infamous peace symbol is one of many. It was designed not for peace but for nuclear disarmament. This was after the devastation that the first and second world war brought upon the world especially in Europe. Many were tired of the conflict which never seemed to have an end in sight. The general sentiment at the time was “this has to stop!”. The destruction being caused was not just affecting human beings but also the planet.
Naitiemu shares the history around peace symbols and how this positive message was transmitted between cultures through design. We explore peace symbols in East Africa, West Africa and the world. Which symbols of peace are you familiar with?
This is the 17th episode under the ‘Shifting Narratives’ program supported by the British Council SSA Arts.
*For the best experience, please use a headset/earphones.
Naitiemu’s Website: https://www.naitiemu.com
Seven Symbols of Peace: https://7symbolsofpeace.com
IG & Twitter: nairobidesign_
[00:00:00] Naitiemu Nyanjom (Host): Hello everyone. Welcome to the Afrika Design Podcast. My name is Naitiemu and I'll be your host for today's episode. This episode comes from one of our Twitter spaces, which are hosted by Nairobi Design. You can tune in live to these spaces as we delve into a wide array of topics all aimed at tackling societal issues through a design lens.
[00:00:21] So make yourself comfortable, sit back, relax, grab a cup of coffee, and enjoy the show.
[00:00:31] Naitiemu Nyanjom (Host): In 1958, there was a symbol of peace. It wasn't actually initially a symbol of peace.
[00:00:36] It was a symbol of nuclear disarmament designed by Gerald Holtom.
[00:00:43] Naitiemu Nyanjom (Host): Thank you so much for joining us tonight. It's really exciting night for us. We are celebrating International Design Day. I'm a visual artist and also the festival lead at Nairobi Design. I work at coordinating and curating the exhibits and experiences during the festival and also supporting with different projects, creative projects throughout the year.
[00:01:05] And my themes are around self identity and also not just as an individual, but also as community because I'm guided by the African philosophy of Ubuntu. I am
because we are. And so I try to use that philosophy to guide my creations. You can check out my work at naitiemu.com. That's my website.
[00:01:26] Adrian Jankowiak (Co-host): Hey, guys. Good evening. Hope you can hear me all. I'm Adrian. I started Nairobi Design Week. I'm a designer by profession, industrial product designer, and that also ties in a lot with symbols and symbolism, and looking forward to this conversation.
[00:01:43] And thank you guys for joining us tonight.
[00:01:45] Naitiemu Nyanjom (Host): Today we are celebrating International Design Day. It happens every 27th, April and today marks the 60th anniversary. Woo-hoo, 60th. It was founded in 1963 and used to be known as World Design Day until 2020 when now it changed to become International Design Day.
[00:02:08] And it's founded by International Council of Design. It's just to basically
celebrate design, you know, pick a theme and get the community involved in actually talking on how design can be used to impact the world. And this year's theme is Peace, Love, Design. So it's all about that. It wouldn't have been a better theme at this particular time seeing as we are facing so many different kinds of difficulties in the world and it's important for us as designers, as creatives to spread the message of love.
[00:02:44] Adrian Jankowiak (Co-host): Interesting, I was just telling someone, most of you'll know, but it's actually 60 years for Africa Day as well this year, so 25th of May.
[00:02:53] Naitiemu Nyanjom (Host): Oh, nice.
[00:02:54] Adrian Jankowiak (Co-host): Yeah. 1963 for both. So thanks for joining us. We're gonna get a bit of a history lesson to ourselves.
[00:03:02] We've been doing a bit of research. Naitiemu has got lots of stuff on symbols of peace, and we'll touch on a few other symbols and relationships between how those symbols link perhaps in past and how we use them in modern times and where they might be evolving as well.
[00:03:20] Naitiemu Nyanjom (Host): Great. So today, we'll look at International Design Day. So as I mentioned, it was founded in 1963 and today we'll look into the theme: Peace, Love, Design. This theme is inspired by the changes that took place at the sixties.
[00:03:38] People explored issues around environmentalism, social equity, collective
movements, and radical change. And this was a time when things were really changing in the world. In 1958, there was a symbol of peace. It wasn't actually initially a symbol of peace.
[00:03:53] It was a symbol of nuclear disarmament designed by Gerald Holtom. He's a
British graphic designer who was commissioned to design this. But also right after that, all over the world, especially in America, let's say, and bits of Europe.
[00:04:08] This time we'll focus on America. People use this symbol to symbolize a lot of the different activism, be it environmental activism, activism against utilitarianism, against race inequality. This symbol championed feminism, it championed universal human rights and freedom and love for all.
