Innovating learning in Africa through comics and animations

Copyright: ADEA WGBLM / Aliou Sow

The indigenous comic and cartoon industry in Africa has continued to evolve and make commendable strides despite its early days riddled with under-representation, low quality, low visibility and other issues that battle a new creative industry within the continent. 2015, it seems, was the peak of its global attention. In the words of Roy Okupe, the founder of Youneek Studios and producer of the African themed Superhero comic, E.X.O.,

“ten years ago if you released a superhero from Nigeria, I don't think anybody would care, but now that it's a popular industry, people want diversity”.

African-themed comics and animation landscape is evolving at all levels

In the past nine years, African themed comic and animation Illustrators and creators, indigenous to the continent, had had major global visibility and certain level of global acceptance via features on global media brands such as CNN   Forbes, Yahoo, Quartz, etc. In 2016, Marvel Comics surprised the global comics market with its creation of African themed comic character, Black Panther. The most recent was the 2017 big announcement, also by Marvel Comics, to unveil the Nigerian character, Ngozi, the lead character in Nnedi Okorafor`s African sci-fi novel, Blessing in Disguise, as the newest addition to its Superhero family. Ngozi will join the likes of Captain America, Spiderman, Black Panther and so forth to continue saving the universe in the future series of their works, with its first release already out on September on Venomverse. This is the first of its kind for any Nigerian author by a major international comic publisher – a forward move by Marvel Comics to increase its diversity content in the global market. These notable attention and exposures must surely mean something in terms of progress. 

Within Africa, there have been positive tilts by Africans in the appreciation of the contents churned out by the forward thinking youth in this industry. The Lagos Comic Con - an annual geek fair in its 6th edition that began with 300 guests in 2012 and has grown to 5,000 guests in 2017, showcasing comic, animation, gaming, films and virtual reality produced by Africans - is one of the huge testimonies of the deep level of appreciation, network and brotherhood this sector has helped to build among both creators and patrons in the continent.  Worthy of note is the efforts of one of the leading African publishing houses, that is Kachifo Ltd which released on Nov. 13thAnike Eleko, a girl-child education centered comic authored by Sandra Joubeaud and illustrated by Àlàbá Ònájìn. The era of African themed comics and animations being underestimated for its lack of quality and contents is gradually fazing away, giving hope that comics and cartoons could one day truly represent the enormous African different stories and diversities which can be interpreted in the most creative and sustainable ways to compete favorably on the global space; something which the traditional media has failed to do.

Educating African kids within and outside Africa

In the recent past, young African story writers, comic and animation creators have shown that with the combination of sustainable investment, plan, proper distribution channels, and incentives, they have the creative capacity to create contents and localize the popularly using Western-based classroom curriculum materials into crispy, exciting and innovative comic strips, web comics, animations and virtual realities filled with African cultural imageries and realities that could yield a high impact factor towards  sustainable education. They have moved from young people with potentials to young people shaping the education content sector in their various countries. The cartoons and comics in this category offer the African child contents familiar to his environment without altering his identity and cultural values that could previously lead to culture shock and environment crisis during identity formation usually associated with the early heavy use of western learning materials in African learning environment. The award winning novelist, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, aptly captured this type of crisis in her The Dangers of a Single Story TED  Talks,

“when I began to write, at about the age of seven, stories in pencil with crayon illustrations that my poor mother was obligated to read, I wrote exactly the kinds of stories I was reading: All my characters were white and blue-eyed, they played in the snow, they ate apples; Now, this despite the fact that I lived in Nigeria. I had never been outside Nigeria. We didn't have snow, we ate mangoes, and we never talked about the weather, because there was no need to”.

Already, there are ongoing encouraging efforts in production and distribution of this content available in the publishing and cyber space, which are accessible to a larger extent.

