The History and Development of Kenyan Comics

Volume 14, Issue 3  | 
Published 01/02/2018

The history of comics in Kenya, like in many other parts of the world - America, Europe, Japan, et cetera - has followed different paths informed by their own different cultures. However, there are still many similarities with the rest of the world in this development that is informed by the close interconnectedness of the art form, thematic concerns, artistic inspirations, artistic styles, forms and formats, terminologies, and many other qualities that define comics.

This interconnectedness could be discerned through the study of comics, a development that continues to grow globally, and Kenya is no exception. In Kenya, too, this takes the generally accepted definition that:

comics are a medium used to express ideas by images, often combined with text or other visual information. Comics frequently take the form of juxtaposed sequences of panels of images. Often textual devices such as speech balloons, captions, and onomatopoeia indicate dialogue, narration, sound effects, or other information. Size and arrangement of panels contribute to narrative pacing. Cartooning and similar forms of illustration are the most common image-making means in comics; fumetti is a form which uses photographic images. Common forms of comics include comic strips, editorial and gag cartoons, and comic books. Since the late twentieth century, bound volumes such as graphic novels, comic albums, have become increasingly common, and online webcomics have proliferated in the 21st century.

By the time the first colonial newspaper was started in Kenya in 1902, often cited with the founding of the East African Standard, comics for newspapers and magazines - as a medium used to express ideas by images often combined with text or other visual information - had already become part of the usual menu in the Western media landscape. Comics syndicated by major players, such as King Features Syndicate, Universal Press Syndicate, Creators Syndicate, Newspaper Enterprise Association (NEA), et cetera, led to the growth of comics in America, Europe, and beyond. This included many countries in Africa then under the colonial yoke, when they started publishing newspapers and magazines. East Africa was no exception, and it is no wonder that the popular comics strips that ran in these early papers in Kenya and East Africa were imported from the newspaper syndicates and locally reproduced. They mainly catered to the white settler communities and colonial government.

In their seminal work dubbed Drawing the Line, which details the history and impact of political cartooning in Kenya, the East African Cartoonists Society (KATUNI) observed that:

The earliest reference to cartoons in East Africa chronicles the circulation of caricatures among soldiers fighting in World War I. According to Melvin E. Page, in an article titled “‘With Jannie in the Jungle’: European Humor in an East African Campaign, 1914–1918” published in The International Journal of African Historical Studies in 1981, “Cartoons and anecdotes circulated throughout East Africa; at least one humour magazine, the Karonga Kronikal, was created for and by the troops.” The purposes of the Kronikal and other sources of humour were to boost the morale of the soldiers and to provide an outlet for their frustrations. Cartoons also helped define the enemy, by depicting German soldiers comically, such as in positions impersonating African women or as cowards hiding behind African men. In comparing the war cartoons in Europe and those in East Africa, Page writes: “The enemy in Europe was frequently painted in horrific terms, a Teutonic barbarian cruelly smashing the innocent and righteous. In East Africa, though, he was much more amusing.” These cartoons in East Africa, however, seldom featured Africans as subjects. What one can easily decipher is the typical colonial stereotyping of the Africans then prevalent. Page observes: “Even in situations where the figure of the German was not present, the structure of the humour, rather than the butt of the joke, often revealed this attitude toward Africans.” The Kronikal, edited by Phillip Mitchell (who was later to serve as, among other positions, the colonial governor of Kenya) and Edmund Richards (later governor of Basutoland and Nyasaland), was published in Livingstonia Mission in Nyasaland (now known as Malawi). The mission was headed by a missionary, Robert Laws, who, in setting the guidelines under which the paper was to be published, seemed to have preferred Britain’s Punch, as a model.

It was not until the 1950s that the first local comic strips drawn by local cartoonists - the late Edward Gicheri Gitau and William Agutu - started running. These men were without doubt the trailblazers, and Juha Kalulu - founded by Gitau, a former electrician, who ‘came into cartooning literally by accident’ after falling off ‘the roof of a building while laying wires, in the process breaking his arms’ - is the longest-running comic strip in East and Central Africa. Gitau coined the name of his main character by combining names drawn from two languages: Juha, a Kiswahili word for ‘not so clever’ and bordering on being clownish, and Kalulu, a Nyanja (a language spoken in Malawi) word for ‘hare’.

The comic strip features Juha Kalulu and his dog called Taska (Tusker), who are frequently on the move. He is a wanderer roaming the countryside, often on missions that would befit a clown and often he lands in a muddle. In oral literature, the hare is usually depicted as a cunning and crafty fellow, using these traits to escape from tricky situations. As he wanders around, Juha often uses his ‘hare-like cunningness,’ with regular assistance from his faithful dog, Taska, to disentangle himself from a mess.

Married to Serah, they have two children, Ujimoto (Kiswahili for hot porridge), aka Moto, the son, and a daughter. He is always on the road, and the responsibility of day to day running of the family farm is frequently left to his wife Serah.

The comic strip first appeared in Tazama newspaper, a forerunner Kiswahili newspaper in Kenya, but when it folded, Gitau moved the strip to Baraza, another Kiswahili newspaper (founded in 1939) as part of the East African Standard. While Gitau drew for these newspapers, he also contributed cartoons to some vernacular ones that had sprung up as part of the independence struggle. Baraza folded just shortly before independence and was later on revived, but by this time, the comic strip Juha Kalulu had already found a new home where it stayed for good.

