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.
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!
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.