Laying cartooning on the line in Africa
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Laying cartooning on the line in Africa

With the introduction of multi-party politics in most African countries during the 1990s, cartooning emerged as a growing profession. This does not mean that it was not around before then. In the 1960s there were pioneers like Gregory (Tanzania) with his popular Chakibanga cartoon and the Juha Kalulu strip by Edward Gitau, the oldest living cartoonist in East and Central Africa.

Political changes brought greater freedom of expression as well as of the press. This has injected new life into newspapers, magazines and the publishing industry generally. Previously it was fairly difficult since there was a lot of self-censorship from fear of the ruling regimes preventing artists from expressing their true wit in criticising those in authority. Even so, most cartoonists worked throughout this period, despite the dangerous times.

Many cartoonists suffered. Firstly, fear of reprisal limited creativity. Six years it was unimaginable that some political figures would appear in cartoons in many African countries – even in so-called independent newspapers. Today, caricatures of President Moi (Kenya), Mobutu (formerly of Zaire), Museveni (Uganda) are not uncommon in their respective countries.

In 1988 in South Africa, political cartoonist Janathan Zapiro (now with the Sowetan, Mail, and Guardian) had to go into hiding in fear of his life after being threatened by the apartheid regime. Cartoonist Terry Hirst was deported in the late 1980s before returning to Kenya. There were many such incidents in other African countries.

Freedom of the press has led to the creation of many new newspapers, magazines and publications, something that was only dreamt of ten years ago. Cartoonists got a raw deal from government monopolies and the publishing industry. Few of them could et jobs or even freelance. In Tanzania, for example, as late as 1988 there were only two daily newspapers: the Daily News owned by the government, and Uhuru, owned by the ruling party. Now there are five more independent dailies and about 30 weeklies in Dar es Salaam. Uganda, Kenya and Zambia are similar.

Each of these newspapers has political cartoons, strips, and comics as well as other cartoons. This has certainly not made things as good for the profession as in Asia or the West, but it is an improvement. Another major reason for slow growth is the fact that it has never been promoted through schools and other institutions. This has made cartooning – or ‘drawing’ as it is referred to – look like a part-time occupation. On several occasions in the past I have been asked whether I do anything else for a living apart from ‘drawing’, simply because people don’t see how one can survive. Such perceptions have begun to change.

Cartoonists from many sub-Saharan countries have been holding meetings, seminars, workshops and exhibitions inside and outside Africa. In 1992 and 1993 there was an exhibition in Kemi, Finland, called ‘View from the South’ and featuring many African cartoonists, among them James Gayo (Tanzania), Vick Kisinya (Malawi) and Frank Odoi (Ghana, working in Kenya).

All these factors have helped promote the creativity of many cartoonists in the region, as well as the way we do and think about the whole profession. The public follows cartoons (editorial, strip and comics) much more than before and people comment on them and react to them.

From time to time politicians and other complain about cartoonists, but this does not deter them. Recently cartoonist Paul Kilumba, best known as Madd, Frank Odoi and myself started a company called Communicating Artists. We launched a new monthly magazine called Africa Illustrated, comprising many cartoonists, illustrators, artists and humorists from Africa and Europe.

The birth of African Illustrated, which will soon be available in East Africa, South Africa and some European countries, is a clear demonstration of how seriously the cartooning profession sees itself and how much stronger it is becoming. Publishing it is a competitive and tough business.

However, there is still a long way to go. Journalists are still being harassed, detained and imprisoned in many African countries (e.g. Nigeria), and cartoonists, illustrators and others find their profession dangerous. Looming on the horizon is censorship by individuals in the political and financial sectors, rather than the one-party censorship of earlier years.

  • But one thing is certain: the cartoonists’ train has started rolling and it is moving in the right direction.

Gado is a Tanzanian working as a staff cartoonist with Nation Newspapers Ltd, Nairobi, Kenya.

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