In 1961, Gitau moved his strip to Taifa, launched a year earlier as a weekly, later to become a daily. Until his death on May 17, 2016, at age eighty-six, Gitau published Juha Kalulu in Taifa Leo and Taifa Jumapili. For over sixty years, the comic strip ran without fail, along the way making it the longest-running comic strip in Kenya and the East African region. Alongside the daily comic strip, Gitau published three comic books that all sold out. The first book was published in 1978, and its foreword was done by the former President Mwai Kibaki, then serving as Minister of Finance. The other two were published in 1985 and 1991, and their prologues were penned by the late Hon. Joseph J Kamotho and Hon. George Muhoho, then Ministers for Higher Education and Tourism, Science and Technology, respectively.

In the late 1960s, readers in Kenya were introduced to the fumetti, when the African Film magazine series entered the market. ‘Cartooning and similar forms of illustration are the most common image-making means in comics but the fumetti, which is a form that uses photographic images’ is common in many parts of the world.

Fumetti is an Italian word (literally “little puffs of smoke” in reference to speech balloons), which refers to all comics. In English, the term refers specifically to Italian comics, comics made for an Italian audience. It also refers to photonovels or photographic comics, a genre of comics illustrated with photographs rather than drawings. Italians call these fotoromanzi (photonovels). Photonovels are popular in Spain, South Africa, and Latin America, where they are called fotonovelas, and have also gained popularity in France. Photo comics were also common in British magazines such as Jackie in the 1980s, and a few are still published.

In Kenya, the African Film Series featuring Lance Spearman was the most popular, but not the only one. Other equally popular fumetti comics were Son of Samson, Big Ben, et cetera. Published by Drum Publications, Lance Spearman - popularly known as The Spear - was a fictional character who was deemed to be an African James Bond. His adventures were published weekly and traded as African Film in East and West Africa and Spear Magazine in South Africa. Between 1968 and 1972, when the series was discontinued, over 150 issues had been published and gained many fans in every part of the continent.

The lead character, Lance Spearman, was played by Jore Mkwanazi, a Nigerian national, and he was a superhero, a detective, a super spy all rolled into one. Sporting a goatee, Spear smoked expensive cigars and drank whisky on the rocks. He was always immaculately dressed in expensive suits complete with a bow tie and a Panama hat. He drove a fashionable Corvette Sting Ray and, like all superheroes, was an expert marksman and lethal with his hands since skilled in karate and boxing. Like James Bond, he also liked curvaceous women, and he drove around with a bevy of them.

Lance Spearman had a group of loyal allies that he could count on because his enemies were many and they came in many shapes. His allies included Sonia, his knowledgeable assistant who was an agile karate expert as well, and dexterous with her hands. There was also Lemmyas, a twelve-year-old sidekick, who used a catapult as his weapon. Spear also counted on the help of Captain Victor, a police officer who was an invaluable source inside the force.

His arch enemies were The Cat, a burglar with catlike skills for scaling tall buildings, and Dr Devil, an evil genius good with electronics. Others were Rabon Zollo, Themermolls, and Countess Scarlett.

Lance Spearman was the first superhero comic character in Kenya and, years down the line, his popularity inspired the creation of similar superheroes and the use of this comic form. In the 1990s and 2000s, the Standard newspaper ran some fumetti-inspired comics in its weekend papers.

As noted earlier on, common forms of comics include comic strips, comic books and editorial and gag cartoons. And while Kenyans have interacted with comic strips and comic books for a long time, it is the editorial and gag cartoons that have been the most common, popular, widely consumed, and accepted.

Editorial cartoons (also known as political cartoons) are ‘defined as illustrations or comic strips containing a political or social message that usually relates to current events or personalities.’ ‘An artist who draws such images is known as an editorial cartoonist. They typically combine artistic skill, hyperbole and satire in order to question authority and draw attention to corruption, political violence and other social ills.’

Gag cartoons, on the other hand, ‘are a combination of punch lines and scenarios intended to make readers laugh.’ ‘A gag cartoon (a.k.a. panel cartoon or gag panel) is most often a single-panel cartoon, usually including a hand-lettered or typeset caption beneath the drawing. A pantomime cartoon carries no caption. In some cases, dialogue may appear in speech balloons, following the common convention of comic strips. As the name implies - ‘gag’ being a show business term for a comedic idea - these cartoons are most often intended to provoke laughter.’

In Kenya, newspapers have been an important source of information and education, with editorial and gag cartoons having been an integral part of the package, and Kenyans have consumed them on a daily basis. Most editorial and gag cartoons in Kenya have been sharp political commentaries that have elevated these editorial and gag cartoonists within the country and even beyond. These cartoonists are the most visible because of the diverse reaction that their work has often elicited from the citizens (the primary consumers of their work) and the ruling political elite (the prime subject of their political commentaries). The trailblazer of editorial and gag cartoons in Kenya was the late Terry Hirst.

In the mid-1970s, Terry Hirst entered the fray as an editorial cartoonist for the Daily Nation. Hirst was born in Brighton, England, in 1932 and died on June 26, 2015, at the age eighty-two. He was the pioneer editorial and gag cartoonist in Kenya and a comic book author after he created the Pichadithi series. He made his mark with his witty artworks for the leading daily newspaper and for book publishers with illustrations that touched young minds across the country.

As noted in Drawing the Line: ‘He closed the decade of the seventies and opened up the eighties with his Friday feature at the Daily Nation which fast gained a following. He specialised in depicting social scenes and the then quiet political life in rural areas.’ He performed well as an editorial cartoonist for the Nation Media Group, but his greatest impact in combining editorial and gag cartoons was felt when he ‘teamed up with Hillary Ng’weno in the early 1970s to launch Joe Magazine, a lively monthly magazine featuring the character “Joe” through whose eyes the reader was exposed to a variety of social issues.’

