Cartoon characters the world over have a mass following, depending on the target market of their creators.
But very few people get to know the creators of such characters and this is no different with one of East Africa’s pioneer cartoonist, Uganda’s James Rwehabura Tumusiime. Tumusiime is best known for his Ekanya cartoon strip in Uganda, and Bogi Benda in the rest of East Africa and beyond.
But Tumusiime did not set out to be a cartoonist. He grew up herding cattle in the green pastures of Ankole in western Uganda, graduated from Makerere University with a Bachelor of Science degree in agriculture and economics in 1976, then joining the Planning Unit of the Veterinary Department in the Ministry of Animal Resources.
In his new book titled What Makes Africans Laugh?, Tumusiime tells his story from the civil service, the challenges of being a cartoonist in a politically sensitive environment and the struggles to localise humour in a cynical media industry.
The book, with the subtitle Reflections of an Entrepreneur in Humour, Media and Culture,” narrates the challenges of setting up a media house, the New Vision, in 1986; a publishing house, Fountain Publishers, in 1988; a local-language radio station, Radio West, in 1998, and a museum, Igongo Cultural Centre, in 2008, all amid lukewarm political support and a sceptical audience.
Tumusiime writes that he started drawing in primary four class during handiwork lessons at Kinoni Primary School in Mbarara in western Uganda. “…because our class teacher had identified my artistic talent, I wound help him with drawing pictures for the charts we used in other lessons. …but there had been no formal instruction in drawing or art from any teacher. I had learnt everything, from drawing to sculpture all by myself.”
Whe he joined Mbarara High School, his favourite subject was Fine Art. He soon discovered that art could earn him some money when in Senior One (first year of secondary school) in 1967, he participated in a painting competition for the Ministry of Health, to create posters on cleanliness and general health. He won the third prize of Ush30.
In his first year at Makerere University he won a competition to design the Africa Hall emblem.
When he eventually made up his mind to draw cartoons for newspapers as a means of making an additional income later in life, Tumusiime says, “I picked these old skills from the cupboard, dusted them off and gave them new meaning. I was only not sure what type of characters I should present to the reading public, if an opportunity opened.”
As a secondary school student, Tumusiime had read and enjoyed the cartoon, Ekanya, that appeared in the Voice of Uganda newspaper.
“It struck me for its biting humour, satirising much of the silliness and the grotesque in family and social life…,” he recalls in his book. The author of Ekanya, Dr. Tumusiime Rushedge, who was a surgeon at Mulago Referral Hospital, had fled Uganda into exile. The Ekanya cartoon strip with its witty jokes was a big hit with readers, but when the creator went into exile, the editors were forced to stop running it.
Tumusiime pencilled his own cartoons that he called Rwata, meaning “the lousy fellow” in Runyakore, and which would be the same as Ekanya in Ateso. He approached the then editor of the Voice of Uganda, Nathan Epenu, to have his cartoon run in the paper. Epenu was impressed but asked Tumusiime to call them Ekanya for them to run in Voice of Uganda.
Tumusiime hesitated, citing infringing the copyright of the original author Dr Rushedge. Epenu assured him there would be no violation of the law because Ekanya was a copyright of Voice of Uganda.
Dr Rushedge and Ateker Ejalu had started the Ekanya cartoon after Uganda Argus newspaper evolved into Voice of Uganda. Ejalu was the editor, and being an Itesot, had created the name Ekanya, which could be translated as “the cheeky one.” He sought his friend Dr Rushedge to be the illustrator. Ejalu also later went into exile.
Tumusiime recalls that in April 1976, his Ekanya cartoons started appearing in Voice of Uganda and instantly became the talk of the town. “…not only did the strip regain its former splendour within a short time, it also brought me much-needed money, more than what I earned from my job in the ministry.”
His first years in the world of humour would have ended without incident had it not been for the death of the Archbishop of the Anglican Church, Jonan Luwum, in 1977. There had been allegations that then president Idi Amin had the vicar killed.
“The cartoon of the day, by sheer coincidence, was Ekanya in a butchery. The people in government quickly thought the cartoon was insinuating something about Amin — he had been popularly referred to as the butcher of Uganda. Some people were beginning to attribute some form of heroism to me for appearing to point out Amin’s bad habits indirectly and therefore standing up for many,” Tumusiime recalls.
“Of course,” he adds, “they were wrong, but fellows from Amin’s secret service agency, State Research Bureau, had shared this incorrect belief. And soon, they came and arrested the newspaper’s managing director, Jenkins Kiwanuka, the editor-in-chief, Nathan Epenu, and dragged them to their dreaded offices at Nakasero…” The cartoon was suspended indefinitely.
