Thursday, December 3, 2020

West African-based emojis create exuberant culture in U.S.

“I didn’t know I was missing these emojis till I saw them,” Lola Adekoya, a Nigerian-American and public relations major, said. O’Plerou Grebet, a digital artist from Ivory Coast, wants to revolutionize the way we communicate by creating relatable emojis.

Since 2018, Grebet has released 350 plus emojis that capture things that can be seen in everyday West African life. From protective hairstyles (cornrows & bantu knots), to local transportation (Keke Napep-a tricycle or Danfo-a bus), to traditional delicacies (jollof rice & plantain), Grebet touches on different aspects.

“I noticed that the media and most articles about Africa were talking about the bad sides of the continent only,”  Grebet said to CNN. “They reduced the image of it to a land in war where people are poor and hungry. These elements are true but it’s not everywhere on the continent.”

Grebet identifies the gaps in the African story and seeks to fill them through the emojis he created.

“The digital landscape isn’t just the Western or North-American experience, it’s actually pretty global.” Shakuntala Rao, a Plattsburgh State professor and researcher on social media platforms said. “Taking on this kind of initiative shows positive engagement. These emojis enrich global digital engagement which in the past has been negative.”

While these emojis give exposure to Africa, they can also be a source of controversy. Emojis such as the eggplant and gorilla have taken on different meanings from what was originally intended for them. The same could happen to the Zouzoukwa emojis.

“There will always be a group of people who don’t like anything,” Rao said, “Someone will always say ‘Why are you pushing West African culture on us?’”

These emojis are a way to enrich the options available for us to communicate on social media.

“Emojis are becoming a shortcut to actual conversation,” Rao noted. “Emojis have different ways of being used and understood.”

This means though there might be an exchange, there isn’t actual communication. There are ways around that such as seeking clarification within the conversation.

Ultimately, the good outweighs the harm.

“When you see croissant, you see France, when you see sushi, you see Japan and the hope is when you see jollof, you see West Africa,” Emmanuel Akuamoah, a biomedical science major and Ghanaian-American said.

It would be exciting if every time people saw a new emoji they decided to learn more about it.  But “no research suggests that when people see a new emoji, go and look it up,” Rao said.

The area of emojis is one that needs more research. The research will likely reveal Grebet’s emojis subconsciously make minorities feel more included.

“These emojis are from Ivory Coast!” Hiyab Haile, an environmental science and planning major said. “We have a lot of these things in Ethiopia.”

Grebet, by pushing his emojis out to the world, reveals to Africans around the world that they have more in common than they think.

The emojis are a force to preserve culture.

“Sometimes, you get lost in the sauce of the United States,” Adekoya said. “These emojis could be a way to remember things that might be forgotten.”

When reviewing the emojis, Adekoya shared different memories each emoji brought, bringing a smile to her face.

“These emojis will give young children, I feel, the opportunity to connect.” Akuamoah said.

Rachel Wilcoxson, coordinator of student activities added on, “These emojis will likely foster communication across generations and overcome language barriers.”

There are approximately 2,000 languages spoken in West Africa. With so many languages, these emojis serve as a bridge for people to connect.

The emojis are currently on the Zouzoukwa app which houses the emojis as WhatsApp stickers. Grebet is, however, working on getting a few emojis approved by the Unicode Consortium, a California-based organization that approves emojis.  Until the emojis are approved, feel free to use them on WhatsApp with friends. Diversity is more than gradations in skin tone. Its items are unique to the culture of a people.

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