Joe was a popular magazine published in Kenya in the 1970s, at the height of what acclaimed publisher Henry Chakava described as the “fat years” of Kenyan publishing. Joe magazine was one in a number of popular publications aimed at the new urban middle and lower-middle classes. What set Joe magazine apart was its subversive use of humour, as well as its use of art and fiction as a narrative frame for cultural, social and political analysis. This strategy was seminal not only in educating and activating its readers but also in providing a platform for new fiction writers and artists to develop their talents.

Terry Hirst was the main artist with the adventures of Joe and his other columns Daddy Wasiwasi & Co and The Good, the Bed and the Ugali, but the magazine also provided space for many other illustrated jokes and comic strips, such as City Life by Edward Gitau or O.K, Sue! A City-Girl’s View by Kimani Gathingiri.

The magazine was not just about comics and illustrations. They published an original short story in every issue, and this became an outlet for many budding writers, such as Sam Kahiga and Meja Mwangi, and even for an established one like Professor Ngugi wa Thiong’o, who also contributed.

‘Joe, the character in the magazine, drawn always in an old coat and with rough beard bald patch on the head was a character everyone seemed to know intimately: the old peasant elderly guy next door; a kindly uncle, only more gifted in wit than your real one and more acerbic,’ said Sam Kahiga, a writer and contributor to the magazine, in an article published by Chimurenga. ‘Ask him a foolish question in one of his cartoon strips and you were gladly rewarded with an even more foolish answer.’ In this same article, Kahiga noted:

Terry Hirst and his Joe magazine gave young people of that era a great opportunity to launch their own teething talents into the bluest skies of their highest artistic dreams. Through the magazine, I nursed my own writing talent, and Terry, I’m proud to say, did the cover of my second novel, Lover in the Sky. He also illustrated one of my early short stories. Few artists, especially cartoonists, in Kenya today do not owe Joe magazine and its creator, Terry, a load of thanks for showing them how to draw and write, in a humourous way, the teething problems of Africa’s toil, as we fly into the future and its challenges.

When he moved away from the editorial commentaries and Joe magazine, Terry Hirst also created the Pichadithi comic book series, as stated earlier. The comic book series title was coined from two Swahili words - Picha (pictures) and (H)adithi (story) - and was without doubt one of the longest published comic book series that was also grounded in African traditional oral literature. The series had over twenty thirty-paged comics, which were developed from various popular fables, myths, and legends told in various Kenyan communities, and they were a joy for the young readers. Terry said the following in an exclusive interview with Kymsnet Media Network:

It was in 1982, and Kenya had just gone through the trauma of the attempted coup d’état. Working in the mainstream media had become politically very repressive. . . . The thing I wanted to do as an artist was to make comic books, but no comic book industry existed in Kenya, and I managed to persuade Kul Graphics, 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, Kul Graphics had become my patron/agent and would pay me up-front 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.

The success of these comic books was without doubt an indicator that there was/is a market for local comic books with local stories, characters, and heroes. However, Terry didn’t just stop there. He dug up his editorial and gag cartoon skills to chart another line of possibilities for himself and the use of comics. He teamed up with the Mazingira Institute and various other civil society organizations (CSOs) to use the power of cartoons to communicate, educate, and inform on various developmental issues.

After Pichadithi, ‘a whole new market in the field of “development communications”’ opened for Hirst, as he noted in the interview:

There were lots of opportunities, and I received commissions from ministries, institutes, NGOs and other donors, in soil conservation and tree planting, immunization and child health, sustainable development and zero-grazing, and information exchanges with children and so on - all of which proved to be very satisfying, and the fieldwork took me to every corner of Kenya, to listen and learn. Some substantial illustrated books came out of it, like the Kenya Pocket Directory of Trees and Shrubs (a ‘bestseller’ for Kengo [the Kenya Energy and Environment Organization]), Agroforestry for Dryland Africa that went all over the world for ICRAF, The Struggle for Nairobi, the story of the creation of an urban environment from scratch, for Mazingira Institute and Rooftops, Canada. There were many more pamphlets, posters and comic books on a wide range of subjects.

While editorial and gag cartoons have evolved and become a permanent feature in our newspapers and magazines, other comic forms continue to arise, but they have also faced challenges that range from limited space where they can be published to limited investments by publishers and a high mortality rate. However, cartoonists have continued to churn out fine comic strips in the [mould] of Juha Kalulu, and several of them have been a hit.

A curious observation about these comic strips, which stirred the Kenyan readership especially because of the way they critiqued the goings-on in our society, is that most of them were created by cartoonists who were not Kenyans. ‘The cartoonists who immediately followed Joe were from outside Kenya. Three were particularly influential: Tanzanian Philip Ndunguru, Ugandan James Rwehabura Tumusiime [an agricultural economist] and Ghanaian Frank Odoi. Ndunguru joined Kenya Times in 1983, where he introduced “Kazibure,” which became a hit with readers as a social comic strip. “Kazibure” literally means “of no use” and the main character spent time essentially living up to the title. The strip connected to the social issues that had been Hirst’s forte.’


In the early 1980s and still in his teens, Philip Ndunguru, a self-taught artist, had created a huge body of work that would not only set the trend for close to twenty years of comics publishing in Tanzania but also inspire many young artists. Philip worked in Dar es Salaam until 1981, when he decided to go and work abroad. Before he left, he held a two exhibitions at the Goethe-Institut, Dar es Salaam, and at Forodhani Hotel, where he sold all his pieces. He moved to Zimbabwe and then to Sweden. In 1983, he accepted a job with the Kenya Times newspaper in Nairobi. Here, he started running Kazibure, which was also known as Ndumilakuwili in Tanzania, and was published by Sani magazine. Kazibure was a hit in Kenya, but sadly Ndunguru died in a road accident in March 1986 at the age of twenty-four.

