Humour and satire was in its nascent stages in the Kenyan media in the mid-1960s, syndicated Western cartoons and comic strips filling our fledgling publications.
Struggling on the scene was Kenyan comic strip artist Edward Gitau, who created the ageless character Juha Kalulu in 1960 for the new Kiswahili newspaper Taifa Leo, published by Nation Media Group. Today, Gitau still produces the strip and has in the past illustrated popular social satire columns such as Masharubu, which ran in the Sunday Nation through the 1970s.
Hirst, who died on June 25, had worked as a cartoonist and illustrator in his native Brighton, on the south coast of England, and began to do the same in Nairobi even with a busy schedule at Kenya High School and later as a part-time lecturer at the University of Nairobi.
Nairobi was a cheap place to live in those days. The few rickety taxis could get you anywhere; the nightlife was a rapturous whirl with clubs like Arcadia, Hallians and Starlight booming with live bands. Crime was minimal. Terrorism was unknown (at least not until the 1980 Norfolk Hotel bombing).
The occasional bank robberies by fellows in leather jackets and fast getaway Peugeot 404s (later 504s) made the headlines. Urbanites winced at the sight of the bulky police crime buster Patrick Shaw as he hunted down diehard crooks.
The then Nairobi City Council askaris tore down streets chasing the handful of illegal hawkers who existed then, along with the “tatu tatu” communal taxis that preceded today’s matatus (no one could imagine that someday the city would become one large hawker market and matatu terminal). Hirst avidly absorbed all this to develop the backdrop to the numerous characters he would eventually create.
With the 60s drawing to a close, the political assassinations of Pio Gama Pinto and Tom Mboya set back the country’s mood and the reality of political murkiness set in.
Several European families were leaving Kenya — but “mavericks” were arriving. Eccentric Fleet Street journalist Brian Tetley landed and quickly built up interest in satirical columns such as his own Mambo Gichuki, which replaced Hilary Ng’weno’s With a Light Touch in the Daily Nation (the huge following of such easy reading went on with Masharubu and others, with the latter leading to the birth of Wahome Mutahi’s Whispers). Tetley was one of the dozen or so British writers and editors at the Daily Nation, who included John McHaffie, Gavin Bennet and Wade Huie (who once walked backwards up the 29 floors of KICC just to write a story). This is where Hirst’s work later came even closer to common folk.
As he moved from Kenya High School with Maloba to establish the Fine Art Department at Kenyatta University College (today a full university), he intensified his presence in the media.
An early 70s collaboration with Ng’weno, a man of remarkable brilliance in many fields, led to the birth of the character “Joe” from whom we all learnt that you must laugh at yourself at times and banish the various vicissitudes of life.
Joe Magazine was launched in 1973 and it is at this point that Hirst entered my life, thanks to my father who bought his comics-hungry kids Beano, Dandy, Topper and Marvel Comics. Joe was different! We could see ourselves in it. The magazine, the first humour periodical in the country, hosted a bevy of trailblazing writers and artists: Jonathan Kariara, Sam Kahiga, Meja Mwangi, 2014 Nobel Peace Prize for Literature nominee Ngugi wa Thiong’o, playwright and early musician Kenneth Watene, Leonard Kibera, cartoonists Oscar Eshikati and Frank Odoi, among scores of others.
Hirst, exhibiting astonishing energy, illustrated most of the magazine. His deep understanding of African politics, culture and society, expressed through his character creation, exemplified a man of the world; one born in a significantly different society but one willing to learn the ways of others. In fact, he had become a typical Kenyan.
I studied the Joe character along with his mates, marvelling at the features and the refined artwork. Joe was unmistakably African. Western comics had shaped us young artists into drawing African caricatures with the subconscious addition of some “mzungu” features.
Joe Magazine’s template is what was to be used by later humour magazines. Men Only published by Bhushan Vidyarthi and edited by Tetley was one of them in the 1980s. I produced some comic strips and illustrations for it and was happy to do so under the watch of former Joe Magazine writers such as Sam Kahiga. When Odoi, James Kamawira (Kham), Godfrey Mwampembwa (Gado) and I tried our hand at publishing with The African Illustrated (1997) and Penknife (2002), we assembled writers, photographers and artists just like Hirst and Ng’weno had done years earlier.