In the horn of Africa is Ubongo Kids, a Tanzanian edutainment animated series, launched on TanzaniaTV in 2014, with over 34 episodes in Swahili and English. Ubongo Kids is innovating the way the Tanzanian child is learning mathematics and social issues in the country. With a viewership of over 2 million people alone in Tanzania, and millions more in the East and West Africa as well as online, this singular cartoon series has educated the rural Tanzanian children more than any other educational content in the country. The cartoon follows the lives of Kibena, Kiduchu, Koba and Baraka and their animal friends such as Mama Ndege – a feathery mathematics genius, Uncle T – a rapping Giraffe, and Tiny Tembo – a helpful elephant, as they use their minds, wits, and intellects, in solving mysteries and problems of their village via multi-disciplinary approach such as mathematics, health education, science, and arts.  According to the website, a study conducted in rural Tanzania shows that an average regular kid viewer of the series overtime has improved in his knowledge of Mathematics than the child that does not. In addition, there is an added user experience, like the weekly quiz, added to the overall learning package which could be accessed from a phone.

The Nigerian content-inspired Bino and Fino, with a target audience of 0-6 year old kids in Nigeria and diasporas, is another example of the power of comic and animation creativity. In 2007, the creator of the show, Adamu Waziri, due to the massive lack of African themed children`s educational cartoons for kids in Nigeria, decided to create and launch Bino and Fino. His two main characters are siblings that live in Sub-Saharan Africa with their parents, and their friend, Zino, a magic butterfly. In each show, they traverse through the histories and cultures of Africa via adventures which mainstream cartoons unfortunately overlooked. Popular Nigerian languages such as Hausa, Igbo and Yoruba are woven into the series and this choice is attracting followers across the continent and diaspora.

Bouba and Zaza is another African themed edu-animation worthy of note. A 2012 project of the Association for the Development of Education in Africa (ADEA), Michel Lafon Editions and the UNESCO Multi-sectoral Regional Office for West Africa in Dakar (Senegal) to make children aware of civic values and issues such as AIDS, war or environment protection. It originally began with a series of picture stories before adapted to animation in the African context. With just one episode, it struck a chord in the little ways African kids could help to make their environment cleaner and safer, thus influencing the adults to show more responsibility in their anthropogenic activities towards the environment. The safer environment message-driven examples shown by the siblings, Bouba and Zaza, and their friends in school and neighborhood, are pointers that climate change could be managed effectively when we start caring about proper waste disposal and so on. But how can African kids know their role in climate change mitigation if not via the availability of this type of animation series that resonates with their immediate environment and experience.

The Ethiopian Abeba and Abebe is another notable educational animation responsive to the knowledge gap observed in Ethiopian kids (6-12 years) toward the country`s constitution which enables them to know their rights. Produced in the native Amharic language of Ethiopians, the characters, Abeba and Abebe, siblings who with their friends in school, learn the fundamental human and children rights their Ethiopian constitution upholds and later exhibited in their neighborhood among their friends during plays.

Lastly, talking about cartoons, it is worth mentioning Samba and Leuk, the first cartoon based on real African legends. The series is inspired by the stories and famous characters created by the writer Leopold Sedar Senghor. Samba and Leuk is a series of cartoons created in 1995 (26 episodes), and broadcasted by Marathon Productions. This cartoon was entirely hand-made, image by image, without the help of any computer, by a remarkable team of 350 people.

Ownership and support by African governments is crucial

African governments are yet to embrace and support this innovation compared to international and regional actors such as UNICEF, UNESCO and ADEA that have demonstrated quality keenness.  The most powerful societies in the world always craft their relevant knowledge and learning in easy-to-understand media for their younger generations. They understand that the sustainability of their greatness depends on the quality of investment given to their youth. Thus, the need for government interventions and support for comics and cartoons becomes necessary since these are strategic media to relate with younger generations in this millennium. It is a huge utmost hope that different international, regional and local actors for education in Africa would key into this by establishing innovative education platforms to create enriching contents for its youth.