While in Kenya, Tumusiime made a name drawing Bogi Benda, a comic strip that was featured in all the dailies in Kenya, albeit at different times. Tumusiime worked for the Daily Nation and the Nairobi Times that was managed by Hilary Ng’weno. The Nairobi Times later changed to the Kenya Times. Tumusiime later moved to the Standard.

Bogi Benda was an instant hit and is perhaps best remembered and described as an African ‘Andy Capp’. The comic was also published in Tanzania when the Sunday edition of the Daily News started publishing it and thereafter compiled the weekly strips into a book. Bogi Benda also travelled south when the strip was run by the Times of Swaziland in the 1980s. Tumusiime wrote the following in his book titled What Makes Africans Laugh?: Reflections of an Entrepreneur in Humour, Media and Culture:

I had created the Bogi Benda character as a middle-aged man with a receding hairline and a bit of grey hair. He was fat and a heavy drinker. He spent a great deal of his time in bars. Bogi Benda cracked jokes twisting the complaints of his wife like many Kenyan men were known to do. He returned home late in the night, loved the bottle and the barmaids. He was a quick wit prattling to waiters about the tastelessness of their food, and colleagues about the pain that the economy was. In his company, ‘take-away’ damsels had to pay for bar bills, not him, unless they would be spending the night with him. Bogi Benda had no respect for conventional rules, not only at his home but also at the workplace, claiming that when drunk, he felt like he was the director. His long suffering wife, Sofi, had to endure all this but would occasionally throw a witty punch, just like their son, Ben. . . . Bogi Benda would be seen either in a standoff with his wife, a barmaid or a colleague at work. If he did not have a cigarette, he had a glass in his hands or on his mouth. If his wife was not frowning and walking away, she was threatening dangerously with a club headed for Bogi’s head. All the time, Bogi was dressed in a striped Safari shirt, with the protrusion of his belly emphasised. If there was occasion to show his trousers, they too had vertical stripes, just like his shirt. Bogi Benda was not only fat, but also untidy. He was corrupt and chaotic. His quips were often unexpected, arrogant and unrepentant. Sometimes, they were bawdy.

Tumusiime’s success with Bogi Benda was very important for the growth of the comic scene in Kenya and the region. Tumusiime is quoted in the article ‘Tumusiime: Pioneer Cartoonist, Publisher and Culture Enthusiast’ in The East African newspaper as saying that the ‘success and popularity of Bogi Benda in Kenya opened the doors for African cartoonists with employment opportunities that had been denied to them on racial grounds for a long time. According to Tumusiime, within the first two years of Bogi Benda appearing on the Kenyan scene, most newspapers welcomed and introduced local cartoonists.’

He wrote in his book What Makes Africans Laugh?:

I had opened another window of employment for many who had for years been denied the opportunity. With the Kenyan success, newspapers across the continent that had not done so before started hiring local cartoonists. Over the years, they have turned out even more hilarious. . . . The venture into comic art had paid off. I had earned a comfortable living and also made myself a name. More importantly, however, I felt gratified that I had put my finger on the pulse of what made Africans laugh. Even more gratifying was the knowledge that I had contributed to shattering the myth that an African cannot draw a humorous cartoon, let alone, earn handsomely from it, and still maintain the image of a serious and sober individual.

Without a doubt, Tumusiime’s work and success with Bogi Benda accelerated further acceptance of African cartoonists, but it is not entirely true that there were no African cartoonists at the time. Edward Gitau’s strip Juha Kalulu had already found a niche with the Kenyan populace. Philip Ndunguru’s Kazi Bure had also made an impression.

Around this time, too, Frank Odoi had started drawing editorial cartoons for the Nation in 1979. By the time he passed away - on April 21, 2012, at age sixty-four - Frank was producing a comic strip series on a weekly basis. He is best remembered for his engaging Akokhan strip that ran in the Standard and The Star newspapers.

‘I read the Superman, Batman and other super hero stories as a child’ Frank said in an exclusive interview with Kymsnet Media Network a couple of years before he passed on after a fatal road accident. He continued:

The power of the western superhero is derived from scientific sources and thus easily explainable. So I created Akokhan, an African superhero, whose power sources are unexplainable. Call it magic, but then when you breathe life into fantasy, it stops being magic . . . bringing fantasy and African roots-religion together gave me Akokhan. . . . 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 is culturally accepted and respected, while this is somehow frowned upon and referred to as voodoo, juju, witchcraft and other humiliating names in East Africa.

‘Frank pushed his comics for publication and had several titles locally and abroad,’ as Paul ‘Maddo’ Kelemba wrote in his tribute during the burial of Frank Odoi. ‘He lived comics, dreamt comics.’ His well-known series Akokhan was a story of an unending rivalry of between ‘Akokhan and his nemesis Tonkazan.’ It was more than just a comic story, and the ‘first book collection [of Akokhan] was published in Finnish while its English version was successfully launched in Nairobi by Kenway Publications.’

Other comic stories developed by Frank Odoi include Golgoti, whose title is derived from Ghana’s old colonial name of the Gold Coast. His other comic strips were The Mermaids of Motaba, Radi, Living World, Checkmate, and Apex. By the time he passed on, Frank had just had four comic books published by Oxford University Press in Kenya. The comic books for young-readers is a series with an interrelated storyline. These books are I’ll Be Back Shortly, Guess Who Is Back, Out of Order, and Careful Where You Hit.

These ‘foreigners’ set the 1980s aflame with their engaging work, but, increasingly, several other extremely talented cartoonists also came up. Leading local cartoonists included Koskei Kirui, whose work was published by the East African Standard, and Paul ‘Maddo’ Kelemba, who started drawing for the Coast Weekly and gained the national prominence when he joined the Nation and later on the Standard.

