Reader’s guide to analysing and understanding political cartoons

Thursday November 07 2019

Residents of Obunga slum in Kisumu read the Daily Nation on August 16, 2017. Often, the full meaning of a well-done cartoon can be too subtle for the ordinary newspaper reader to understand. PHOTO | FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP


Yesterday’s cartoon on page 14 depicts an angry Nairobi Governor Mike Sonko remonstrating in front of a TV camera labelled “Media”.

He’s dressed in a black T-shirt, black baseball cap and dark glasses. He’s also wearing a golden stud earring in his right ear, which matches in colour the embroidery on his T-shirt, which covers his potbelly.

He cuts a figure of a pompous loudmouth. There is movement and energy in his stance. His left arm is swinging, accompanied by the words “SLAP SLAP SLAP SLAP”, all in capital letters.

This is not a “Slap Slap Slap Clap Clap Clap” dance performed by children. The “slaps” are delivered with the back of his powerfully built arm. The speech bubble says: “It’s the cartel’s fault....”

The NTV video of the press conference that seems to have inspired the cartoon is headlined, “Sonko blames ‘City Hall’ for his woes”.

In the video, Sonko is seen wearing clear glasses and is minus the golden stud earring. But he’s wearing a ‘bling-bling’ chain. He cuts a figure of a cornered man who has to explain himself.



In the cartoon, Sonko is lambasting “the cartels”. Why does he use the back slap instead of striking with the open palm of his hand?

Which is more powerful? What message is cartoonist Victor Ndula communicating?

Political cartoons, when well done, are a form of picture journalism that cannot only amuse and make us laugh, but also provide us with powerful social messages and commentary.

Because they are mainly visuals with little or no text, political cartoons appear to require fewer reading skills.

But this is not always true. Often, the full meaning of a well-done cartoon can be too subtle for the ordinary newspaper reader to understand.

In fact, some studies suggest significant percentages of readers fail to understand the political cartoons in their newspaper.

To fully understand a well-done but complex cartoon, one needs to have some knowledge of the relevant background and current events on which the cartoon is based.

One also needs to have an understanding of the basic techniques used by cartoonists to communicate.


Political cartoonists often use caricatures, analogy, irony, symbolism, exaggeration, captioning and labels to express their opinion and message on public issues and personalities.

They use caricatures — distorting a character to features — to identify them or distinguish their characteristics, such as drawing William Ruto with a toothy but sullen and weepy face.

They use analogy — a comparison between two unlike things — such as depicting Raila Odinga sleeping in a bed labelled “Kibra” to suggest that Kibra is his bedroom as in the cartoon published on Tuesday.

They use irony — the difference between the way things are and the way they should be — such as depicting a schoolboy trying to think while taking an exam yet surrounded by armed snipers, rungu-wielding police officers, CCTV cameras, sniff dogs, a helicopter flying overhead, et cetera, in the cartoon published on Monday.

They use symbolism — using objects or symbols to stand for larger concepts or ideas — as in painting the word “MPs” on a pig to symbolise the greed of Members of Parliament.


They use exaggeration — overdoing or overstating a case — to make a point, such as drawing Sonko with a big tummy to depict his pomposity and bigness.

They use captioning and labels to clarify and emphasise, such as labelling a TV camera “Media”, as in the Sonko cartoon.

When you view a cartoon, look for any of these elements to be able to decipher the point the cartoonist is trying to make.

Also look for other characteristics, such as facial expressions that may help to unravel the meaning. This is not an idle exercise.

Political cartoons can be powerful communicative weapons. A single cartoon can shift public opinion.

Analysing and trying to understand a political cartoon can also hone your critical thinking skills and enhance your political comprehension.

It would also help you to appreciate what a difficult job cartoonists have in commenting on politicised and sensitive issues.

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