Kenyans were entertained throughout the 1970s by Joe and his chums. From the tribulations of a village chief to the woes of an urbanite, we read Hirst’s characters as though watching a movie.
The God, The Bed and The Ugali came at the right time as Kenyans struggled to make a living and the movie The Good, The Bad and The Ugly starring Clint Eastwood and Lee van Cleef was screened to thousands in urban centres. The August 1973 cover titled The Housing Scene with Joe and his madam outside their abode after a rude eviction told it all. But it was not all gloom that Hirst “forced” us to laugh at; the famous Safari Rally was featured, all aspects of society fit into those pages with jokes and anecdotes. And the staff at the magazine had a ball covering national elections.
Ng’weno left the magazine to start Weekly Review, deeply inspired by the American socio-political weeklies Newsweek and Time, and shortly thereafter Joe became Joe Homestead. As readers waited for every edition of Joe, they had no idea there existed a bunch of humourless Kenyans: The advertisers. Joe ran almost entirely on its readership. So did Mad Magazine, of Alfred E. Newman fame, but American audiences are very large and could sustain the latter. So lack of advertising murdered Joe Magazine as the 1980s arrived. And this was also just as Hirst left Kenyatta University.
His presence was still felt through his editorial cartoons at the Daily Nation which had run for a few years under the banner of “Hirst on Friday.” Though some occasional and stand-alone political and general satire cartoons had appeared in the Daily Nation and Sunday Nation and the East African Standard along with their Kiswahili sister papers, there is no doubt that it was Hirst who introduced a regular editorial cartoon commentary to Kenya. One of his charges at Joe, Ghanaian cartoonist Frank Odoi took over from him, signing himself as “Fran” and turned the cartoon commentary into a daily “page 6” affair. I inherited that page from Frank in 1986 under the name “Madd” and was amazed to find myself where Hirst had been! My mind went back to 1973 when I saw Joe and told myself I wanted to be like his creator.
Another Hirst-inspired cartoonist, Henry Koskei, who signed his cartoons as Koské ran the page 6 rival cartoon at the Standard (I was to later move there for a few years before passing the baton on to Kham and the many young cartoonists whom Hirst’s work had inspired). At the onset of the 1980s, Hirst helped launch one of the most successful comic series ever in the country with Kul Bakoo of Kul Graphics. Pichahadithi (“picture stories”) was a collection of illustrated African traditional stories and folklore. African legends such as Lwanda Magere were brought alive in the lively pages for kids and adults alike.
Ever in Hirst’s footsteps, I eventually illustrated one comic in the series, Magic of the Rainmaker. But Kul was unimpressed by my handwriting. Young and impatient, with hot blood pumping in my veins, I stormed out on the publisher. The man was asking me to match the legendary Hirst! Impossible! (I still owe Kul an apology). Frank, who was also now drawing some of the comics, completed the lettering for me. As age settled in and Hirst watched from his Roysambu, home as Kenya changed, I can only imagine that wry smile dancing across his face. When you are on the frontline of anything, you do not have reference points and you must start from scratch with the risk of being rejected. He had triumphed.
If there was some disappointment in how the country had turned out after Uhuru in politics, arts and culture, and in the degeneration of the social fabric, Hirst had helped to cool tempers with his satire.
Katuni, the newly-constituted association of East African cartoonists, feted Hirst and Edward Gitau at the end of 2003 in recognition of their contribution to the country. The event was graced by current Chief Justice Willy Mutunga and then Nation Media Group CEO Linus Gitahi.
Brighton may have lost a young man who left England those many decades ago, but it is Kenya, where he made his mark, that has lost the most. And for his wife Nareas Ng’endo and his children, Carolyn, Mandy, Nicky, Ciira, Sheba and Muthoni, nothing will ever replace this iconic mind and humble family man.
But with the thousands of pages of artwork that Hirst produced emblazoned permanently in our cultural history, countless future generations will benefit from his incredible talent.