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Maddo: From comic books to presidential caricatures

Paul 'Maddo' Kelemba

Before he took power, the late President Mwai Kibaki once said of Maddo and his work: “...he actually appreciates the true meaning of a particular political or social situation, then he presents it to us in a humorous sense. So in many ways, he makes us understand ourselves better.”

Maddo had been caricaturing him as leader of the Democratic Party, and he says that most politicians would decline to even comment about cartoonists, who they reviled.

Kibaki, however, took it all in stride, even telling Maddo when they met in person at an event, “Wewe enda chora cartoon sawa sawa.”

Maddo was the first cartoonist in Kenya to have his caricature of the late President Moi published, an audacious move that ushered in a new era of editorial cartoons.

“It came, not in a newspaper, but in Society Magazine back in 1992 when the editors, that is Pius Nyamora and Mwenda Njoka asked me, ‘Why don’t you go ahead and do this?’” says Maddo.

The political climate of the time made it a risky move – no one dared caricature the President in a publication - but Maddo, young and bristling with energy and passion, was excited to do it.

“Nyamora, who owned the Society Magazine, had quite some guts. His offices in town had been petrol-bombed before, with Molotov cocktails. They tossed them into the offices in the CBD. Yet several months later the same Nyamora told me, ‘Let’s draw Moi’.”

And so they did, in full colour, on the cover. The magazine came out on Mondays and they waited to see what would happen. Monday came... nothing. The special branch did not even collect the papers from the streets like they would do whenever something sensitive was published.

Not only did they not do that, but a couple of years later, Maddo learned that the late President had liked the cartoon.

“He had his humorous side and would enjoy a degree of humour,” says Maddo.

A statement that rings true when you remember that over a decade later, the Reddykulas trio would imitate him and Tony Njuguna, one-third of the trio said that the he loved it. Maddo’s drawing had opened the floodgates for him to be captured in cartoons, and they never closed on Kenyan presidents since.

In the ‘60s, young Paul would often wait impatiently, at the dinner table, eager to finish his food so that he could dig into the newest comic book that had just been released.

He was one of those few lucky African children who went to a prestigious school then, Victoria Primary School in Milimani in Kisumu, sharing desks with the likes of Ruth Odinga.

Unlike most other schools in the 60s and for decades after, the school encouraged its students to draw. Although there were no formal art classes, the school had many comic books,

“I remember drawing Samson of the Bible with all those muscles, and it was pinned on the blackboard. I was some kind of celebrity,” says Maddo. The school only went up to class four.

“In all my subsequent schools, from primary to secondary, there were no art classes. So I had to stick it out on my own, drawing comics in my own time and other illustrations and so on.”

The comics that inspired him most as a teenager were Modesty Blaise, and the one he drew his pen name from, Mad Magazine. His father and elder brother would buy copies when they came out.

Mad Magazine had a bunch of pretty great artists, each one with their style. I looked forward to their work. Their style was spoofs on real-life, movies, and they made a lot of fun of politicians. Their artwork was amazing. So this helped me build up the background to what I was going to do in future,” he says.

While at Nyang’ori Secondary School in Vihiga County, he drew a portrait of a man captioned, ‘A Man Thinking’ and sent it to Rainbow Magazine, a children’s magazine whose editor was Fleur Ng’weno.

“Can you imagine she published it? That was my very first publication, back in 1976 or 77. I became an instant celebrity in school. You have to understand that in our time, having anything in print was amazing. I spent a whole day looking at it, just admiring it. Telling myself, ‘I am the one who penned this.’”

He tried his hand at Accounting after school, but found he was not good at it, so he planted his feet firmly in art and was picked up by a weekly called Coast Week in Mombasa where he published a comic. He then moved to Ginewa Designs, an advertising company, then Viva, Men Only, Drum and True Love magazines as an illustrator, before joining Daily Nation in 1986 as an editorial cartoonist.

He took over from Frank Odoi, who had, in turn, taken over from Terry Hirst, the first in Kenya to do a weekly editorial cartoon. He also worked with Wahome Mutahi on his column, Whispers, until he moved to The Standard in 2001, where he has been.

His flagship feature, ‘It’s a Madd, Madd World’, a satirical look at society, culture, arts and politics, was born in 1989 as a single frame cartoon. The weekly full-page composite cartoon feature now runs in the Saturday Standard.

In 2015, he became the first cartoonist to win an award at the CNN Multichoice African Journalist Competition.

Maddo is self-taught and credits his ability to his genes.

“My father could draw. My father gave me the artistic fingers that I have got and my mother gave me the storytelling part. Those are the two ingredients that make a successful cartoonist,” he says.

Describing himself as a people watcher, Maddo says that a cartoonist has to be able to observe human beings, analyse society and talk about it to the audience using art to illustrate what one sees and observes.

“I look at people, place them -  the boisterous ones, the arrogant ones, the timid ones, crooks, nice people - all categories, from politicians to the street hawkers. And I socialise with them. That’s where I really begin. And I take notes throughout. I am constantly writing down stuff so that I don’t forget. Then I will organise those notes into whatever I want to produce that week,” he says.

He will then come up with my main theme for the week, whether it is politics, or culture and the arts, and then being old school, will sketch out everything using pencil and paper.

“My younger colleagues go straight to the pad. I also have it, but it became too clumsy for me to use so I gave it up and passed it on,” he says.

An editorial cartoonist will also step on toes.

“A cartoonist’s job is not to praise. It’s virtually impossible for a cartoonist to praise a system in power. There’s no way as an editorial cartoonist you can draw a nice, beautiful bridge and say, ‘Kudos government for building this.’ There’s no way that can happen. However, if the government does not build that bridge, then we’ve got a right to criticise them,” he says.

While caricaturing presidents has been the norm since he drew that first one of President Moi, he says that there has been some apprehension among cartoonists about drawing current President William Ruto, though that has not stopped them.

“There has been some fear among cartoonists and other people about the perceived high-handedness of President Ruto and there have been questions of whether we are going to go back into the old days and we say no,” he says.

Despite the 2010 Constitution putting the President into what he refers to as some straitjacket of some sort, he points out how President Uhuru Kenyatta was able to circumvent some of the laws.

“What will stop that from occurring under Ruto? That has given some people in some quarters reason to fear. However, there’s no relenting, that’s why we have not changed our style of delivering our cartoons. We are still at that level. We are going to criticise the government and its components, and its failures,” he says.

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