Terry Hirst: The grandfather of local cartoonists - Daily Nation

Terry Hirst: The grandfather of local cartoonists

Friday October 4 2013

PHOTO |FILE Terry Hirst at his Roysambu office.

PHOTO |FILE Terry Hirst at his Roysambu office.  NATION

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The title ‘Father of Cartooning’ in Kenya belongs to Edward Gicheri Gitau, who started publishing the ‘Juha Kalulu’ comic strip in 1960 with the birth of Taifa Leo. That Gitau has gone on drawing that comic strip for half a century is an incredible story that we must shelve for another day.

Today, we focus on editorial cartoons, the kind we read in the opinion pages of daily newspapers and watch every week in Buni Limited’s XYZ Show. It is actually difficult to believe that the tradition of editorial cartoons is a development of the early 1980s.

The English language newspapers of the 1960s and 1970s carried Reg Smythe’s ‘Andy Capp’ and Flook by Trog - imported narrative cartoons, syndicated internationally. There were no cartoons that commented on a news story or interpreted a recent event.

Then came Terry Hirst.

When he left England in 1965 to take up a teaching position at Kenya High School in Nairobi, Terry brought with him his undying love for cartoons. He had spent his childhood in Brighton, England, buried in comic books. Every morning and evening, as he made the paper run in his neighbourhood, he would read through all the cartoons in all the papers.

In his gang of playmates, he was the magician with a quick pencil, always drawing. To the chagrin of his headmaster, he declined to go to Oxford University because Fine Art was the only thing that he really wanted to study. He opted for the Brighton College of Art, graduated and quickly rose to be Head of the Art Department at a comprehensive school in Nottingham.


Two weeks ago, sitting in his favourite chair at his home in Roysambu, off Thika Superhighway, Terry recalled wistfully the first-generation Kenyan artists who were formally trained at Makerere.

“When I arrived in Kenya, there were five fully trained artists with Gregory (Maloba) of course as the principal one, Louis Mwaniki, Francis Musangi, … and of course Elimu Njau, he was my, he was my brother from the beginning … I became associated with Africa through Elimu, really. I mean he guided me in all my mzungu nonsenses and got rid of them… and I became a founding member of Paa Ya Paa (Gallery).”

But Terry’s relationship with Kenya did not start with Elimu. While teaching in Nottingham, he stumbled on a newspaper advert calling for secondary school art teachers to take up positions in Africa. The choice was between Ghana and Kenya.

Terry opted for Kenya because “a returning settler who was in one of my Art classes in England told me he had been through a terrible time in Kenya, and he gave me Facing Mt Kenya (by Jomo Kenyatta) to show me what he’d been through. When I read it, it blew my mind …! It was about, not ways of having but ways of being … and I couldn’t even tell him that I loved it!”

At the time, Terry was already behaving very Kenyan, in true jua kali or moonlighting spirit! He was heading the art department in a school, “teaching three nights a week at the College of Art, at the weekend trying to do my own work, … drawing a weekly column for The Tribune and for two local newspapers, writing a weekly column, … Sunday was the only day I had for all that and I was doing all this simply to be able to pay up my mortgage!”

But Terry also chose Kenya because it offered a two-year contract, where Ghana wanted a five-year commitment, which sounded like it was too long.

The first Kenyan who met him off the plane from England was Attorney General Charles Njonjo in his capacity as the chairman of the board of Kenya High School. They would go on to have a life-long relationship, often getting into heated debates about the settler philosophy that persisted amongst the elite after independence.

Coming from “a big school in a working class estate,” Terry was stunned by the privileges of the elite school – “servants carrying rackets out to the tennis courts for the girls”.

They were clearly grouped in racially defined streams with the Africans at the bottom. Caught between cultures, these girls had serious struggles of belonging, including the outright bigotry from some of the staff.

Despite independence, the Kenya of 1965 was still a racially segregated society because few Africans could afford a middle-class life.

Still, Terry faced up to his challenges. He designed a new art room at the school. With Peterson Kareithi, the Inspector of Art at the Ministry of Education, they thought through “a new model of creative education” that would do away with the luxury of the five-year British model and instead use two years to maximum effect, stimulating learners with the essentials on materials, concepts and technique.

When he joined Gregory Maloba as a part-time lecturer at the University of Nairobi, “the students were objecting to a five-year B.Ed Art course”. So Terry pushed through the structure of a three-year course that would shape “as many secondary school teachers as possible in the shortest possible time…because the situation was so dire…”

Amongst those who graduated from Terry’s hands is Sam Kahiga. He remembers Terry as the man who introduced him to satirical humour, “ a true humourist, story teller and a pioneer in cartoon magazines which he combined with short stories from local writers”. That was in Joe magazine, which had a good 10-year run until, according to Sam, Terry “was let down by humourless advertisers.”

But back in 1966, Terry’s creative energies were overflowing. Once again he was juggling many income-earning projects at the same time – full time teacher; part-time lecturer and illustrator for various publishers.

The creative scene was full of enterprising young minds like the poet Jonathan Kariara, with whom Terry would forge a life-long friendship, the Chemichemi Centre led by Ezekiel Mphalele and the Paa ya Paa movement.

It was time to leave Kenya High and plunge into the university full-time. Terry moved with Maloba to establish the Fine Art Department at Kenyatta University College. They did not always agree on the best way of training artists but Terry was enjoying his many illustration gigs and exhibitions at Paa ya Paa too much to be bogged down by university politics.

His satirical mind and clever strokes was just one half in the rise of the editorial cartoon in Kenya. The other half came from Hilary Ng’weno, one-time editor-in-chief at the Nation, who run a Monday column titled ‘With a Light Touch.’ Brian Tetley’s ‘Mambo’ replaced that column in 1969 when Ng’weno left for further studies in the US.

