Frank Odoi: “where grass has grown, grass will grow”
He was a great story teller, cartoonist, humorist and African music connoisseur. Frank Odoi or simply Fran was a first-rate cartoonist and like it has been said by many who knew him, he had a way of bringing characters alive that was uniquely his.
I met him, well at least his work, pretty early in my life. I was a consummate punter of African comics and while Edward Gitau’s Juha Kalulu was the one I could easily access thanks to my old man’s keen interest in Taifa Leo, I stumbled upon Fran’s work when I started reading JOE magazine.
“Frank had seen a copy of JOE magazine in Ghana, and just turned up in Nairobi to join us,” recalled Terry Hirst, pioneer editorial cartoonist who he worked Frank noted. “We put him up for a while, and he worked for JOE enthusiastically. He left us to go solo after JOE ceased, and soon followed my example by submitting Pichadithi scripts to Kul Bhakoo.”
I recall reading his piece Terror in Ngecha Village and to date, I still keep the Pichadithi collection. I was attracted by his illustrations but it is his storytelling know-how and talent to bring the characters to life and speak to you that struck me. It is no wonder that I became such a keen follower of his work and like many cartoonists in the country, I longed to meet him.
My interest in his work grew immensely when he started publishing Akokhan, that he is most famous for. The series ran in The Standard, Daily Nation and has been running in the The Star. The Akokhan story is a powerful one. It is captivating and extremely well illustrated. I fell in love with it and this is the time that I went out of my way to look for him. We, thereafter, struck a friendship and even when the series was discontinued I never stopped pestering him when it would be revived or when he would compile it into a book.
You can imagine my joy when he finally told me that the book had been published. Comics always bring out the kid in me and when I got my copy, I was beside myself. I was so excited that never went to bed before I had finished reading and reviewing it.
Described to be “more than a comic story,” Akokhan is an engrossing and spellbinding comic story that imaginatively and profoundly interrogates the age-old questions of good and evil as illustrated in this opening verse. No wonder he has been described “Africa’s Hergé or Urdezo.”
The series revolves around two deadly opposites, Tonkazan and Akokhan. The former, who represents the “dark side,” is a scheming, evil and often murderous villain, while the latter is more reasonable and fights for the good side. Their rivalry is age old as they seek to possess and control the power-and-strength-giving “Eye of Kofi Larteh”, which is seemingly — the holy grail, the ultimate prize in the never-ending battle of good and evil captured in the opening verse in the profound Konadi Chronicles that are surprisingly well crafted imaginary verses.
In the Konadi Chronicles, dubbed The Inseparables, Frank noted: “Tell me Day, why do you follow me?” asked Night; “We are twins, don’t you know?” answered Day. “I am the one who brings out the Fire and you the smoke; I am the one, who brings out the Light; And you the Dark. It is useless for us to fight, Light and Shade, Good and Evil….. What a pair! Where you go I must follow.”
And these lines of the Konadi Chronicles, serve as the foundation of the powerful and unforgettable Akokhan tale that was influenced by a number of events, friends and foes, environmental upheavals, and the diversity of African culture, especially myths and legends of Ghana’s traditional religions.
“Most of the shrines and locales mentioned in the story are real but they transcend time and space,” Frank told me in an interview. “One glaring difference between West Africa and East Africa is how local religious beliefs and rites are perceived. Traditional religions in Ghana and West Africa as a whole are culturally accepted and respected, while this is somehow frowned upon and referred to as voodoo, juju, witchcraft and other humiliating names in East Africa.”
I shared the book with my son and he was equally taken in by the story. He has there kept on asking for the next edition and I have in turn kept on pestering Frank. When he started publishing it in The Star, we— my son and I, devised a way of making our own comic by cutting the weekly episodes and sticking them in an old diary as an Akokhan scrap book/comic. We have diligently done this and on some days when we missed our copy of the Saturday Star, it has been miserable.
Last year, I told Frank about this “little father and son project” and he really laughed. He said that he had a few things lined that would make excite us. True enough, he was, then, working on the children series on Golgoti, his other amazing series. He was preparing to travel to Finland to exhibit some of his work, give lectures and work with kids but he pointed out that in 2012, he would actualize several projects that would be really exciting.
“I love comics than cartoons, so that’s what I want to be remembered for,” he told me in an interview after I reviewed the book. “I would like to sit back and create comics for both children and adults, especially those with story lines like Akokhan. Hopefully someone might come along and create movie versions of my creations…These are my dream………”
He was I guess paving the way to do as Maddo noted: “One of my greatest regrets as we all absorb the impact of Frank’s departure, is that he has not lived to see the animated Akokhan which is in the initial stages of production planning at Buni Limited – the XYZ Show production company. Buni is a sister company to 4D Innovative where he shared directorship with Gado, Kham and I.”
There is no doubt that Akokhan is a great story developed and illustrated by a great mind. Frank was pioneering a great African comic revolution and an excellent addition to the fast diversifying African literary scene and going by the subsequent works of art that Akokhan inspired, it demonstrated that this— the comic could be the continent’s next literary frontier. In comparison to the novel, poetry and drama, the comic genre is still in its embryonic stages but it has a lot of potential and some pundits argue that it should be aggressively promoted not just because the storylines are abundant, its inherent powers to contribute immensely to the socio cohesion fabrics of our societies should be exploited.
“Frank a remarkable soul – quick, intelligent, witty, a debater with a firm grasp on world affairs, both culturally and politically,” Maddo reminisced in his tribute. “I loved the nights we’d engage over a bottle of lager; we fought, laughed, hugged and dreamt of a better Africa.”
Frank’s resilience to trudge on with creating the Akokhan and Golgoti series inspite of its minimal returns, are clear demonstrations that that “better Africa” is possible. He showed that there is enough to develop our own story lines, whether it is about events from far back in the Songhai—Mali empire of Askia Walata or recent one colonialism, dictatorship, multiparty democracy or the Arab uprising. The possibilities are unimaginable.
There is probably no one who can pick up the Akokhan tales and tell them like he did. His legacy will live on in Akokhan and Golgoti and many other pieces that he created. However, his enduring legacy will be the realization of a vibrant African comic and animation industry—a fete that can only be realized by those who knew him or interacted with his work, raising the bar.
His resilience should flow in the old and young cartoonists to develop their works. Maddo to revive Miguel Sede, Kham to publish the adventures of Bongoman, Chief Nyamweya and Nahabi Wandera to push the limits of the escapades of the captivating Roba among others so that “where grass has grown, grass will grow.” Rest in peace Frank. Rest in Peace.