The editors were released after a brief interrogation, and the newspaper management negotiated with the security officials to allow the cartoon to run. When Tumusiime was informed of the opportunity to get his cartoon published again, he recalls, “I argued that this was a high-risk job and that I could only return after I had been assured of a doubled salary. After consultations, the editors agreed to give me a raise. I was moved from Ush2,400 to Ush4,800.”
In 1979, he handed the strip back to Dr Rushedge, who had returned from exile in Jamaica. Tumusiime got a scholarship from the European Union to study for a Master’s Degree in agricultural economics at Makerere University but he chose to pursue the course at the University of Nairobi as a part time student.
He joined the University of Nairobi in January 1981 and could not complete the course after he took up refugee status. He later on August 1, 1981 in Nairobi married Loy Bahuuku.
A few months after arriving in Nairobi, with the swagger of a Ugandan celebrity cartoonist, he approached media houses in Nairobi. There were only two major newspapers in Kenya then, Daily Nation and Standard.
Tumusiime recalls that editors at Daily Nation led by the editor-in-chief Joe Rodriguez dismissed him. It was Andy Capp, a famous syndicated English cartoon drawn by Rey Smythe, which enjoyed prime space in Daily Nation.
“I would learn later that the editors at Nation had a low opinion of African cartoonists and my being Ugandan did not help my chances at all. Indeed, there was no trace of any local cartoonist in all Kenyan media save for one Englishman, Terry Hirst, who lived in Nairobi and used to draw cartoons for a local magazine known as Joe,” Tumusiime says.
“Instead, newspapers were awash with foreign cartoons like Beetle Bailey, Ebb and Flo, Peanuts and many others – cartoons which were not fully appreciated by majority of the local readers. In retrospect, I’m not sure that the majority of the foreign readers fully appreciated these cartoons either,” he adds.
After the cold reception at Daily Nation, Tumusiime visited Standard where he met one Robinson, the managing editor. “Even at Standard, I received the same response, prompting me to lose hope for a while.”
Tumusiime later returned to Daily Nation after Rodriguez had been replaced by the head of the School of Journalism at the University of Nairobi, Peter Mwaura. Mwaura was impressed and asked Tumusiime to find a new name for the cartoons that were called Ekanya in Uganda. The deal was done, and Bogi Benda was born, displacing Andy Capp.
“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.
“He 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,” Tumusiime writes.
Bogi Benda was always either in a standoff with his wife, a barmaid or a colleague at work. If he did not have a cigarette on his lips, he had a glass of beer in his hands or both. 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 tight safari shirt, with his belly almost bursting out it. If there was an 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 recounts that; just after a week’s publishing of this rib-cracking cartoon strip, reflecting on Kenya’s social and economic milieu, readers flooded the newspaper with letters to the editor commenting on Bogi Benda.
In one year, Tumusiime says, the cartoon was so popular that Nation raised his pay from Ksh1,800 then, to Ksh2,400 per month. “It was a heart-warming experience, for I had started receiving some income. The salary was equivalent to that of a graduate journalist. Although the money barely covered all my expenses, I was a happy man.”
However, after discovering his worth, and mounting bills, Tumusiime asked the editors at Nation for a pay rise. The new editor, Joe Kadhi, would hear none of it.
Tumusiime left with his cartoon strip and joined a new newspaper called Nairobi Times where he earned Ksh8,000 per month. The government of then ruling party Kanu, bought Nairobi Times and changed the name to Kenya Times.
“The Bogi Benda fame came with its own challenges. I became a source of curiosity wherever people found out that I was the creator of the cartoon. I had thousands of fans. If Facebook or Twitter had been around then, I would have had thousands of likes and followers. Bogi Benda became a household name,” Tumusiime says.
“People discussed the cartoon in every corner. The difficulty was with how to respond to the curious discoverers of my identity, which I often tried to keep secret. Was I to act natural, keep a low profile or appear rowdy and jocular?” he adds.
Tumusiime left Kenya Times in 1985 and joined Standard that published all compilations of his cartoons that chronicled the Bogi Benda escapades. By the time he left Kenya, they had completed number eight.
Tumusiime reveals that Kenya had been such a beautiful place for him. “Bogi Benda had made my life a great deal memorable, fanciful and comfortable. The Kenyans laughed their lungs out.”
Bogi Benda soon crossed the borders, arriving first in Tanzania – running in the Sunday edition of Daily News, where it became a hit, and a compilation of the cartoon was later published by the Daily News in a book. It also reached Swaziland appearing in The Times of Swaziland.
In June 1985, Tumusiime became chairman of the NRM Publicity Task Force — the media wing of the NRA’s external committee. He returned home on February 4, 1986, after the fall of the Tito Okello government, and President Yoweri Museveni’s swearing in on January 1986.
Tumusiime says that the success and popularity of Bogi Benda in Kenya opened the doors for African cartoonist 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.
“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,” Tumusiime writes.