GADO – satire is a serious business

Isabel Nanton

An afternoon stroll through Nairobi’s streets provides Kenya’s top cartoonist GADO with the inspiration he needs to make the nation laugh at its contradictions and problems and then think about why

Writer Hermann Hesse claimed that humour was “perhaps the most brilliant achievement of the human spirit”, with which East Africa’s most famous cartoonist Godfrey Mwampembwa – aka GADO – entirely agrees, adding: “T. S. Eliot said humour is a way of saying something serious.”

And the man should know. Political cartoonist since 1992 for the Nairobi-based Nation Media Group, Tanzanian-born GADO has been pressing readers’ humour buttons for years, becoming in the process an acute political interpreter and arguably the most popular person with the ordinary man on the Kenyan street. Plus many of his cartoons get used around the world. First he makes you laugh, then he makes you think.

Yes, he does get flack. “I suppose an editor or a cartoonist should be worried if he is not being ‘flacked’,” says GADO, whose work runs the gamut of international comment; he presaged the infamous Danish cartoons by months with a depiction of a female suicide bomber. Closer to home, he keeps politicians on their toes with a comic genius that is unafraid to depict the children of Kenya’s first leaders divvying up the spoils in a ‘dynasty playground’, or cabinet ministers involved in corruption scandals.

During Kenya’s appalling post-election violence in 2008, in common with his Daily Nation colleagues, GADO was busy defusing tensions. In one cartoon, an ominous black cloud sits over the legislature, echoing the national mood, but in another, he shows a woman with perennial demands, standing between the two disputing party leaders (Mwai Kibaki and Raila Odinga) who are arguing over the hot topic of the stolen election.

Pillorying anti-social behaviour is GADO’s specialty and he is deeply interested in learning how people react to his cartoons. “I always say I have a copyright on what I do but not a copyright on the interpretation.” What makes him chuckle is when people tell him: “This is what you meant.”

How does he react to his iconic status? “Sometimes I have difficulties with people saying you are the saviour of this society… so I tend to run away from assuming any moral high ground position.” Rather, he is unafraid to raise issues, positing that he enjoys a certain leeway since he does not belong to any of Kenya’s ethnic groups.

Walk down any busy Nairobi street and you can watch people buying a newspaper and turning straight away to the editorial cartoon, where GADO’s spare, precise and well-configured drawings of politicians’ shenanigans bring a daily smile to readers’ faces. These are the same streets he walks along in the afternoon, taking the city’s pulse as the deadline approaches, especially if a concept is eluding him because, after all, it is the ideas that are gold. “Drawing is the easy part,” he admits.

“I must say, I started following world events when I was very young,” says GADO who, in addition to garnering myriad awards, helms the XYZ television series (an animated puppet satire of Kenyan politics in the Spitting Image mode pioneered in the UK), for which he was made a 2007 Prince Claus laureate. GADO cites the work of Philip Ndunguru (a groundbreaking Tanzanian cartoonist who died in 1988) as an inspiration, but he also studied animation in Treviso, Italy and at the Vancouver Film School.

On the philosophy of humour, GADO believes that “Cartoons are never about wrong or right… but are about raising issues and discussions, provoking thoughts so in the process people can talk and discuss and come up with some ideas.” This is what motivates him. He is not didactic, crediting his large family in Dar es Salaam with fostering his innate sense of humour and developing his knack of looking at things from a comic perspective.

“Humour helps you deal with things,” he says. His wide fan base would agree.

About the author:

Isabel Nanton is a freelance journalist and frequent visitor to Kenya


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