Upon his return, Ng’weno asked Terry to illustrate his weekly take on Kenya’s socio-political evolution. The first of these illustrations appeared on January 4, 1971.

In those days rapid transfer of files over the wires did not exist. Terry and Ng’weno met every Sunday to pore through ideas and sketches. Out of this collaboration came the character ‘Joe.’

Joe was a newly urbanised man, “a survivor who has to laugh to keep from crying”. Terry elaborates “the purpose of ‘Joe’ was to comment on the news and to socialise people into being urban … to build a multiplicity of relationships … friendly but not involved emotionally.”

By 1973, ‘Joe’ had developed into an idea for a magazine featuring illustrated jokes, comic strips and guest short story writers like David Maillu, Leonard Kibera and even Ngugi (wa Thiong’o). Edward Gitau, the other veteran cartoonist, run the ‘City Life’ strip in Joe. Terry’s ‘The Good, the Bed and the Ugali’ offered some of the most hilarious takes on contemporary life. It was quite a treat for Sh3.

Back then, public debates were not dominated by constitutionalism and a legal analysis of everything. Fiction, and particularly subversive humour, was the narrative thread through which socio-cultural and political analysis was made. Joe interrogated issues of transport, elections, medical services, religion and urbanisation.

It was Jonathan Kariara of Oxford University Press who breathed life into this idea of a magazine. He gave Terry and Ng’weno “a room, a table and two chairs”. Ng’weno left after a year but Joe grew to a team of young artists, “a suite of offices at Esso House … and a studio on River Road”.

At its peak, circulation hit 30,000 copies per issue going out as far as West Africa. That was how, one morning, working from the Victoria House offices of Joe close to the old Nation House, Terry looked up to find a young Frank Odoi freshly arrived, without notice, beaming up at him with the words “I’m here. I have come from Ghana to join you”.

Odoi had trained as a medical illustrator in Ghana. When one of his colleagues moved to work at Kenyatta Hospital, Odoi jumped at the opportunity to visit Nairobi and meet the famed Joe magazine crew whose work he had read in Accra.

Terry’s cartoons seemed to jump off the pages at you. Unlike Andy Capp and Flook, they spoke of things that were familiar and characters you could relate to given the topical issues of the day. The pencil lines were bold and the detail striking.


His style quickly caught on. There was always some child sitting at the back of the class sketching in an exercise book, thereby forcing the teacher to issue a new one before it was due.

If Terry had any idea of the number of kids that were getting into trouble with their teachers and parents on account of his cartooning, he might have been very amused. But he would also have felt quite fulfilled to learn that he was achieving his initial goal in coming to Kenya because he believes that “you do more teaching by remote control … by public drawing of this kind.”

‘Hirst on Friday,’ ‘Hirst on Sunday’ were Nation brands. It was Terry who first captured and typified in graphics the gluttonous pot-bellied “Bwana Mkubwa”. He was also the first cartoonist to draw Jomo Kenyatta, but only after the his death in 1978, capturing him as a spirit hovering over the country from way up in the clouds.

This comic rendition of Kenyatta was very different from the sombre tribute that Terry drew in the week when Kenyatta died.

Terry left KU in 1979. He later joined Kul Bakhou to start the Pichadithi comic books, which told traditional stories like Lwanda Magere in sharp graphics and colour. Odoi and Maddo (Paul Kelemba) soon joined Pichadithi. At a retail price of Sh5, it grew to be one of the most popular children’s series.

When Terry opened a Facebook account awhile ago, he was flooded by friend requests from nostalgic readers who associated him with Pichadithi. Media practitioner Annie Muriungi, a mother of two, laments the absence of those titles from the shelves today. “I have all the Pichadithi titles in my head… all of them, like a song! … We took stock of our national values through his cartoons.”

As the publishing climate in the country deteriorated in the 1980s, the entry of a vibrant donor community proved useful to furthering the work of artists. The expatriate crowds had always patronised and sustained the art galleries in Nairobi but it was the donors who added a new dimension to publishing as the human rights agenda grew.

Terry had always been a political animal, illustrating for Tribune, 20th Century, Daily Mirror and joining demonstrations in London. Now, he joined Davinder Lamba in Mazingira Institute and their agenda fit in with that of the donors. Together they produced The Struggle for Nairobi a Documentary Comic Book and Introducing The Constitution of Kenya, a graphic historical.

Looking back on all the things he has done in Kenya since 1965, Terry’s humour shines through brighter than ever: “I honestly didn’t know what I was doing … it was just what I felt like doing. I just did it!” But he does lament the absence of a comic book industry in Kenya because it is economically and culturally valuable.

Terry Hirst has not drawn anything since 2003 when he completed the Sen comic book. His studio was accidentally flooded, destroying many valuable canvases. He turns 80 next month, a consummate historian who wickedly focuses on what he calls “untenable histories”.

He spends many hours reading up from his expansive library and writing fascinating historical accounts that need to be published soon for the sake of posterity.

In the last 20 years, Kenya has seen the rise of editorial cartoonists of increasing genius – Fran, Maddo, Gado, Munene, Igah and a few others. The field is far from expansive and is especially short of women, but its traditions are strong and the emergence of digital media has widened its scope.

Next month KATUUNI, the association of cartoonists in Kenya, will meet to honour Edward Gitau and Terry Hirst. That is as it should be. A salute to talented, bold, persistent, outstanding pioneers who risked the insecurities of self-employment to interpret our society and to pave the way for generations of humourists.

Dr Nyairo is a cultural analyst – [email protected]