It's no joke: three decades of political cartoons in Kenya

Editorial cartoonist Maddo talks about his decades of experience, how the business is changing and why satirical cartoons are here to stay
23rd February 2022
13:00 - 14:00

By Marina Adami

The speaker

Maddo is the name by which Paul Kelemba signs off his cartoons. His weekly satire column Madd Madd World has appeared in Nairobi’s The Standard newspaper for over 30 years, featuring more than 1,440 cartoons. In 2015, Maddo became the first cartoonist to win an award at the CNN Multichoice African Journalist Competition. As part of our global journalism seminars series, Maddo talked about his long career, the changing industry and what makes a good cartoon.

Why cartoons matter

  • Satirical illustrations of the news have been popular since the early 1700s, how is the switch to digital having an impact on these traditional elements of print newspapers?

  • Our trends and predictions 2022 report found publishers plan to put more effort into Instagram this year. Will this mean more cartoons showing up in our feeds?

Watch the video of Maddo's talk

Seven takeaways from Maddo's talk

1. New technology is changing the industry. "The way I gather the stuff that I do has gone through tremendous change over time, in that I was and still am quite a consumer of television, radio and the print media. That is changing," Maddo said. As young people in particular switch from traditional news sources to the Internet and social media, a lot of cartoonists are shifting too. For Maddo, however, TV, radio and print are still important.

2. It’s not just about entertainment. "I try to tell people to have good morals, to uphold good morals and good public behaviour and all that, but you know what, to do so I show the negative side," Maddo said. He sees educating his audience on politics and current affairs as part of his role.

3. Courage is necessary. "The editor was involved here. [He] was bold enough to ask me that, if you can, if you've got the guts, we've got the guts. We are going to do this. So we went ahead and did it," Maddo said, talking about his famous Moi cartoon, the first time in Kenyan history that a mainstream media publisher ran a cartoon depiction of a Kenyan president. However, even today, there are limits to what cartoonists can get published in Kenya and beyond: "I don't really want to call it censorship as we called it those many years ago, but there are limits right there, ceilings. For example, it might be something about who owns that media."

4. Media freedom should not be taken for granted. "We are grateful for what's going on right now. And it stands not to the government mellowing and changing. No, no. It's about the media itself and how it has fought over the years, ever since the 1980s to gain the present freedoms," Maddo said. "We're at this point unstoppable. And it goes also for the other areas in the media, television, radio, and then print. I dare say that Kenya right now is the freest in terms of media freedoms in the region."

5. The news is the core of cartooning. "You must have the ability to make fun of yourself and others, obviously, in a beautiful way. You must be able to grasp the news events and analyse those events and then come up with an opinion," Maddo said when talking about the qualities necessary for cartooning. An example of a good source for satirical cartoons is the upcoming Kenyan general election: "It's interesting, it's exciting that we are not lost for material right now. And as we draw closer to the August election date, it's even becoming better so we have lots and lots of plans,” Maddo added.

6. Cartooning is art. "First of all, it's our job. Then importantly, this is our calling. There's nothing that we do to earn a living, this is it. And to me, whatever is there in terms of material, then we should grasp it and use it," Maddo said. He views cartooning as an art form that uses humour to convey important messages. "We are only one part of that path to harnessing the power of human thought. So my colleagues and I do exactly that. And the nature in which we do it is through humour," he said.

7. Cartoonists are here to stay. "Cartoons have gone through tremendous change, revolution really, over many years, actually centuries, people might forget. People like James Gillray were well heavily published in the 16th and in the 17th century. So we are here and we are going nowhere," Maddo said. Despite the challenges of the digital age, Maddo believes that editorial cartoons will endure.

The bottom line

Editorial cartoons are one of many ways to bring news and commentary to a wide audience. They can educate, entertain and act as defiant political statements. Their popularity spans centuries and, even as they adapt to the digital age, Maddo believes they will continue to reach their audience. 

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