Maddo has distinguished himself as an outstanding artist with an eye for details that made his editorial and gag cartoons exceptional. He is credited with being the first editorial cartoonist to caricature the then President Daniel arap Moi at a time when it was deemed taboo to caricature a president. This was considered unthinkable under the repressive regime of the that constantly clamped down on media establishments. His flagship comic is the popular It’s a Madd Madd World that has been running for over twenty-five years. This column is a perfect example of an insightful fusion of editorial and gag cartoons. One of the gags that he incorporated in this column enabled him to win the CNN MultiChoice African Journalist of the Year Award in GE Energy & Infrastructure category in 2015. This is an important accomplishment for Maddo as an individual - and for cartoonists and the Kenyan comic scene in general - because it was the first time that a cartoonist has ever been nominated, let alone won, since the award was established in August 1995.

Along the way, Maddo developed other characters and contributed to several cartoon-related initiatives. Noteworthy characters that he developed, and later retired, were Babu Jo and Miguel Sede. In an interview with Kymsnet, Maddo noted:

Babu Jo was a single-deck, three-frame you-must-laugh-at-the-punchline kind of affair—An African Andy Capp of sort [albeit this similarity has been drawn by various cartoonists who have felt that they were influenced by Andy]. To produce this kind of demanding piece on a daily basis, an artist needs to be focused on it. I was doing too many things at that time and eventually the character became a bore. My editor then (Wangethi Mwangi at the Daily Nation) and I agreed to quietly retire Babu Jo. On the other hand, Miguel Sede was a fellow I enjoyed creating. The series was real life, akin to Modesty Blaise and Garth, pretty much my original style. . . . Sede was an investigative journalist who busted crooked business people and politicians. The series ran in the Sunday Standard but was dropped a decade ago due to lack of space. So I was told.

His style of ‘composite cartoon commentaries refined in It’s a Madd Madd World inspired several other young artists like John ‘KJ’ Kiarie with his Head on Corrision and Eric ‘Gammz’ Ngammau, then known as ‘Kiddo’, who ran a weekly column called Teens Tannoy.

Others who were influenced by Maddo included Stanislaus ‘Stano’ Olonde, Celeste, an editorial cartoonist with the People Daily who ran her composite commentary dubbed Upside Down, Nanjero, and Alphonce ‘Ozone’ Omondi. Maddo’s brother, the late Tom Kelemba, also adopted this style, too.

Like Terry Hirst before him, who had teamed up with Hilary Ng’weno to start a magazine that would be a home for comics, Maddo collaborated with friends to start a magazine called African Illustrated, but unlike Joe magazine, it was short-lived. However, Maddo has continued to push the frontiers for cartoonists and comics. As Maddo noted when he was eulogizing Frank Odoi:

Over the years, we tried our hand at several publications. We produced the short-lived African Illustrated in 1997 along with Gado (of the Daily Nation) and Kham (The Standard), and several Nairobi cartoonists, illustrators, photographers and writers of the time. The monthly saw only three issues before folding up in a hostile publishing environment. Not quitters, our next bold publication was the Penknife Weekly (it was actually a bi-weekly!) in 2002 which, for a year, survived the high mortality rate of magazines [in Kenya] before falling victim to uncooperative advertisers and political ill-will.

The editorial and gag cartoons have continued to be the most important fertile breeding ground for cartoonists and the development of comics in Kenya. Editorial cartoons, often published in the op-ed pages in all newspapers, have become the most important forum/platform for cartoonists to gain a national foothold. This is because, with time, cartoonists have become central in the newsroom and their illustrations have become valued columns where socio-economic, -political, and -cultural issues are critically interrogated.

Alongside Maddo, important contributions in the growth of cartoons and comics have been made by many other outstanding cartoonists. Those who have left an indelible mark as editorial cartoonists include James ‘Kham’ Kamawira, Godfrey ‘Gado’ Mwampembwa, Patrick Gathara, Victor ‘Vic’ Ndula, Samuel ‘Igah’ Muigai, and Bill Okutoyi.

James Kamawira, popularly known as Kham, was a former editorial and gag cartoonist for the Kenya Times, the East African Chronicles, and later the Standard. He is a creator of numerous comic characters that include Bongoman, Babu, JJ, and Inspector Kamata. Through his many characters, Kham has distinguished himself as a thoughtful social commentator.

Kham’s characters and stories mirror ordinary men and women. He often becomes fanciful with some characters, and he even occasionally makes them do near-impossible feats, such as Bongoman, who has flown to the moon and crossed Africa - from Cape Town to Cairo - in the adventure dubbed ‘The Big Race.’ All of this repeatedly spices up his stories. As Kham noted in an exclusive interview with Kymsnet Media Network:

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!

When asked by Msanii Kimani, ‘Where do you draw inspiration for all these characters and the stores that they tell?,’ he is quoted as saying:

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!

When Maddo moved to the Standard, the Tanzanian cartoonist Godfrey ‘Gado’ Mwampembwa replaced him at the Nation and was to become one of Africa’s most internationally celebrated cartoonists. He, too, left the Nation and moved to the Standard newspaper. Born in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, in 1969, Gado is without doubt the most feted and syndicated political/editorial cartoonist in East and Central Africa. A regular contributor to the New African (UK) and Courier International (France), Business Day and the Sunday Tribune (SA), Gado’s works have also been published in Le Monde (France), The Guardian (London), The Washington Times, Des Standard (Belgium), and The Japan Times, among others.

Gado is a remarkable cartoonist currently working as an editorial cartoonist for the Standard. However, he has also published his work as comic books. Some of his books include Abunuwasi (1996), a short comic storybook, and Democrazy and The End of an Error, a collection of his editorial work focused on the democratization process in Kenya and around Africa.