[00:04:28] And this is a time when the so-called 'hippies' came about and they evolved
with the phrase peace and love. This was also a time when psychedelics was on the increase in the US and at the same time people were being very free minded in terms of people wanted things to change, as I said. And there was also the Vietnam War, which the USA was interfering with. And people were against that because it was causing more issues in Vietnam.
[00:04:56] The peace sign, it looks like kind of a circle. And inside there's a straight
line and on the side, two diagonal lines. So how it came about, the vertical line in the center represents the flag semaphore signal for the letter D. That's the I from D and the downward lines on either side represent the semaphore signal for the letter N. That's the diagonal, yeah. For nuclear disarmament ND enclosed in a circle. And this circle represented the Earth.
[00:05:27] Holtom also described the symbol as representing despair with the central lines forming a human with its hands questioning at its sides against the backdrop of
a white earth. So that's kind of the story behind the design of this symbol.
[00:05:42] Adrian Jankowiak (Co-host): It's amazing how these symbols come about. In your research of the symbol of the letters, how it creates the shape. Could you go into that a bit?
[00:05:51] Naitiemu Nyanjom (Host): Yeah, sure. Basically the letters nuclear disarmament. That's N D. So picture a capital N. Right. And a capital D. Right. So when they talk about the semaphore, I think from my understanding right, there's a capital N and a capital D. With the capital D, instead of the rounded part of the D, just pick the I part.
[00:06:12] And then with the capital N, they took the diagonal parts. So cut off the straight parts of N and just pick the diagonal parts. And so you get that symbol, which
is now in the middle is the straight line, and then on the side is the diagonal. And then you put a circle which represented the Earth around it.
[00:06:31] I hope that makes it more clear on how it was designed.
[00:06:34] Adrian Jankowiak (Co-host): Great. Yeah. And you also talked about that it is kind of growing to represent other groups.
[00:06:40] Naitiemu Nyanjom (Host): Yes. Yes. So right after that symbol was designed, there was many activism movements, right? Right around that time in the sixties is when people were kind of tired of this lifestyle of go work, come back home.
[00:06:55] If you're a woman, if you're a wife, just stay at home. For example, in 1969,
there was an oil well in Santa Barbara, California that's spill over 200,000 gallons of oil into the Pacific Ocean for over 11 days. And so these were chemicals that were floating in this river in Ohio and just causing all these disasters. So that's among the things that also influenced certain changes.
[00:07:21] So this actually influenced the birth of Earth Day. So stuff like that Earth
Day, which we now celebrate every April 22nd, was influenced by this. At that time it came out, people were tired that the government wasn't doing anything against the pollution situation. Other than that, you know, there's also the counterculture kind of hippie movements in the sixties where people were "done with the American dream", and no longer found the value of this comfort, if I may say so.
[00:07:53] And so, people are against like TVs, consumerism, capitalism, and people are
really standing against these things that had been part of the culture. This movement also really influenced other things besides just... because it was a turning point, you know, it influenced pop culture, it influenced fashion, music, media.
[00:08:14] All these things started coming about a different kind of culture that wasn't
part of the history before. I hope we can be able to share these images, but people have used this symbol, like at the Vietnam border, just to be against the Vietnam War, the American Vietnam War.
[00:08:32] There was a big concert in 1969 called the Woodstock Concert that had big
artists like Jimi Hendrix attend. And it was all about peace and love, and they used the symbol too. Among other different ways, big musicians like John Lennon were against the Vietnam War, and they used this peace symbol.
[00:08:50] Also, something that was interesting in my research was that they showed this image of someone's backyard, a garden, a green space, and there was a peace
symbol. Kind of like when you are cutting grass, let's say you're using the machine to cut grass, then you make that symbol on the grass.
[00:09:06] So someone has it in his backyard. The reason why they're able to do that is
that this symbol was never copyrighted. So anybody can be able to use it anywhere. Literally, if you wanted to use that symbol in anything, you can be able to use it freely. So I really hope like that's like a positive thing because I would hope that people would use the peace symbol to actually preach peace and not other weird stuff.
[00:09:29] Yeah. That's a little bit of, of the history behind this and I'd love for us to
have maybe more conversation around what I've just shared. If you have thoughts, if you're a listener, please ask to be speaker if you'd like to speak. We are happy to allow you.
[00:09:42] Adrian Jankowiak (Co-host): Yeah, sure. The usage of the symbol always tends to be popular, of course, during protests when there's a war happening like in 2002 for Iraq, et cetera.
[00:09:53] I also saw that actually he considered originally using a Christian Cross within a symbol and then he was put off it by priests. Makes sense as well, I guess,
to make it a-religious, is that a term? You said about how it's being used by different communities.
