Cartoonists and Comics in East Africa
“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.”
-verse from the Konadi Chronicles.
These are the inviting words that greet you when you open the latest entrant in the up-and-coming African comic genre. Described to be “more than a comic story,” Akokhan by Frank Odoi 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.
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 that serves as the foundation of the 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 pointed out to Kymsnet Features 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 some how frowned upon and referred to as voodoo, juju, witchcraft and other humiliating names in East Africa.”
Nonetheless, Akokhan has captured a large audience in East Africa and parts of northern Europe despite its strong West African folklore theme. Introduced into the East African market in a weekly series that was intermittently published by the two leading dailies in Kenya, it has had its “diehard” fans in Nairobi who mourned each time the series took a break. One fan, the late Doctor Bantu Mwaura, loved Akokhan so much so that he sought Frank’s permission and mounted a stage play of the same name and theme and a screen version of Akokhan in also in the works.
The Comic Genre
There is no doubt that Akokhan is an excellent addition to the fast diversifying African literary scene and going by the subsequent works of art that it has inspired, the comic has demonstrated that this 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 of our societies should be exploited.
“The comic book format— this union of literature and art, words and pictures has contributed a great deal to the social cohesion of those societies in which it has taken root,” Terry Hirst, the pioneer editorial cartoonist and comic author in Kenya told Kymsnet Features.
He added: “In fact, no successful industrialized market economy has emerged anywhere in the world, without spawning a comic book industry to assist in the necessary balancing of forces and the necessary introduction and education of the young into social process, so that they understand what is expected of them. It has happened in Europe and North America, of course, but also indigenously in China, Japan and eventually in India, Central and South America, and the Mahgreb but clearly not yet in Africa South of the Sahara, where in my view it is obviously needed.”
The genre has had a stunted and topsy-turvy growth in Kenya and the East African region in general but some of the few comics that have been published by various cartoonists and illustrators, have helped the genre to etch a mark for itself in the regions’s literary landscape. In Kenya, the mark was made with novel works like the Pichadithi series that was created by Terry Hirst. The series title was coined from two Swahili words Picha (pictures), (H)adithi (story).
First published in the early 1980s by Kenway Publication, the Pichadithi series was without doubt one of the longest published comic series that was also grounded in the African traditional oral literature. The series had over twenty-30-paged comics that were developed from various popular fables, myths and legends that were told in various Kenyan communities and they were a joy for the young readers.
“The series was conceptualized in 1982 and Kenya had just gone through the trauma of the attempted coup d’état,” Terry Hirst recalled the way series came into being. “Working in the mainstream media had become politically very repressive and I had been forced out of my job as an editorial cartoonist on a national daily shortly before and my re-appointment as a lecturer in graphics at a local public university failed to be confirmed in related circumstances. So I was faced with the usual artist’s problem of how to make a living, which involves taking the product of an artist’s “gift economy” and entering the market economy with them and for this you really need a patron—or at least an agent.”
He added: “The thing that I wanted to do as artist was to make comic books but no comic book industry existed in Kenya and I managed to persuade the publisher, who were very much into the existing markets as pre-press professionals, as well as publishers, that an unexplored market existed that we could both benefit from. In effect, the publishers were my patron/agent and would pay me upfront on receiving the completed finished, camera-ready, artwork monthly, thus financing the completion of the next month’s issue. Happily for me, the series was popular from the start and soon achieved a monthly circulation of over 20,000 copies.”
An important part of our African culture is in the traditional stories which have been handed down by word of mouth over the years the Pichadithi series was based on these traditional stories. They were told in words and pictures that also made use of well researched material culture that needed not be explained but simply seen and which not only added colour but made the series easy and fun to read. Pichadithi stories are a simple way for our children and us to learn more about our rich Kenyan culture. Each story has a message and a moral that is as relevant to modern African living as in the past.
“After the attempted coup trauma as well the subsequent “crack-down,” food shortages and coffee scandals,” Terry Hirst pointed out to Kymsnet Features, “my wife and I both felt that the country— particularly children—needed “healing” so we thought that traditional stories from all over the country, that everyone could relate to culturally, would not only soothe and entertain but underline the unity of our diversity.”
The series had memorable stories like Kenyatta Prophecy, The Greedy Hyena, Wanjiru the Sacrifice, The Amazing Abu Nuwasi, Lwanda Magere, The Ogre’s Daughter, The Adventures of Hare, The Wisdom of Koomenjoe, A Poor Man’s Bowl, Terror in Ngachi Village, The Cunning Squirrel, Omganda’s Treasure, Children of Sango, Simbi the Hunchback and others.
While Terry could be credited with creating the series, many other cartoonists like Fran, Maddo were invited to illustrate these stories and thus grounded the genre to some of the then young talent of numerous African cartoonists. The number of young artists attracted to the genre continued to grow in all the East African countries and comic strips by artists from Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda made their way into various papers in these countries.
Comics strips such as Bogi Benda by James Tumusiime, a Ugandan agriculture economist turned journalist, Kazibure also known as Ndumilakuwili by Tanzania’s pioneer cartoonist the late Philip Ndunguru were very popular in Kenya and in the region. These comic strips were an alternative to the then dominant Western strips such as Andy Capp, Eb and Flo, Popeye, Hagar the Terrible, Flash Gordon, Modesty Blaise, Donald Duck, The Tramps among others. They were very popular and the letters to the editor served to demonstrate that there was indeed a market for works of art in this genre in the region.
When the Pichadithi series was discontinued in Kenya, a big void was left and that went on for over 10-years before another bold publisher attempted to fill it. Laila Luce, an American entrepreneur, set up Sasa Sema Publishers that set out to solely publish comics and they churned out several titles like Macho ya Mji, Abu Nuwasi etc. The storylines were a mixture of comics derived from narratives to fictional works of art.
“Laila Luce did her best with the Sasa Sema series before a sluggish readership put paid to her efforts,” Maddo, who was also the first Kenyan cartoonist to caricature a seating President when country was gripped in by the clamour for multi-party politics in the early 1990s. “The comic industry is tiny and is still in limbo because of our reading habits. We read very little – that is text stuff. We are good at glancing at cartoons, cartoons in a single frame or a composite of them which tell one story or two, laugh it off and we’re fine. Somehow, we find it extremely difficult to read comic books.”
Cartoonists in the Newsroom
It is an uncertain industry and as a result, most cartoonists have been confined to drawing editorial cartoons. This particular art form has grown immensely and it is hard to imagine nowadays a newspaper without an editorial cartoon. A number of these illustrations have been turned in insightful and fascinating books by creative cartoonists like Godfrey Mwampembwa a.k.a Gado in Kenya, Jonathan Zapiro a.k.a Zapiro in South Africa and others.
However, the East African cartoonist finds him/herself in a small, crowded sector where one has to be absolutely good – and lucky – to make a career. Though newspapers today have in their employment several artists producing different work (single frame cartoons, comics, illustrations), there is still a limit to how many one media house can have on board.
Cartoonists who spoke to Kymsnet Features acknowledged that while daily cartoon commentary is highly popular, it is crowded and can only offer a few career openings to a few artists at a time. It is this that is making them to push their creative ideas and dream to new heights.
“I love comics than cartoons, so that’s what I want to be remembered for,” Fran told Kymsnet Features. “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.”
It is a genre with possibilities waiting to be tapped. Cartoonists would like other publishers to follow the lead of East African Educational Publishers, who have published Fran’s Akokhan. They would also like the private and government literary departments to encourage a reading culture in general. They opine that locally produced 2-D and 3-D animation series for television may just revamp interest in comics.