Photo: Kalle Lajala

Cartoons and comics evoke joy and sadness

NAI's library has much more to offer than just research and statistics. Right now, an exhibition of comics and cartoons from or about Africa is on display. Many of the volumes are chronicles of actual events and may in fact be of relevance for researchers.

Zapiro at the Gothenburg Book Fair.

Zapiro is an internationally recognised South African cartoonist who often mercilessly satirises corrupt or incompetent leaders. NAI guest researcher Mathabo Khau conducts research on HIV and sexuality in South Africa and many times has seen how Zapiro’s striking satires relate to her work. In particular, she remembers his drawings about former South African health minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang’s statement that antiretroviral drugs were ineffective. Around that time too, president Thabo Mbeki said that poverty caused AIDS, not HIV. According to Khau, their statements had serious consequences, because people stopped their treatment and thus developed AIDS.

"Most people in South Africa love Zapiro, l know l do", Khau says.

Not even incumbent President Jacob Zuma is off the hook from Zapiro’s razor-sharp pencil. He always depicts the president with a shower mounted on his head because Zuma once took a shower after unprotected sex to avoid being infected by HIV.

Laughing at the misery
“After that many young men stopped using condoms. Ten years later, Zapiro still draws Zuma with a shower on his skull so we do not forget his stupidity. Zapiro has a very cunning humour about serious things. But perhaps we sometimes need to laugh at the misery around us”, Khau remarks.

Elda Berdeja was close to tears when she read about a school teacher who lost his entire class of 70 students to LRA fighters.

Another item in the exhibition is about Joseph Kony and his armed group, the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), which has terrorised parts of Central Africa since the mid-1980s. Exchange student Elda Berdeja is focusing her thesis on Kony and was thrilled by the dramatic illustrations in the comics.

“The book gives a good overview for readers without prior understanding of Joseph Kony. It puts him and LRA in a historical context, in this case the so-called ‘bush war’ in Uganda during the 1980s”, Berdeja says.

Real people behind statistics
Even though Berdeja has read most of the literature on the subject, the comic book was also helpful in her studies. It provided her with a clear timeline of sequences of events.

“But above all, I got a reminder of why I do this. While studying theories and statistics it is easy to forget that this is actually about people. At the end of the book, there are photographs of the people portrayed by cartoon characters. It makes the impression even stronger”, Berdeja notes.

A large part of the cartoons and comics in the library come from West Africa. It is partly the traces of a colonial past, as cartoons have a long tradition in France as well as in Belgium. One of the books in French takes place during a few months in 2013 in the Central African Republic, when the Séléka rebel coalition attacked and took control of the capital Bangui. Cartoonist Didier Kassaï witnessed the events and is the protagonist of his book Tempête sur Bangui. Although the cartoons reminded NAI researcher Cristiano Lanzano more of a humour series in the way they are drawn, he was compelled by the realism and the violent story.

Cristiano Lanzano first found the comics about Aya by chance in a bookstore in Ouagadougou in Burkina Faso. The series is widely popular in France and has also appeared as a cartoon on TV.

Six books by Marguerite Abouet and Clément Oubrerie about a teenage girl, Aya, take place in the capital of Ivory Coast, Abidjan, during the 1980s. She dreams of becoming a medical doctor, which is not easy growing up in a rough neighbourhood. Fashion and music references testify that Abouet herself grew up there, and Lanzano noted the Grace Jones hairstyles that were so popular in many West African countries at that time.

“Another thing that struck me was the language. In Ivory Coast people speak French, not Creole, but with various local variations and slang. She uses the language in a very clever way”, Lanzano says.

The 75 titles in the exhibition will be on display until 6 April. They will also be available for loan afterwards.

TEXT: Johan Sävström

Further reading in the NAI library

NAI librarians Ingela Dahlin and Mattias Åkesson compiled the exhibition.
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