Bongoman: Cartoon Character Wins Popularity In Kenya

NAIROBI, Kenya - Kenya's greatest hero certainly has endured his share of troubles recently. Not long ago, the poor guy was thrown in jail one night after single-handedly beating up a squad of abusive Kenyan cops who had the temerity to invade his favorite saloon in a Nairobi slum.

Luckily, the hero managed to escape that jam and soon won the Kenyan lottery. But wouldn't you know it? He blew all the money on a ridiculously overpriced trip to Paris with his wife and young son.

Right now, this most extraordinary of ordinary Kenyans is in the Persian Gulf working as a photojournalist for a Nairobi newspaper. He has already fallen headfirst into an oil well, slugged it out with practically half the Iraqi army and prompted Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein himself to plead vainly for the Kenyan's help in fighting ``the American imperialists.''

So go the wild and wonderful adventures of Bongoman, a local cartoon character straight from the rowdy and colorful streets of Nairobi, who is capturing the laughs, imaginations and affection of citizens of all ages in this East African country.

Bongoman is an unusual-looking fellow. He's got dreadlocks that stick out from his head like railroad spikes and a thick black beard that seems to encircle most of his face. He wears tattered trousers with deep pockets usually containing nary a Kenya shilling, a ragged short-sleeved shirt and, like many young men in the city, a pair of worn leather sandals.

Bongoman is fast on his feet and quick with his fists, but he only fights when he feels abused or threatened or senses a need for a wrong to be righted. The man loves to drink beer, hates to work, distrusts cops, likes eating goat meat and greens as much as any Kenyan and frankly has no loftier ambitions in life other than to enjoy the warm and often hilarious company of his long-suffering friend, Rasta Fasta; his wife, Mamie, and his son, Babie.

He is, in short, Kenya's urban Everyman.

``Bongoman lives in Eastlands,'' said Jaymes Khamawira, the 25-year-old creator of the character, referring to a rough-and-tumble neighborhood in Nairobi that is filled with boisterous saloons known here as ``day and night'' clubs and is populated by a diverse array of Asians, Ethiopian and Somali exiles, and middle- and lower-class Kenyans.

``He is an ordinary fellow with no regular job, but he still gets to do things that most Kenyans can only dream of. All of us may wish we could fight authority and injustice the way he does,'' Khamawira said, ``but few of us can. And not many Kenyans get to go to places like Paris, Rome, London or New York. Even I haven't been to those places. But Bongoman has. He takes us there.''

Indeed, much of Bongoman's growing popularity among Kenyan readers seems to derive from their ability to easily imagine themselves in the everyday African predicaments in which he often finds himself, particularly those involving clashes with Western culture and biases.

One of the character's wackier exploits occurred several months ago when, during a visit to Rome for the World Cup, Italian immigration officials put the Kenyan aboard a plane with the Cameroonian soccer team, after their elimination from the tournament.

The Italian authorities figured that since Bongoman was black, African and so clearly rooting for the Africans to win, he must be with the Cameroonian team, for why else would he be in Rome?

Of course, Bongoman overcame that indignity to get a part-time job coaching the Cameroonian team for several days, earning just enough money for the 2,000-mile trip home to Kenya.

Khamawira, a slender, mild-mannered chain-smoker who often wears a snazzy bowler hat while drawing his cartoons and who signs his work with the nom de plume Kham, said he came up with the idea for Bongoman several years ago while working for a graphic design company.

``He is a character like so many of my friends from the streets,'' said the cartoonist. ``He is basically a very good guy who just always seems to be down on his luck.''

The son of a former University of Nairobi geography lecturer, Khamawira traces his knack for drawing back to his schoolboy days in the Kenyan city of Nyeri, when he often sketched unflattering caricatures of his teachers. The sketches amused his friends but invariably landed him in trouble with officials.

Khamawira's lifelong ambition has been to try to fill an artistic void in this African country, where daily newspapers regularly run Western cartoon serials such as Momma and Popeye that have little cultural, racial or ethnic relevance here.

Just as Andy Capp may be seen by some as an embodiment of lower-class British life, and Blondie a portrait of suburban American life in the 1950s, Khamawira's Bongoman represents an effort to capture and celebrate slices of contemporary life among Kenya's urban poor.

Throughout Africa, to varying degrees, locally produced cartoons provide amusement, artistic expression and political and social commentary, depending on the amount of official tolerance.

The West African country of Nigeria, Africa's most populous and arguably its most vibrant and culturally contentious nation, is most certainly the king of cartoon-making on the continent. Newsstands in Lagos, the capital, brim with comic books featuring Nigerian characters. In Kenya, by contrast, that tradition is largely undeveloped.

Two years ago, Khamawira was hired by the government daily, the Kenya Times, to sketch political cartoons, a job he continues to hold, unsettling though it may be sometimes in this land of restrictive one-party rule.

But Khamawira's greatest pride and joy comes from Bongoman, a cartoon that provides him with comparatively boundless room to explore the joys and difficulties of everyday Kenyan life.

Each week, Khamawira receives stacks of letters and numerous phone calls from fans, particularly when his hero manages to overcome seemingly insurmountable odds.

``I think I am proudest of the fact that children seem to love Bongoman most. They really like it when he speaks in Sheng,'' said Khamawira, referring to the hip language of Nairobi's streets, popular among the young, which combines elements of English and Swahili.

While a few disapprove of some of Bongoman's antics - Khamawira said he has been ``slapped around'' a couple of times by Nairobi policemen who took exception to the cartoon character's propensity for getting the best of Kenya's finest in assorted slugfests - thousands clearly love Bongoman and the colorful tales of his life and times.

A few weeks ago, Bongoman had to go to a wedding in western Kenya near his ancestral home. By mere minutes, he missed one of Nairobi's notoriously overcrowded, unreliable and dangerous country buses and was left with no alternative but to travel on foot.

With his belongings in a knapsack on the end of a stick, Kenya's common man set out on an all-night odyssey through the countryside, huffing, puffing and sweating his way west through three cartoon frames. He arrived just in time for the wedding.

That he managed to beat the country bus by hours was a happenstance that many travelers in Kenya could identify with.