Kham: Living the Dream in Comics and Cartoons

A former editorial cartoonists and creator of numerous comic characters—Bongoman, Babu, JJ, Inspector Kamata etc., James Kamawira popularly known as Kham is a devoted cartoonist. Tasked by his peers in the industry to champion and foreground cartoonists’ issues, Kham hopes to approach this task with the same devotion. The Interview.

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 Msanii Kimani: You have one of the longest running comic character Bongoman, who has done virtually everything. How long has Bongoman graced our newspapers?

Kham: Bongoman was conceived in 1987 while I was a graphics designer in a small design firm in Nairobi, but it was not until I joined the Kenya Times newspaper in 1989 that it started running in the Newspaper. Bongoman is the ordinary Kenyan who resides in the Eastlands suburbs of Nairobi, married to Mama Boi and father of 10 year-old Boi. He is unemployed most times but ‘hassling’ to earn a living although the household is largely supported by the wife who runs a grocery store in the estate. Bongoman is the alter ego of the typical Kenyan man who gets to do what most would want to do but can’t or won’t!

Kham's Bongoman series.

Kham’s Bongoman series.

Msanii Kimani: Some of the earliest Kenyan comic books were the Pichadithi collections 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 etc. What is your take on this?

Kham: I greatly respect all those people who were the pioneers of cartoons in Kenya and owe a great debt to them for that. The late Terry Hirst, Edward Gitau and the late Frank Odoi, who were the first local names in the industry that I encountered. I never imagined in my wildest dreams that i would be able to know them and to work with them.

Msanii Kimani: Apart from Bongoman, you have also created several other characters who have been fascinating and full of drama. I am talking about JJ, Babu, Inspector. Why aren’t they as consistent as Bongoman?

Kham: As a cartoonist I have created many characters, some never even saw the light of day (publication). But at one point you do settle down on one or two, JJ almost duplicated Bongoman but he was quite different in his persona and approach. JJ comics were also short three deck gags as opposed to Bongoman’s long running comics. A comic artist is always in the process of creation. I may create some other character in the future, who knows.

Msanii Kimani: Where do you draw inspiration for all these characters and the stores that they tell?

Babu, the adventurous kid

Babu, the adventurous kid

Babu by Kham

Babu by Kham

Kham: Largely from everything about me and my love for a good story. I enjoy the very act of bringing a fictional character to life. I draw a lot of inspiration from the people who write to me call me and tell me they love my characters, Babu is especially popular with children and I recall a young gentleman I was introduced to at a function. He was very excited at meeting me and told me he enjoyed reading Babu in his later primary school and throughout secondary school. He is a father now and his son loves reading Babu every Sunday and he can get no rest until he buys the Sunday newspaper. Babu has transcended generations! Babu books are due for publication sometime in the near future.

Msanii Kimani: You no longer draw editorial cartoons. Why did you stop?

Kham: Mainly because I wanted to concentrate on comic development. I am basically a comic artist and feel more satisfied doing comics. There is also a growing number of young editorial artists who also deserve the chance to publish their work. A cartoonist needs exposure in order to grow and quite unfortunately in Kenya, the newspapers are the only avenues for that. I am also involved in the revival of the defunct KATUNI, the Association of East African Cartoonists (since renamed, East African Cartoonists Society- KATUNI). As the Chairman, I want to build it into a vibrant society that will support cartoonists. We are in the process of drawing up programs that will launch the new society into one that can offer alternative exposure to upcoming, cartoonist, illustrators, comic artists and other artists.

Msanii Kimani: Take me through the journey of your life— when & where were you born? Are you the eldest or last-born? How many are you in the family?

Kham: I was born in 1965, the second born in a family of father, mother, two boys and three girls. My father, the late John Crispin Kamawira was a Geography lecturer at Kenyatta College (Now Kenyatta University) and my mother was an actress with VOK (now KBC) under the late Francis Imbuga. My father moved to the Adult Studies Centre (now Kikuyu University Campus) in Kikuyu and this is where my childhood proper began.

