By Ogova Ondego
Published December 30, 2008
Over the past 20 years, an increasing portion of development aid funds has been dedicated to preventing the spread of HIV/AIDS in Africa by focusing on “dangerous” and “harmful” practices such as unprotected sex, widow inheritance, and female genital mutilation. But the spread of HIV/AIDS has not dropped. German academic Rose Marie Beck argues that the reason for this is the wide gap between local and western explanations about the scourge. Unless local knowledge is incorporated in this campaign, it will continue to fail despite the expensive popular culture media(posters, flyers, films, videos, comics, radio, television and plays)employed.
In her paper, Popular Media for HIV/AIDS Prevention? Comparing Two Comics: Kingo and the Sara Communication Initiative, Dr Rose Marie Beck of the Institute of African Studies, University of Frankfurt, Germany, highlights some of the assumptions implicit in western HIV/AIDS communication initiatives that use popular culture media such as comics and shows why they may not be effective in Africa.
Additionally, she argues that assuming that it is easier and more effective to reach “the masses” with “the popular” is not only “a gross misconception about the complexities and possibilities of the comic” but also, a patronising underestimation of the intelligence of Africans. That the “universality of advertisement” recommended by social marketers is flawed.
Whereas Kingo is a popular comic created by James Gayo of Tanzania in the 1980s, Sara was created in 1994 by the eastern and southern Africa regional office of UNICEF (UNICEF-ESARO) to educate adolescent school girls on their sexuality.
The Sara Communication Initiative “radio series, animated films, comic books, story books, audio cassettes, posters, guides” was developed to educate adolescent girls and their parents about the importance of staying in school, UNICEF says. It was also aimed at raising awareness on related issues such as sexual harassment, HIV/AIDS, early marriage, female genital mutilation and girls’ domestic workload.
Beck describes Kingo as “a sophisticated example of the ‘urban survivor’: a scrounger, apparently a lazy bone, a drunkard, a womanizer, a sly fox!”
These character traits of Kingo ‘like those of the macho, dare-devil and carefree ones of the matatu (public transport) touts in Kenya’ appear to attract rather than repel the public from Kingo. And the “angelic” school girls to the “devilish” matatu touts and truck drivers. This is similar to the admiration and laughter a market square clown draws from the public but without any one of those laughing wishing for their own children to become market place clowns or comedians.
The East African comic, Beck contends, is primarily supposed to entertain. She adds that the Swahili comics are oriented towards straight-forward storytelling, with little background information. In this case, HIV/AIDS provides the story-teller with the chance to tell a dramatic and suspenseful story; HIV/AIDS is not the reason why he tells it.
Though the Sara comic may have a consistent story line directed towards a happy conclusion, Dr Beck argues, it appears “bloodless” and shallow.
“The visual strategies to precipitate the climax of the story are limited, external to local comic culture, and focus on the truck drivers and the pet animal, i.e. attention is diverted from the girls. Since there is no notable camera movement in the climax (or anywhere else), the reader is not invited to identify with one or the other party. Because of this, the dramatic potential of the catharsis is diminished, and the story tapers off in a very long anticlimax of the happy-villager happy end,” Beck writes.
The Sara comic, Beck says, “shows no profound knowledge of the potential of the comic in general, or the East African comic in particular.”
Dr Beck faults UNICEF-ESARO on its “underestimation of children’s intellectual abilities” by failing to include what it may have considered highly complex visual structures for children to follow.
Professional comic artists such as Malawian Vic Kasinja and Zimbabwean Joel Chikware who were part of the ream, she says, were not responsible for the overall development of the Sara comics as they “were understood to be in need of training and capacity building.”
There is a clear distinction between ‘goodies’, the main characters Sara and Amina, and the ‘baddies’, the truck drivers and boozers. Though the girls have small breasts that indicate that they have already entered puberty, they are portrayed as being sexless beings. Compared to the ‘baddies’, Dr Beck writes, these girls appear flat, ‘smooth’ and naïve. This image, she argues, “is irritatingly reminiscent of representations of the obedient colonial subject, as well as typical features of angels or medieval representations of the Virgin Mary.”
The ‘baddies’, on the other hand, are definitely a transformation of the urban survivors who, compared to the goodies, are depicted much more vividly and show more individual traits: colourful dress, glasses, hats, facial features with beards and cheeks and googly eyes, and potbellies. The women have large bosoms and bottoms and small hips and wear tight jeans or trousers and use every day colloquial Kiswahili. Thus, like the matatu touts and truck drivers already mentioned, appeal to and attract the people who are supposed to be wary of them.
Dr Beck says the dichotomy between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ in Sara appears more pronounced, with its connotations of obedience, control and rationality, versus aggression, lowly libidinous behaviour and irrationality. The simplicity of the portrayal of the characters corresponds to and reproduces prejudices about western (controlled) and African (wild, uncontrolled) sexuality. Moral judgment is a necessary ingredient of this dichotomy.
The main reasons why the Sara comic fails in Africa is that the main character, Sara, is “too-good-to-be-true” and readers know exactly what the comic is supposed to say and what message it ‘conveys’. Consequently, the target audience do not necessarily identify just with the ‘goody’ Sara but also with the ‘baddies’.
“While the planners of Sara have tried to avoid some kinds of ambiguity through their surface monitoring of the story line and the characters, they have created new ambiguities through their unreflective use of structural aspects of the comic, which at least lead to ambiguous messages, or even the unsatisfactory reproduction of western-style knowledge,” Dr Beck writes. For instance, “to understand the danger of the truck drivers presupposes the knowledge that they belong to a high-risk group.”
Generally, the educational aims of Kingo and Sara comics differ; one wants to teach about infidelity, the other enhances girls’ rights in the context of HIV/AIDS. It becomes difficult to transform such an abstract and ambitious goal as that of the communicative initiative into a good story. Perhaps this could this partly explain why Heart and Soul, a television series bank-rolled by various UN agencies in Kenya in the 1990s failed even before it had begun.
Describing Sara as “not funny, its language is unimaginative and the good characters are unable to counterbalance the ‘bad guys’ in any way,” Dr Beck adds that Sara ‘only’ educates whereas Kingo both entertains and educates.
The academic also draws the difference between ‘flippancy’ and ‘playful ambiguity’ besides arguing that the meaning of concepts such as education and entertainment are dependent on the historical, social and cultural situation of popular literature and its judgments.
If we assume that it is important for a campaign to tie in with local discourses, Beck contends, then the basic difference between entertainment and education makes it very difficult for Sara to do so.
“Because of the structural differences of Sara from other local comics,” she writes, “readers will recognise that the medium was merely used as a disguise for a message.”
With Sara, it appears UNICEF tried to use the comic to achieve what many non-governmental organisations (NGOs) have failed to do in much of Africa through the now much maligned documentary film medium.