A DANGEROUSLY HILARIOUS MARRIAGE OF IMAGE AND TEXT IN NEW MEDIA, By Chesi Lumasia

The last time Patrick Chesi Lumasia wrote about his research, it was written in the same laid-back, funny, but serious tone. This time he tells differently of multi-modal ways of storytelling in Kenyan literature(s). He is a PhD Student at Rhodes University, in the Department of Literary Studies in English.

The cartoon is sourced from the Facebook page, Cartoon254, as produced by thirty-one year old Kenyan, Magingi Motara. Besides using the medium to marry Kenyans’ portraits to digital cartoons, making them “pictures only better” – as shown in the portrait below (which is in itself a new media remediation of analogue pictures to cartoon images) – Motara takes to the said platform to communicate his thoughts and comment on varying socio-political and economic issues in Kenya and beyond; be they serious or trite, albeit with a tinge of hilarity. Although generically cartoons are humorous and non-serious, their polysemic and exclusive character often consolidates discursive regimes that can be liberating and utterly disempowering.

Cartoon 254, by Magingi Motara

 In the cartoon, the artist makes the image marry the stereotype “Kikuyus are thieves” with supportive alphabetic text that does not explicitly name the stereotype nor involve actual theft. Yet, theft is unconsciously and inadvertently executed through Gikuyu speech that fails to appropriately appropriate Kiswahili, Kenya’s national language. The marriage is made possible through cartoons’ generic properties of dramatisation, exaggeration, and caricature.

The names Njoroge and Mashara (usually written Macharia, but actualised as written in Kiswahili) incontrovertibly situate the starring characters in Kenya’s most populous Gikuyu community. Masharia (in brown) informs Njoroge (in green) that he is going to the stage to perform; that is, sing to the gathering. Kuimba is Kiswahili for sing, but Masharia articulates it with the Gikuyu accent, which elides the m, literally stealing the letter from the word, and realises it as “Kuiba”, which is Kiswahili for steal. Inadvertently, Njoroge urges him on: that he should go perform to his best; resolutely sing to the crowd. The realisation in language, however, is an encouragement that Masharia should go rob the crowd clean, resolutely. And that is where the joke lays.

Thus encouraged, Masharia gets to the stage and announces to the crowd that he’s there to steal from them. Although, he means to sing, the crowd makes the standard Kiswahili interpretation. A member of the obviously youthful crowd, which is identified with Sheng, Kenya’s urban slang that mixes English and Kiswahili among other Kenyan vernaculars, gives the Kiswahili interpretation that, “This guy is a thief!” The man in blue amplifies the alarm: “Mwizi thief! Mwizi thief!” Masharia is consequently, violently ejected from the hall by the man in yellow. The inscrutable miniature fellow, the “little man” in the streets makes a dash onto the scene with a container of petrol: the fuel that is to be used to set the suspect on fire–the standard Kenyan mob in/justice way.

As Masharia is doused in petrol, he mournfully wonders where Njoroge is. Njoroge, in the background, exclaims, “God, this is problematic!” Panicky, he runs towards the scene to stem the problem, “God, these fellows will kill Masharia!” His accent exacerbates the situation! Whereas he is appealing to the crowd to spare Masharia, because, usually, they sing together; his speech comes out as a call to set Masharia alight because they usually steal together! The man in grey is the first to catch Njoroge’s standard Kiswahili message. He informs the man in green that the approaching guy wants the crowd to set Masharia ablaze. The man in green keenly makes out Njoroge’s second message, which he accordingly conveys to his mate: “He says, they usually steal together,” and quickly adds, “Let him get here first, so that we don’t waste fuel!” 

As signaled in the title, image and alphabetical text blend in complementary intercourse, without which the cartoon would be ambiguous and arbitrary. The alphabetical text reinforces the pictorial representation in intimate harmony and electric tension.  Yet, this is not to mean that the narrative universally fixes the cartoon’s meaning, for even the cartoonist himself cannot do it. Most importantly, though, the words and images invite us into the spatial structure of the screen by which we envision the dangerous ramifications of the narrative’s development. On the new media, the cartoon artist is able to write his thoughts not only to the Kenyan populace within and without the country, but also to the larger world. The cartoon, unlimited in circulation, is limited in comprehension though, in so far as the language of its alphabetical text. The text is specific to Kenya and more so to the speakers of Sheng, who are the young people.

This is significant in that, in privileging Sheng, a language that resists narrow ethnic ascriptions, by a generation that is in search of home and belonging – the youth, is conviction enough that the marriage heralds a new beginning for the country, away from old-age ethnic identities that have wreaked havoc to the country’s socio-political fabric. Only Mashara reverts to his ethnic language, when things get out of hand. This is what the political class does in Kenya – whip up ‘tribal’ emotions – when they run into overwhelming trouble from which they cannot extricate themselves. The cartoon artist is however, albeit unconsciously, I guess, muddying the Kikuyu and Other divide further. It could be a call for self-reflection on the part of the community and country, by extension.

Whatever the case, stereotypes of the superior Gikuyu and the inferior other only benefit the Gikuyu ruling elites, who manipulate the stereotypes’ ‘tribal logic’ to protect themselves against an ever growing critical public. The mwananchi wa kawaida (ordinary citizen) remains exposed and vulnerable, and that is what the cartoon above hilariously, yet dangerously, depicts.

Cartoon 254: “Picture only Better”

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