 

Kamata the super cop

Kamata the super cop

Kamata 002

Kamata the super cop

Kamata 003

Kamata the super cop

 

 

 

 

 

 

Kham: I began Std 1 at Thogoto Junior School (now Musa Gitau Primary School). It was run by missionaries then, and I vividly remember the headmistress, Mrs. Welsh and later, the disciplinarian, Mrs. Wainaina. It was life full of adventure with the neighbor’s children from the college housing estate. My father was transferred to Nyeri when I was in Standard six and I transferred to Nyeri Primary School where I completed my Primary education. I joined St Mary’s Boys High School and later Icuga Secondary School where I concluded my Secondary education. I remember that throughout my school days I’d get into trouble with many a teacher for cartooning them while in class much to the hilarity of my co-pupils.

Msanii Kimani: And when did you start life as an illustrator?

Kham: I began my working career as a trainee graphics designer and two years later I joined an Advertising Agency, Hill Ayton, as a finished artist. I still had a burning desire to do cartoons for the media and I finally got the chance to do so when I was invited by the Kenya Times Media Trust to be their editorial cartoonist in 1989. Unfortunately Kenya Times Media Trust collapsed in 1994 and I had to leave. The management tried to revive it and it continued for some years but it finally just died. I still remember it as the first platform that published my work and as the most interesting place that I ever worked. I moved to Media House, but it too collapsed and that’s when I landed at the Standard Group, where I was the editorial cartoonist till 2013. I still contribute Bongoman, a daily strip and Babu, a weekly strip that runs every Sunday.

 

Bongo 103

Bongoman and the kidnappers

Bongo 104

Bongoman and the kidnappers

Bongo 105

Bongoman and the kidnappers

 

 

 

 

 

 

Msanii Kimani: Where did you go to college? How was it? What are some the challenges and trials that you encountered while trying to learn the trade?

Kham: I have never trained as a cartoonist and I don’t believe anyone can train to be a cartoonist. One has to have an inherent talent as an artist. At this point some go into cartoons, fine art, others into sculptures and others may go into animation and some other art-based disciplines. The major challenges I faced in my early days a cartoonist were limitation. I worked for a newspaper owned by the ruling party KANU, in those days, KANU was the government and the government was KANU, there was practically nowhere to draw the line between the two. I could not caricature the president, or some powerful fellows in government or party. Cartoonist in private media too, could not draw the president until much later my colleague Paul Kelemba ‘Maddo’, who was in the Standard Newspaper at the time dared to do so, in another publication and nothing happened! This finally opened the floodgates; I could draw the president now, but strictly, in ’good light’. I however took a course in 2D animation at the School of Electronic Art in San Francisco, California, USA in 1992 on a USAID, Training for Development Scholarship.

Msanii Kimani: Please give me an outline of the body of your works- the things that you have done- both in Africa and internationally.

Kham: I have held joint exhibitions with my colleagues, Maddo, the late Frank Odoi and Gado in Kenya and outside Kenya, i.e. Dar es salaam, Switzerland, Italy and Norway. I have been contracted by the World Bank to develop cartoons for their calendars, which feature cartoonists from around the globe. I have done some cartoons for foreign media, i.e. BBC and some publications in Norway, USA and Finland. I have been one of the principle artists in the development of the world-acclaimed POPED series.

Msanii Kimani: When did your start doing editorial cartoons?

Kham:  1989, Kenya Times Media Trust. I have been drawing Editorial cartoons since then, 1996- Media House, 1997- Standard Media Group.

Msanii Kimani: Who was your role model in the industry?

Kham: My role models were the late Terry Hirst, Edward Gitau and the late Frank Odoi. These three gentlemen greatly inspired me in my childhood and early teens.

Msanii Kimani: What is your opinion of the comic industry in the Kenyan and African literary scene?