In 1996–97, Gado studied animation at Fabrica, a communications research center in Treviso, Italy. In 2000, he joined the Vancouver Film School in Canada to further enhance his skills in animation and filmmaking. These are the skills that he used to produce The XYZ Show, a satirical political television show.

Today, most local dailies have more than one staff cartoonist on their payrolls. With numerous publications in Kenya and the East African region, the Nation Media Group has the biggest pool of cartoonists. Newspapers, where the editorial cartoon is a permanent feature in editorial pages and magazines, continue to be the most viable market/platform for cartoonists. They are the breeding grounds of many local cartoonists’ talents as social and political commentators.

However, the growth of this art genre has not been limited to editorials for newspapers and magazines alone. Magazines and many educational publications/materials developed by various non-governmental organizations - both locally and internationally - have provided sufficient platforms for very many artists.

Like Terry Hirst before them, many cartoonists have created comics for development work that ranges from health, agriculture, peace and reconciliation, governance and democracy, education, et cetera. These comics were done by established names like Maddo, Frank, Kham, and Gado, who teamed up with the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) to publish the Pop-ED series that tackled various issues like health, gender, and population.

Published by the UNFPA in Kenya, this Graphic Narrative Series on Population and Education was ‘designed to encourage awareness and dialogue about matters affecting reproductive health in general, particularly as the issue relates to women, men, and youth. According to the publishers, the stories told in comic illustration format were designed to inspire families, parents, young people, and authorities to look more critically at love, education, rights, and other issues.’

This dynamic team of veteran cartoonists also joined up with Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) to publish a comic book dubbed The Heroes, Us!. The stories presented in this book detailed the personal experiences of four adults and two children living with HIV/AIDS in Busia, in Kenya’s Western Province, where Médecins Sans Frontières supported an HIV/AIDS treatment and care program from 2000 to 2009. At the time of the book’s publishing, MSF was handing over its activities in Busia, and the comic book was meant to help illustrate how much had been achieved and that treatment was possible and extremely effective in resource poor settings.

NGOs working in the health sector have been at the forefront of using comics to teach and also reach diverse audiences, especially youth. One of the most memorable comic book series that also had a huge print run was Nuru magazine, published between 2004 and 2006.

The books targeted Kenyans aged fifteen to twenty-four, although the stories often appealed to people who were even younger. The series was produced by the Program for Appropriate Technology in Health (PATH) as part of the Implementing AIDS Prevention and Care Project (IMPACT). IMPACT, which was managed by Family Health International (FHI), was funded by the Office of the U.S. Global AIDS Coordinator and Health Diplomacy through the U.S. Agency for International Development. The Ford Foundation also supported the production of Nuru, and it was also supported by a radio drama series.

IMPACT carefully developed stories for each Nuru book to maximize the series’ effectiveness. Stories address major life occurrences, including falling in love, receiving a scholarship, marriage and death, as well as complex issues such as orphaning, rape and economic hardship in the family. The stories are field-tested in select primary and secondary schools, where students provide feedback on whether a character would genuinely behave a certain way or whether some action seems plausible. . . . Nuru’s adventures have no single over-arching message; instead, many messages about delayed sexual debut, HIV counselling and testing, and sexually transmitted infections are woven into the stories. “We use dilemmas but don’t always answer every crisis. Sometimes we use cliff-hangers,” she says. “We want to provoke dialogue and discussion at the community level. We want them to like some characters and dislike others.”

In the first four editions of Nuru, each had a print run of 48,000, half in English and half in Kiswahili, while the final book had a print run of 68,000. The books were distributed by IMPACT, the Kenya Girl Guides Association (KGGA), and various other youth-serving organizations. Nuru was also inserted into some copies of the Daily Nation newspaper. Toward the end of the project, one- and two-page Nuru strips were published in youth magazines like the Insyder and Supa Strikas, an equally popular football comic book imported from South Africa with the stories localized for the Kenyan audience.

One of the leading artists involved in illustrating the Nuru series was Bella Kilonzo. Bella, then and even now, represented many young cartoonists who found space to grow as cartoonists in the world of comics in Kenya through platforms that were not the mainstream newspapers or magazines, albeit their work would later find its way into the mainstream media.

A gifted artist, Bella had also created several other comic characters before he was involved with Nuru, but it is his character called Belzo, who was also his alter ego, that resonated with the readers. In 2015, Belzo, whose name was derived from Bella Kilonzo’s full names, turned twenty-five years old.

In his recollection about the day he created this character, Bella noted: ‘I created Belzo on 1st September 1990 when I was 17 years old. I always celebrate this day like a real birthday for a friend who exists in real life. This day is simply known as Belzo’s Day.’ He further recalled:

The day I created Belzo, I knew he was special. . . . Somehow I fancied creating someone who means well but things often go wrong for him. This character had all the features that I really loved: A long hair and big shoes (wearing big shoes was very trendy in the 90s). Since he was a cartoon, I exaggerated those two areas. I did not want to design a character with special powers or notorious habits. I wanted to see my feelings captured by my pen. I wanted an almost ordinary guy. I named him “Belzo,” which I derived from my two names “Bella Kilonzo.” . . . Soon thereafter, I started making comic books about Belzo. My first book of him was known as City Mad. In 1991, I felt Belzo needed company. So I introduced Belki also derived from my names into Belzo's life. Belki is more tough and talkative than Belzo. Belzo and Belki are like brothers but they are actually friends. As my experience in making comics advanced, I felt Belzo needed to fall in love with a girl - so, along came Riziki.

In the mid-1990s, Belzo made his entry into the mainstream media through the Young Nation, a weekly teen pullout in the Sunday Nation. He is currently undergoing a revival in the Standard newspaper.