[00:10:09] So talking about this copyright. We all talk about protecting work, but
imagining it the other way around, what can you do with something that's open? Where the copyright is open to the world and people can use it? As long as they're using it for the message it's supposed to convey, pushing it out there and then letting people spread it, that's often an issue when it comes to brand marks and so on.
[00:10:36] Even video game companies often tend to go after fan driven projects, right?
[00:10:44] What about the other piece symbols that you discovered?
[00:10:48] Naitiemu Nyanjom (Host): As I mentioned earlier, is that we are looking at these four different ways how design has influenced, you know, environmentalism, social equity, collective movements and radical change. And so this history that we've given is highly based on America. And so, and even though it's relatable to us in a way, I would definitely love to know how you feel. It's relatable to us but also taking it home. How are we using design in our own way from the beginning to actually share wisdom and ensure collective kind of reconciliation and movements?
[00:11:27] So a big example that we are all hopefully familiar with is the Leso, the Leso
is this beautiful fabric, right? That has these patterns, usually repeated patterns. And the interesting thing about the Leso, the outstanding, unique thing is that each one of them has a writing, which is a proverb. In Kiswahili, we call them Methali.
[00:11:49] Each Leso has a methali. Actually, right now I'm looking at my Leso because
I've covered my sitting area with a Leso. I've covered them with two Lesos and one Leso says, 'Haraka haraka haina baraka', which is hurry hurry has no blessings. And the other leso says, 'Umaskini hautaki hasira, so I don't know. Basically it means like poverty does not want anger.
[00:12:12] I understand that the leso... I know it from the coastal area of Kenya and I know it may have some Arab influence to it in terms of where it comes from, but where it's been used a lot is here in Kenya in the coast and also Tanzania.
[00:12:29] And so it's really an East African kind of culture also. Luckily I got some
proverbs from an article, just had a lot of proverbs around peace and reconciliation. So there's one that says here 'Palipo wabaya na wema wapo'.
[00:12:44] So it means that where there's evil people, there're also good ones, which is
important to know because sometimes you can be doing something that's really good, but feel discouraged because all around you, the world seems to be falling apart, but it means that, you know, wherever there's bad, then there's good also.
[00:13:01] So let's encourage each other into that. There's one that says here that 'Neno halimpati nyama ila mtu', which translated means the problem is of humans, not
of animals, which really gets me to think about the problems that we have here especially when it comes to the environmental problems, social problems, right?
[00:13:22] It's not animals who've caused it on us. I know we are animals too, but in this
context, if we're looking at it in terms of animals and humans, we have caused it upon ourselves. So it's just a matter of asking ourselves like, yeah, again, this makes me wonder, what can I learn from nature, right? Because they don't seem to have the problems we have.
[00:13:41] Then there's one that goes like 'Gombea heshima, gombea kisima, mgombee mama', which is honor, honor water that's in brackets a well and mother are worth
fighting for. This to me is quite significant because it really tells you what matters, what used to matter even at that time. And also, honestly, what does matter now, honor water, which is part of the environment.
[00:14:10] And mother, which is the love, the nurturing we get from all the women in this world, our mothers, they're worth fighting for. So I can go on and on. There
are a lot of them and you can see also how the lesos look with these beautiful patterns. So this is closer to East Africa.
[00:14:26] And before we go to West Africa, I'd love to hear if anyone has thoughts around this.
[00:14:31] Adrian Jankowiak (Co-host): Yeah, definitely. I'd love to go to the museum and explore as well what kind of objects there are. I know in... when I was looking around this stuff, it's often that objects that symbolize peace or good luck or try to disparage bad luck. Symbols are often placed on objects.
[00:14:50] It could be on a cane that you have with you all the time or a seat, or it
could even be that people painted symbols. This happened in Europe as well. They painted symbols on their houses to ward off spirits and so on. How about West Africa?
[00:15:05] Naitiemu Nyanjom (Host): Nice. I didn't know actually that happened in Europe. That's really interesting.
[00:15:09] In West Africa, symbology is big. West Africa have used symbols a lot. For
example, when we go to Adinkra Symbols, I'd love to first refer you to a podcast we did on our podcast called Afrika Design. Africa with a k. It's about textiles by an amazing creative called Fungi Dube.
[00:15:30] And she took us through the history of textiles in Africa, deep. And we went
and talked about the history of all these fabrics and the journey they've had, their importance in the past, what they used to mean. Versus even what they mean now, depending on their usage.
[00:15:44] There was a project called Threads, I think that stood out. The conversion we
had with her is that these symbols were used not only for aesthetics, but they had deeper meanings. There were a communication, there were language. And so she put them into four categories, those phonetic, syllabic, idiographic, and pictographic.