Kham: The comic industry in Kenya has been neglected.  It is quite vibrant in Tanzania with quite a number of comic books like Kingo doing the rounds. In Kenya, there are some factors that affect the production of comic books. There is a very high taxation regime on paper and other assorted art accessories and therefore printing. The media is also so cocooned into sensational news that even ordinary features have been neglected. There was some effort put into comic production by Sasa Sema productions under Lila Luce, but somewhere along the way the publication was sold to a bigger publishing house with the promise that they would continue the good work. Not another book was published after Lila Luce, an American, left.

Kham and civic education

Kham and civic education

Msanii Kimani: What needs to be done to increase its vibrancy?

Kham: The East African Cartoonists Society is in the process of identifying partners who can assist this industry to thrive. With consistent financing and commitment from media/publishing houses, Kenya can become the hub of comic production in Africa. Kenya has the infrastructure and immense talent.

Msanii Kimani: Do you think the industry is able to support an artist to live off it?

Kham: Right now that is doubtful, but with time and proper structures put in place by the players in the industry, it is possible. The association is trying to come up with a well thought out and sustainable project to ensure this.

Msanii Kimani: Is there hope for it beyond the occasional illustrations in the newspaper?

Kham: There is hope and that is what we are about. At EACS-KATUNI we hope to create a forum that will be able to give all aspiring artists a platform to provide them with exposure and even employment.

Msanii Kimani: What is your opinion of the cartoonists in the newsroom?

Kham:  We have some brilliant cartoonists in our newsrooms and others are coming up rapidly. Right now there is certainly no shortage of really good cartoonists in the newsrooms although there is a fair share of mediocrity in there too!

Msanii Kimani: Would you say there is a favorable market for comics in the Kenya and Africa in general?

Kham: Oh, yes, it’s just that in their haste to make super profits through textbooks, the publishers in this country have not yet realized that. Even local comics would make some modest returns although publishing and printing cost are rather high in this country. I have a project in the pipeline to deal with this although I would not like to comment about it at this time.

Kham and civic education

Kham and civic education

Msanii Kimani: What are the other things that you like doing when you are not working? What are your hobbies etc.?

Kham: I am a farming enthusiast and I am planning on setting up an integrated farming concern in the very near future. When I am not working, I am doing research on agriculture and when I am not doing that I love watching movies, travelling and reading.

Msanii Kimani: What are some of the other extraordinary things that have happened to you and also added invaluable experience to your life as an African cartoonist?

Kham: As a cartoonist you are very intimately in touch with the political pulse of the country and world at large. I think this allows you to look at human interaction in a completely different way from ordinary citizens. It allows me to place the political class under closer scrutiny. I have also had the opportunity to meet cartoonists outside the country and work with them. I have held numerous exhibitions within and without the country, visited foreign countries such as the USA, Britain and Canada. I also got a scholarship to do animation in the United States in 1992.

Most of all I have been able to identify one glaring obstacle that prevents Kenya from developing as smoothly as it should. Lack of Information! We moved from one regime that hoarded information and moved to two regimes that have made politics the staple diet of the citizens at the expense of valuable knowledge that can uplift the standards of so many. Majority of Kenyans still do not know about the contents of the Constitution and many more do not understand the mechanics of our country’s new political dispensation, devolution. Including those who “purport” to lead. A blind man cannot lead another blind man. I am exploring various possibilities to remedy the situation.

Kamata 008

Kamata the super cop

Kamata 009

Kamata the super cop

Kamata 010

Kamata the super cop

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Babu187

Babu’s adventures

Babu188

Babu’s adventures

Babu189

Babu’s adventures

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Bongo 108

Bongoman and the kidnappers

Bongo 109

Bongoman and the kidnappers

Bongo 110

Bongoman and the kidnappers

Frank Odoi: “where grass has grown, grass will grow”

Frank Odoi

Akokhan sample

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.

The pioneers, the “crazy” gang.

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.

Maddo’s Miguel Sede. A memorable strip that should be revived.

 

Sede 3