In 2002, the International Committee of the Red Cross, Nairobi Regional Delegation, also chose to use comics to talk about war and peace. They published a comic book called The Battle of the Villages that illuminated the human suffering caused by war. The story dealt with two communities, the Zutas and the Amas. Unable to live in peace with each other, they resort to violence, causing much suffering in both villages. Working with Henry Koske and Nduhiu Change illustrators and script writer/art direction respectively, the comic asked poignant questions such as: How far will the Zutas and the Amas go? Will they manage to find ways to limit the effects of their war?

Using comics for developmental work has recently been popularized by the publication of Shujaaz, a monthly comic magazine that is also replicated as a radio show was launched in Kenya in February 2010.

‘We use multiple-media communications to inspire and motivate an audience of some 5 million young Kenyans to take action to improve their lives and engage with urgent issues that shape their future. This is done through stories following the lives of four fictional young Kenyans,’ as Rob Burnet, the CEO of the Well Told Story, the publishing agency, said in an interview.

Shujaaz, which won an Emmy Award in 2012, makes an important educational intervention into the sixteen- to twenty-six-year-old demographic that is more likely to be out of school than in it. Circulation for Shujaaz (supported by philanthropic funding) is at 600,000 monthly, but the project reaches 10 million with its clever, 360-degree approach to connecting with its audience. DJ B’s fictional radio show is also a real-life broadcast featuring some of the same material as in the comic strip, as well as interviews and bonus tips. The live show, aired every day on twenty-six stations in Kenya, follows the form of the fiction: “DJ B,” played by a twenty-five-year-old actor, will greet listeners and then say, “I got a text from my girl Maria Kim—I’m going to call her; she had an amazing story to tell me . . .” Then the drama begins.

Contributions to the development of the comic in Kenya were not only made by artists and non-governmental organizations. Some publishing houses made attempts to publish comic books, but none was as significant as the work done by Sasa Sema Publications under its American founder Lila Luce.

Sasa Sema was later bought by Longhorn Publishers, who have not added any more titles, but Lila Luce had left an impressive list of comics for them. She explored sci-fi, editorial cartoons, and so forth. Comics published by Sasa Sema included: The Alien and Safari ya Anga za Juu (Deep Space Safari) by Anthony Mwangi, Manywele (The Hairy) and Komerera: The Runaway Bride both by Samuel ‘Tuf’ Mulokwa, Democrazy and Abunuwasi by Gado, Gitonga by Stano, and Macho Ya Mji (City Eyes) written by Ruth Wairimu Karani and illustrated by Kham.

In Kenya, just like in many other parts of the world, newspapers and magazines have been the main platforms that have accommodated many forms of comics - comic strips, editorial and gag cartoons, et cetera. However, this has its own shortcomings since most of them have limitations as to the number comics that they can publish daily or even weekly. In Kenya, the competition has been stiff because there are few newspapers - not more than three at the national level and hardly any at the regional/provincial level. Since the country changed its governance model and established counties, numerous county governments have started publishing their own newspapers and thus increased the opportunities for cartoonists. However, not all can be editorial cartoonists, and the same old challenges for the art form persist. Appreciation by magazines publishers has been limited and few publishing houses have invested in comic books or graphic novels. There is still reliance on the occasional projects by local and international non-governmental organizations to boost this rapid development of comics in Kenya.

However, technological advancement is rapidly changing all this. The Internet or online space has accelerated the development of comics with the proliferation of online webcomics, and this has helped the sector to grow in leaps and bounds. Young artists now no longer need to rely on just these traditional outlets alone, on a benevolent newspaper/magazine editor or an NGO to contract them for some publication that will be used as an information, education and communication (IEC) tool to aid in learning.

‘While there are still a few gems left to be found from the syndicates, there are even more innovative strips out there—strips you’ll rarely see in print,’ writes Eric Griffith in his article ‘The Best Webcomics.’ “Self-published webcomics are enjoying a golden era because writers and artists can take full advantage of the Internet as a creative outlet and a publishing platform. They are able to make an unfettered connection directly with their audience. The art styles span a wide range. . . . Stop reading postage stamp-sized comics in the paper. The true innovation in comics happens online.”

It is an observation that he made for his readers as the features editor of PC Magazine, but it is a message that resonates in Kenya, too, where the younger generation of cartoonists have moved in to fully explore the opportunities that this space offers. The webcomics phenomenon has found favor in Kenya as well. The scene has been ignited by a huge explosion of many young talented artists, who have also been influenced by local lore and America’s Marvel collection to showcase their talent in this new space, and thus young Kenyan cartoonists are indeed “taking full advantage of the Internet as a creative outlet and a publishing platform.”

Many artists have created their work and published it on various online platforms that have even gone ahead and attracted the attention of mainstream media. Just like the comics/cartoons that have been featured in the mainstream media, the webcomics in this online space are being used to inform, educate, entertain, and raise awareness, among other things.

The online space has opened up such possibilities as those taken by Victor Ndula. Vic Ndula, as he is popularly called, has worked professionally for eight years, four of those freelancing and four as a full-time editorial cartoonist for The Star. Passionate about telling the African story through his cartoons, every morning he is tasked, as an editorial cartoonist, with the responsibility of reminding, persuading, and cajoling his readers to pay close attention to issues affecting them.

However, as a member of the ‘Cartoon Movement,’ Vic has been wearing a different hat as a storyteller of various socio-economic and -political issues on the continent. The Cartoon Movement bills itself as a ‘community of international editorial cartoonists’ and ‘the Internet’s number one publishing platform for high quality longer-form political cartoons and comics.’ One of the platform’s strengths is its integration of various multimedia formats into the comic strip. ‘While the comic strip format is used to tell a longer enterprise journalism piece, readers can click on characters in the comic to see pictures and hear audio of them in real life.’