[00:16:04] So phonetic is basically these different languages we have, like for example,
in Swahili we have how we speak, and it's based on a e i o u where you pronounce everything. Mama Alikuja, it's a bit different from English because in some English words, some things are not pronounced.
[00:16:21] There's the syllabic, which is basically African scripts. There's the idiographic,
which is now big on fabric and where we'll talk more about this, where now symbols like the Adinkra symbols from Ghana come in. And these symbols, they represent an entire concept. Basically, because one symbol can represent, you know, let's say female beauty, something can represent reconciliation. They represent an entire concept through just one symbol.
[00:16:49] And then there's the pictographic ones, which are also used in fabrics a lot
e.g. the mud cloth. And these are patterns that represent, for example, some wavy patterns might represent rivers. You've seen some patterns that might actually represent, let's say a bird. So these are more pictographic.
[00:17:05] So when we look at the Adinkra symbols because these are, one of the symbols are highly concepts-based. One thing represents an entire concept. So we picked a few symbols that were representative of peace, love, and just the idea of
reconciliation. So there's the Mpatapo symbol of reconciliation. It kind of looks like two infinity loops that form a square in between.
[00:17:31] There's some other symbols. The one that's called Bi-Nka-Bi, which means no one should bite the other. That's representative of peace and harmony. There's the
Boa me na, which is help me and let me help you.
[00:17:46] You know all about corporation and interdependence, so there's a lot of
symbols. Please google Adinkra symbols, check out their meanings. You'll be able to find a lot of them, which are inspiring. One that I'll talk about also is the Sankofa, because we've got to talk to Batsirai Madzonga who made an entire typeface inspired by the Sankofa symbol.
[00:18:06] And Sankofa is about learning from the past, encouraging you, what can you
learn from your past to take it to the future.
[00:18:12] So moving on now from West African symbols to more like global symbols. There's this website called Seven Symbols of Peace that literally requested for people
to send them what they think is a symbol of peace.
[00:18:26] And people send so much stuff. There were other symbols like Nelson Mandela, for example, the Dove, Mahatma Gandhi, the Yin and Yang symbol and so much more. So I thought this was such an interesting process because it also kind of
showed like the diversity of what these symbols mean to us, but also the uniformity in that we are all in for this. We are all collectively seeking peace and we are using creativity as a way to do that.
[00:18:57] Adrian Jankowiak (Co-host): So it's interesting when I was looking into this, because this symbol is something that I looked into when I was at university because Apple use it on their keyboards. And I was interested where it came from. And the story that I got was that it came from Nordic culture and if you check online, that seems to to line up as well.
[00:19:20] It's known as also the St. John's Cross or several other variations. So it
seems to be a really old symbol. And so it kind of went, some Apple engineer found it in a handbook in a visual handbook somewhere as a Nordic symbol. It's used on motorways and roads. It symbolizes places of interest.
[00:19:42] It almost looks like a castle from above, like a European castle from above. So maybe someone thought of that. It's interesting to see as well that it's an Adinkra symbol, and this drove me kind of to look into Adinkra symbols and realize that they're actually only 200 years old or so, as far as we can tell.
[00:20:03] The first Adinkra symbol or the first cloth with adinkra symbols was actually
is from I think 1817. And that's the oldest one we have. It's been in the British Museum since 1818, so only for a year of its life maybe was in Africa and then it's been in the British Museum the whole time.
[00:20:22] The cloth is also referred to as Adinkra. So you'll see Adinkra referred to for
the symbols and for the cloth as well. What else does it remind you of? And what are your associations with it?
[00:20:36] Rosalind Wambui: If you are a big fan of Vitenges along the streets of Nairobi, you'll see beautiful patterns and you've never really known the meaning. So it's interesting to now acknowledge where they're coming from.
[00:20:51] Adrian Jankowiak (Co-host): Yeah, it kind of got me down this rabbit hole. It's interesting because, again, I thought maybe when I researched it at university, I missed something. How did I not realize? I thought it may have originated today. You know, I was thinking. It may have originated from Africa, but perhaps it came from Europe then was used in Adinkra or perhaps it was totally independently developed because that also happens often.
[00:21:20] But it was interesting as well because like I was saying, I couldn't get to the
bottom of it because the Wikipedia page for the symbol, it's called the looped square on Wikipedia. The Wikipedia page doesn't mention Africa anywhere or Adinkra symbols. And when you go onto the Adinkra symbols Wikipedia page, it has a tiny, tiny little picture of the Mpatapo symbol, but it doesn't actually list it anywhere.
[00:21:48] So it doesn't have an explanation. So if anyone's a Wikipedia editor and wants to update so people can know more then feel free as well.