By: Dr. Lilac Osanjo
Posted: Jan 27th, 2019

The next time you drive along Uhuru Highway at The Nyayo National Stadium, you will appreciate the kaloli birds that nestle on the thorn trees along the road. Kaloli bird form is the inspiration behind kaloli letterforms and t-shirt design by Lilac. The design dates back a few years when she visited Kampala, Uganda to participate in one of the "Artists in Development" workshops.  

Kaloli is the Baganda name for the Marabou stork bird that can be found in clusters in parts of urban spaces. Large luscious thorn trees are their breeding grounds. In Nairobi and Kampala, the birds can be seen carelessly perched on the equally carelessly woven nests made from twigs, grass and leaves. Their preference to feed off garbage dumps, gave rise to the nickname of "city cleaners," as they rummage through trash with their long, rough, tough beaks. The bird has a straight, linear and almost stiff form. When it spreads its wings they can measure up to two meters (2m) across. 

In spite of their ugly features, their lean body frame and versatile body formations, the kaloli endeared itself to the design of African letterforms. The letterforms have been described as "an experiment with African typography" by Saki Mafundikwa in his book "Afrikan Alphabets: the story of writing in Afrika."

Figure 1: Kaloli letterforms by Lilac

Kaloli was borne of the challenge to stretch our imagination in the use of typography and the design process was strongly influenced by intuitive, spontaneous feeling of awe coupled with a sense of form (letters). Rhetoric was employed alongside other metaphors that define the visual language of design that includes form, function and aesthetics to develop kaloli; and, as described by Deogratias Byabafumu, "the conventional shape and use of type as we know it was thrown out the window." 

He went on to acknowledge that the kaloli was still quite legible, in spite of the form manipulation. On the workshop output, Saki, who was the facilitator in Kampala, and a design educator, stated that, "My main purpose in teaching is to stimulate original thinking and allow students to make their own discoveries about life in the past and the present. I do not want to subject students to the rigmarole of conventional knowledge, which can stifle their own beliefs and interests."


Dr. Lilac Osanjo is well known in the design fraternity as a career designer, educator and leading design visionary. She sets the bar high and continually raises it by using design to communicate possibilities through papers, articles, and exhibitions on design for health, agriculture, renewable energy systems and sustainable livelihoods in Africa. She is the Director of School of The Arts and Design, University of Nairobi and founding member of the Design Kenya Society, the Network of Afrika Designers (NAD) and Afrika Design Forum.