A lucky Gitau was not conscripted to fight for the Mau Mau and joined Kabaa School in Machakos for class four. One of his classmates was Catholic Archbishop Ndingi Mwana a' Nzeki. Later, he joined Kenya Teachers College in Githunguri Kiambu in 1947 where one of his teachers was Kenya's first president Mzee Jomo Kenyatta. There he trained as a teacher.
In 1948, the Labour Department took Gitau and about 100 others to Tanganyika, today's Tanzania, where they were trained to work on farms for soldiers who had returned from Burma and had been given land after the war to farm groundnuts. He trained as an electrician. He left his electrician job in 1951 after falling off a roof while repairing a fault. He broke his arms and was hospitalised for 10 months. The fear of falling created a phobia and he never went back to his job.
In 1951, he watched a movie in a cinema hall and on enjoying the laughter of the Micky Mouse cartoon, he decided to create his own cartoon. While working in Lindi, Tanganyika near the Tanganyika-Malawi border, Gitau learned a little Kinyasa, a Malawian language (Malawi was then called Nyasaland.) that would later enable him to coin ‘Juha Kalulu’. Juha is clown in Swahili while Kalulu is hare in Kinyasa.
Gitau enrolled for a drawing course to polish his skills at the Fine Art Photo Engravers Company. The Juha Kalulu comic strip was created in 1954 and was published in Tazama newspaper, then Baraza of the East African Standard and later Taifa in 1961. He worked for Taifa Leo until his death.
The characters in the comic included Juha Kalulu, his wife Serah and their family dog Taska. He was later to explain that he used Kalulu and Taska to teach people social values, as they would identify themselves with the experiences of the two.
The comic strip featured Juha Kalulu and his dog called Taska (Tusker), who were frequently on the move. He was a wanderer roaming the countryside, often on missions that would befit a clown and often he landed in a muddle. In oral literature, the hare is usually depicted as a cunning and crafty fellow, using these traits to escape from tricky situations. As he wandered around, Juha often used his ‘hare-like cunningness,’ with regular assistance from his faithful dog, Taska, to disentangle himself from a mess.
Besides publishing cartoons in newspapers, Gitau also published three cartoon strip booklets in 1978, 1985 and 1991. The 1978 edition was prefaced by Mwai Kibaki who was then minister for Finance while the 1985 one was prefaced by Joseph Kamotho, who was then the minister for Higher Education. The last one was prefaced by George Muhoho who was then minister for Tourism, Science and Technology. Since publishing his first cartoon, he never knew any other job. Even with the advancement of technology, Gitau chose to colour his cartoons manually.
Gitau has not depended entirely on the strip for his livelihood, for over 20 years he taught communications at the Kenya Institute of Administration (KIA) ‘I used to leave KIA at 5.00pm for Nation House.’ He explained. ‘I would draw between 6 and 8.00pm . . . Today, I strictly start drawing at 9.00am.’
Wrote Masharubu column
Gitau also had a close relationship with Kenya's first President Mzee Jomo Kenyatta who taught him Geography at Kenya Teachers College in 1948. ‘We called each other MuI’U Waiya (a brother not related to you by blood). Gitau was one of the people who welcomed Kenyatta back from detention in 1961. ‘I handed him a water colour drawing. It meant that we had recognised his resolve to destroy colonialism.’ Many wouldn't know that Gitau was the man behind the defunct, but popular Sunday Nation column of the ‘70s and ‘80s, ‘Masharubu’s World’. It was with-drawn after Kanu politicians said it was inciting. ‘There was no freedom of press. Things have changed a lot,’ he once said. Like Hez, Gitau was ready to draw until his hands could no longer hold a pen or when his eyes would no longer see.
Until his death on May 17, 2016, at age eighty-six, Gitau published ‘Juha Kalulu’ in Taifa Leo and Taifa Jumapili. For over sixty years, the comic strip ran without fail, along the way making it the longest-running comic strip in Kenya and the East African region.
He left behind 11 children who are keen to retain Juha Kalulu but in a different way. None of Gitau's twelve children and more than 30 grandchildren have taken up ‘cartooning’ but one of Wepukhulu's sons is a sports reporter.
This article has been compiled courtesy of Samuel Muigai’s article in the Daily Nation May 19, 2016; by cartoonist KHAM (James Kamawira) and by Kimani wa Wanjiru.