"C hildren here do not wear shorts," states Aden, my colleague, rather definitively. "And our noses, they are certainly not so big!" It is February 1994. I have just been posted to Mogadiscio, Somalia as an Information Officer with U NICEF. I am with my lanky Somali associate looking at a cartoon I have just drawn for a health leaflet to be distributed throughout this beleaguered Horn of Africa nation. It shows two children by a water pump, one holding up a glass of mucky water. "No , no, no," says the other, refusing to touch the cholera tainted aqua, "I do not drink dirty water!" After some heated discussion with Aden, it is decided the shorts go, but I insist that the noses stay. Pity about the punchline.
Somalia not only has a vibrant yet ancient oral culture, but a relatively recent visual culture as well. The country's orality has, at its roots, a particularly Somali love and appreciation of poetry and a prevalent custom of requiring children, at very early ages, to memorise generations of family and complex clan lineages. The new Somali visual culture, on the other hand, is much more prosaic. It is, by and large, a response to illiteracy rates which are amongst the highest in the world. Indeed, in 1990, the last year statistics for Somalia were available, only 36 percent of men and a paltry 14 percent of women could read and write.
Yet Somalis, an industrious and enterprising people, have found ways around what would be in other countries, crippling rates of illiteracy. As a former cartoonist myself, I was indeed surprised by what I saw on my very first day in this country. For on the dusty exteriors of the squat cement buildings which are the backbone of most Somali commercial districts, are drawn cartoons. Clearly a businessman such as a local butcher in South Mogadiscio, who has vividly painted little blue and gray billy goat s frolicking on the outside wall of his establishment, has found out what UNICEF and other aid agencies are only just now learning. In order to capitalise on the particular visual literacy of the Somali people and better "educate" a people who, due to wa r and continuing insecurity, have little access to education - as well as to play to a quirky Somali appreciation of the cartoon and to humour in general Ä we need to increase our use of comic "graphics" as a medium of information and communication in our programme activities. In short, cartoons are good business.
It has been said the art of caricature depends on immediately recognisable symbols Ä a kind of iconography. Indeed, when we study caricature, we in fact study the creation of mythology and the turning of abstract notions into concrete symbols. Although all cartoonists must deal with "hand-me-down" cultural traditions, because completely original types are largely incomprehensible to their audiences, cartoons are by and large universal, and universally appreciated by the "common man." From an institutio nal context however, cartoons have, until recently, been ignominiously ignored. Usually more commonly associated with the Sunday "funnies" than as a tool to educate children and adults, there are signs that cartoons are belatedly being recognised for the important educational tool that they are.
Today, cartoons are being used by UNICEF Somalia to enhance child survival and development. During the 1994 cholera epidemic in Somalia for example, more than 500,000 anti-cholera cartoon leaflets and some 20,000 posters were distributed country-wide. T wo other cartoon projects which have been developed are a publication called Facts For Life and an animated short called The Water Pump .
Twenty thousand copies of a 74-page Somali version of UNICEF's popular Facts For Life has rolled off the press, rewritten, or redrawn at least, as a "graphic novel" by one of Somalia's top cartoonists. This new Facts For Life features a day-to-day account of a perplexed Somali mother and father who learn what to do in case of diarrhoea, dysentery, dyptheria and dyslexia.
The idea for the animated short, The Water Pump , came from a weekly cartoon strip started by UNICEF Somalia called The Kids . The strip looked at different aspects of life for children living in war zones. One carto on in particular seemed perfect for animation. It showed two children looking in amazement as bullets fell from the spigot of a water pump rather than the expected water. The cartoon seemed to embody all that was wrong with Somalia, a vast desert countr y with little arable land and an acute water shortage. Indeed, with pastoral nomads making up 80 percent of the population, access to water for cattle and communities could literally mean the difference between life and death. Yet in Somalia, far more m oney was being spent each year on weapons than on water and sanitation.
With a storyboard in mind for the animated short, the United Nations mission to Somalia (UNOSOM II) was then approached to help underwrite the project. Even though animation has proven to be a popular medium around the world, it is a relatively expensive form of communication. Ultimately, Lansanou Kyote, the Special Representative of the UN Secretary General to Somalia, approved the funding for a joint UNICEF/UNOSOM project - some USD $3,000 in all.
Even if there had been an animation production company in Mogadiscio, Somalia, five years of war had all but destroyed the country's infrastructure. As such, it was decided that Image Ark, an animation production company based in neighbouring Kenya, woul d do the actual production. Significantly, Image Ark is thought to be the only computer animation company south of the Sahara. The three-dimensional, 47-second film took over two months to complete.
The final film The Water Pump had its world premiere at the UNICEF animation workshop in Orlando, Florida in November 1994, and has been distributed inside Somalia and worldwide.
By entertaining as they educate, both Facts For Life and The Water Pump have been shown to be extremely popular in initial audience pre-testing, from Kismayo to Hargeisa, Somalia. Perhaps this is the most graphic in dication of the power of the cartoon. If we can get disparate Somali clan members to agree, then we just might be on to something.
Christian Clark , former Information Officer in UNICEF Somalia, is now the Meena Project Coordinator for UNICEF in Kathmandu, Nepal.
Video Clip Available for Download
The Water Pump is a short animated video of a child off to fetch water at a community hand-pump. He looks on in amazement upon reaching the pump as bullets fall from the spigot instead of water. The production was inspired by a weekly cartoon strip started by UNICEF Somalia called The Kids . Both the strip and the animation are by Christian Clark. The chapter entitled "The Somalian Child" published in the book Drawing Insight provides a detailed account of why and how the animation was first conceptualised and then produced.
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