The centrality of comic art in society today

They act as prisms through which indigenous cultures and traditions can be celebrated

In Summary

• Comics champion the voices and stories underrepresented in mainstream narratives

Comics on a stand
Comics on a stand

The word “paraliterature” is seldom invoked in Kenya, yet the term is gaining visibility in the corridors of discussions on new dimensions of African literature today. It means a category encompassing literary works often marginalised outside the traditional literary canon.

You shall find its most compelling expression in comic strips, reminiscent of the once-beloved Juha Kalulu, Bogi Benda and Akokhan series from years past. These succinct visual narratives seamlessly weave imagery and text to convey stories, ideas and messages, thereby introducing a dynamic narrative space where comic strips take centrestage.

Paraliterature, particularly comic strips, offers a bridge to make information as accessible as possible to diverse audiences. The captivating visual elements of comic strips transcend linguistic and cultural barriers, granting access to a wide range of readers. Their fusion of images and text, moreover, positions them as powerful tools for enhancing reading and language skills, particularly in regions with varying literacy rates.

Comic strips, in a world increasingly dominated by ICT and digitised art, act as prisms through which indigenous cultures and traditions can be celebrated. They offer vibrant preservations of cultural diversity, championing the voices and stories that are often underrepresented in mainstream narratives.

Across various African countries, comic strips have gained recognition as a significant medium for addressing social issues, celebrating cultural heritage and entertaining audiences. In Nigeria, a thriving comic industry features popular titles like Malika: Warrior Queen and Eru, which delve into cultural and sociopolitical themes that resonate across a diverse audience.

Meanwhile, in francophone Senegal, a rich comic strip tradition boasts renowned works such as Yassir and Gelongal, which adeptly address social issues while weaving in traditional storytelling elements.

In South Africa, Kwezi explores themes of youth empowerment and identity, adding to the rich tapestry of narratives. East Africa, too, has its contributions, with Uganda’s Kakalabanda employing humour to engage with topical matters, and in Tanzania, the comic strip tradition represented by Mzaha is lauded for its humour and insightful social commentary. These examples underscore the diversity of themes and narratives explored through comic strips in Africa, reflecting the continent's rich cultural tapestry.

Children of Africa today, especially in urban and middle-class homes, have encountered through their screens the burgeoning community of comic book creators and collectives, including Peda Comics. Artistes like Samuel Mulokwa, Adrian Ndiritu and Humphrey Osoro continue to craft comics that address contemporary social issues and narratives, drawing inspiration from their unique cultural context.

Comic strips are celebrated for their informativeness and educational value. They harness the power of visual storytelling to simplify complex concepts, making them accessible to a broader audience. This, in turn, enables them to effectively convey scientific ideas, historical events and social issues in a manner that is both engaging and simplified.

The melding of comics and animation presents a dynamic and engaging medium, breathing life into characters and narratives, rendering them more relatable and captivating. This convergence ushers in new possibilities for storytelling and educational content.

Comic strips can serve as effective tools for teaching law and religion. By simplifying complex legal or religious texts into more accessible formats and employing visual aids, these comics ensure a wider audience can comprehend and engage with these intricate subjects.

Paraliterature and comic strips represent domains of literacy that nurture both visual and textual literacy. Visual literacy encompasses the ability to interpret and create visual content, while textual literacy involves reading and writing skills. In the digital age, proficiency in both realms of literacy is essential for effective communication and comprehension.

This is why comic arts and paraliterature should form a key component of the arts education at junior and secondary schools in Kenya moving forward. We have a chance and structures for mainstreaming paraliterature now in order to foster deeper nationhood.

The role of literacy in nation-building and democracy is of paramount importance. Literacy empowers individuals with the skills and knowledge required to actively participate in the sociopolitical life of their nations.

Informed and literate citizens are more likely to engage in democratic processes, hold their governments accountable and contribute to the development and stability of their countries. It’s a well-established fact that higher literacy rates are correlated with greater political engagement, establishing literacy as a cornerstone of democratic societies.

For critics and scholars, tracking trends and practices in paraliterature, particularly in the realm of comics, is essential. By staying informed about emerging voices, evolving styles and changing themes, critics make invaluable contributions to the growth and development of the genre. Their engagement fosters creativity, encourages exploration of cultural and social issues and ensures that comic strips remain both relevant and impactful in contemporary society.

The future of paraliterature, encompassing comic strips, in Africa appears promising. The rise of digital platforms and increased access to the Internet are fundamentally altering how comics are created, distributed and consumed. As a result, more diverse and innovative narratives are emerging. African comic creators are gaining international recognition, and the art of comics stands poised for significant growth and expansion.

Decades of Kenya’s Independence have shown us the central role that literacy plays in democracy. In countries with higher literacy rates, citizens are better equipped to engage in democratic processes, enabling them to make informed decisions, hold their governments accountable and actively participate in the political life of their nations. Conversely, low literacy rates can hinder political participation and democratic development.

In Kenya, we should work towards the promotion of literacy by adopting new tactics for newer times and a newer generation through mainstreaming paraliterary artworks. They are an indispensable medium for the younger generations to whom technology is second nature.

Let us encourage our comic art creators to weave narratives in vernacular and Kiswahili to mirror the complexities, hopes and challenges of Kenya of this century. As the industry evolves, it holds the promise of shaping the narratives of our evolving nation, fostering democratic engagement among the Gen Z and make learning of the arts today more inspiring.

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