New comic strip, Shujaaz, promises young Kenyans a fresh outlook

The Times of London
Nairobi, Kenya

In a workshop among the shady trees of a Nairobi suburb the finishing touches are being put to Shujaaz, a cutting-edge comic strip that its creators hope will captivate the imaginations of Kenyan teenagers.

Hunched over drawing boards and computers, young men and women in their late teens and early twenties are creating their own world. In Africa’s patriarchal societies old men rule and young people keep quiet. They are ignored and told little about their rights or how to counter the stoking of ethnic divisions by venal politicians.

Shujaaz, meaning heroes, aims to break the old rules and address these contentious subjects head on. Among the topics highlighted are the problems of having enough to live on, what citizens can demand of government and how different people can live together.

The challenge was finding a way of giving teenagers important life messages without being patronising. The answer was Hunt Emerson, a British cartoonist, who, among other creations, redrew the old favourite Little Plum for the Beano.

In 2007 he published a graphic novel of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and has drawn comics illustrating the thoughts and work of the 19th-century English social thinker John Ruskin.

“If he can make The Ancient Mariner and Ruskin work as a comic he can make anything work,” said Rob Burnet, director of Well Told Story, the consultancy producing Shujaaz. He persuaded Mr Emerson to visit Nairobi this year to run a three-day workshop with a group of young, self-taught Kenyan cartoonists.

“Here was a group of artists and writers with a lot of ideas but they didn’t know how to turn it all into a comic,” Mr Emerson said.

“When you try to include a message you can get bogged down in words so I talked to them about dealing with big ideas through small stories.”

He was surprised by the natural talent of some of the young Kenyans, describing one as a “remarkable find”.

The comic that they have produced describes a world that is recognisably Kenyan populated by characters such as Boyie — roughly meaning geezer — a geeky-cool school-leaver with a shock of dreadlocks, glasses and a pirate radio station in a shed.

Then there is Maria Kim, the foxy teenager who plays mum to her little brother in a slum shack and has to avoid predatory men on her way to school, or Charlie Pele, the football- mad 14-year-old living with his father in a camp for people displaced by the violence that tore through Kenya after the 2007 elections.

The speech bubbles are in “sheng”, an idiomatic collision of English and Swahili slang that has become the language of Kenya’s youth — adults don’t get it, which is just the point. This month the first 24-page issue of Shujaaz will be distributed across Kenya inside the Daily Nation newspaper.

It will also be available from 1,800 clapboard booths used by agents of M-Pesa, the mobile- phone money transfer service that has revolutionised financial services for millions of ordinary Kenyans.

A website and a daily radio show simulating Boyie’s pirate station will launch at the same time. When Boyie asks his comic strip audience to text him the real audience will be able to join in, blurring the lines between fiction and reality as the comic book characters take on real lives.

The entire comic will also be available as an online animation and in a downloadable version for mobile phones.

The first print run of half a million has been paid for with a £50,000 grant from the British High Commission. Mr Burnet estimates that, as the comics are passed around groups of friends and school playgrounds, their message might reach as many as ten million Kenyan teenagers.