The Cartoon Movement is opening a whole new world of possibilities for cartoonists and comics in Kenya and Africa. The online space is not just about politics and an articulation of other socioeconomic and cultural issues. It is also about entertainment.

Long before he ran a successful superhero series in The Star newspaper, Chief Nyamweya, a self-taught illustrator, author, and entrepreneur, ventured into the scene by publishing his first webcomic called Emergency, a fictionalized tale of the early Mau Mau Uprising.

‘The “emergency” in the name of my first webcomic was a reference to the declaration of a State of Emergency in Kenya in 1952,’ Chief Nyamweya said in an interview with Okayafrica. ‘I just wanted to tell a great story and, maybe, get young people interested in that little-understood period of our past. It wasn’t meant as an encyclopedia, but it contained enough fact to provoke the reader to want to visit more authoritative sources. Just as Asterix did for Roman history.’

When he started running Roba, prolific crime-buster in the [mould] of Lance Spearman and Miguel Sede before him, Chief caught the attention of the whole nation, and he complimented its circulation by also publishing it on Facebook.

Roba (Robert) Mutwafy is an ex-con turned crime-fighter after ten soul-searching years in Kamiti Maximum Prison. At first, his sole purpose was to exact revenge on his ex-boss Rashid Mwamba, but in the process he also puts others from Kenya’s underworld in his cross hairs.

Roba the superhero tackled local issues in a way that helped the series to resonate with very many readers, young and old alike. He tackled corruption and many socioeconomic and even political issues in a salient way that helped the readers to relate to these very issues that were making headlines, in a way was refreshing. The villain, a corrupt and ruthless ‘businessman’ called Rashid, symptomized the cartels that have often been invariably cited in various government and NGO reports as the sources of the sleaze in the country.

Roba was originally written and illustrated by Chief Nyamweya in early 2011 as a monthly comic and later adapted for syndication as a daily comic in The Star newspaper by Nahabi Wandera. The team produced four full episodes, namely, Capital Punishment written by Nahabi Wandera and illustrated by Chief Nyamweya, Roba versus the Poachers, Roba in the County, and Roba and the Athletes, all written by Chief Nyamweya and illustrated by Ben KG.

It is not just Chief Nyamweya who has found inspiration in the country’s lore. Maurice Odede, yet another talented cartoonist, created an astute rendition of Lwanda Magere, the Luo folk hero. Published in 2009, The Adventures of Lwanda Magere was featured at the 2010 New York City Comicon, a fete he considers as one of his greatest achievements. Maurice, who is also known as Maurey, is also one the leading artists who put together Shujaaz magazine. His art style borrows from influences such as Jim Lee and Marc Silvestri, American comic book artists who specialize in action-oriented content, and work by other artists, both local and international, inspire him.

The many other highly gifted artists/illustrators who have made a mark with both their graphic novels/comic books and on online platforms with insightful and interesting webcomics and book comics include The Shikwekwes by Litu, The Homeguard by Emmanuel Oluoch also known as Point Blank Evumbi, The Man in a White Suit by Msingi Sasis, We Were Like Brothers by Joe Barasa, and Eric Zoe Muthoga, Kwame Nyong’o, among others. They have covered various thematic concerns that range from local crime-bursting superheroes to global champions, both male and female. However, it is also possible to discern the influence that Western comics like Marvel and DC Comics have had in their art and storytelling.

Point Blank Evumbi is the lead illustrator at PBE Productions Limited, but his alias sounds like the title of the DC Comics Wildstorm comic series that was written by Ed Brubaker and illustrated by Colin Wilson. Point Blank was a five-issue comic book that ran from August to December 2002. Name aside, Point Blank Evumbi made his debut in the art world as lead illustrator for Insyder Magazine and went on to animation as a lecturer at Shang Tao Media Arts College in Nairobi. There he taught for two years before joining the Tiger Tinga Productions animation team on the Tinga Tinga Tales in late 2008. In 2012, he released his first comic book Homeguard Issue 1 that tells the story of two Kenyan detectives, Timothy Chief and Ben Kipter, who protect the citizens of Kenya from organized crime, murder, and trafficking of all forms.

The heroes are not only men, as demonstrated by Shore Wanda, developed by Movin Were, another gifted artist. Shore Wanda is an interesting story about,

a young Kenyan woman trying to understand her newfound super powers having lived all her life as a human being until she discovers she is a descendant of an ancient race known for evil. Now she is faced with a choice; to become evil or use her abilities as a force for good. The story begins with a mysterious catastrophic incident that occurred a year ago in the narrative, a twenty-four-hour period where the world was plunged into darkness due to a worldwide power failure, leading to a great deal of panic and confusion within the human race. From there, the lead character, Shore Wanda is slowly learning of a great revelation in the history of mankind that ties her existence to a past humanity does not know of.

The ‘worldwide power failure’ that results in Shore Wanda learning about her hidden talents and past almost sounds similar to the explosion that led to creation of the lead actor in Flash, the ‘American television series developed by Greg Berlanti, Andrew Kreisberg and Geoff Johns, and based on the DC Comics character Barry Allen/Flash, a costumed superhero crime-fighter with the power to move at superhuman speeds.’

Most of these artists have not only published their own webcomics but have also ventured into animation. Apart from his two books A Tasty Maandazi and I Love Ugali and Sukuma Wiki, Kwame’s other stories The Legend of Ngong Hills and Showreel have been turned into 9’30’ and 2’30’ animation films respectively.


This article by Kimani wa Wanjiru was first published in ‘Ink and Pixels – The Wild and Wondrous Tale of Kenyan Comics’ published by Goethe-Institute Kenya and Native Intelligence to which we acknowledge credit.

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