Grassroots Comics

"There can be no higher law in journalism than to tell the truth and to shame the devil."
-Walter Lippmann


All photos courtesy of World Comics Finland

Article by Dan Murphy

When the topic is impactful cartoon technology nowadays you're likely to figure the discussion's about computer animation -- the engine under the hood of the multibillion-dollar video game industry and the mojo behind plenty of motion picture blockbusters.  For Leif Packalen, though, the effective cartoon tech that can change lives consists of two pieces of A4-size (8.3" X 11.7") paper and a photocopy machine.

At workshop sessions with Packalen's group, World Comics Finland, community activists learn how to turn a couple of sheets of paper into a poster that can throw the spotlight on to important local issues -- from womens' ownership rights in Tanzania to the dangers and ramifications of uranium mining in India to the challenges of living in a Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon.

"Here in Finland," Packalen says, "you say you deal in comics, people think of comics that have some sort of artistic ambition.  But when you are on the ground somewhere in India or in Africa with community activists, what they want is to have their voices heard.”

Packalen had been involved in development work for ten years in Africa when a friend in Tanzania asked for help in turning scientific information from the International Livestock Association in Ethiopia into something local farmers could understand.

The solution was translating the info into an easy-to-follow comic strip.

And that got Packalen to wondering if the same approach could work for community groups trying to foster dialogue on local issues.

"I realized that if you look at comics as a medium, then it had a lot of potential.  Now we're talking like 20 years back and nothing much of the sort was available at the time.  It was a big upstart in the beginning because it had never been done before.  When I went to the [Finnish] foreign ministry talking about comics they were looking at me like 'Is he serious?'

“Our idea was to find professional artists like illustrators and show them how to make comics, because we believed that illustration is illustration -- but comics is telling a story and you can get so much more in it.”

The idea was for the issue at hand -- HIV testing, sex tourism, workers rights, water rights, caste discrimination, girls' education, gender-based abortion -- to be dramatised in a four-panel cartoon. Two sheets of A4 paper with two cartoon panels per sheet -- the photocopied sheets then taped together and you've got a wallposter comic that's easy to read and a pretty good draw for passersby.

Illo: Leif Packalen 

The grassroots community groups Packalen pitched the idea to were immediately on board.

And, after some workshops in Tanzania, "we had material we could show,” Packalen says.  At which point the folks at the foreign ministry could also see the potential of activist comics.

 That was the first breakthrough.

Leif Packalen's second breakthrough came after the call had gone out in Tamil Nadu, India, for artists and illustrators -- and a bunch of non-artists and non-illustrators showed up at the workshop.

Packalen: "And they could see in our faces that we were surprised and perhaps not too happy.

“They said 'Don't worry, don't worry -- we are willing to draw.'

“Then we said okay, since we are there, let's just do it.  And we realized very quickly that the stories that they made were much more powerful and engaged and knowing about what they were doing than if it had been done by a professional artist.  The drawing was not good -- but good enough.

“Now from there we got the idea that we coined the phrase ‘Grassroots Comics.’

"The grassroots organizations jump on something like this, that is inexpensive.  You don't need any sophisticated equipment . . . So it means organizations with very very small resources can do it -- even dirt poor.  In most cases these people have no access to any medium normally, so this becomes a medium they can control.

“I would say the strength of the grassroots comic is that everything that goes into it is local. The environment, the local culture, the language, the meaning of what people say, the idea you are trying to get across.

“For most people in a small community, it's much more interesting to know what the guys who are always around the community center, what kind of ideas they have and what they think is important, than if you had a colorful poster from New York.

“The problem these big agencies have is that they want to make posters and stuff that is generic -- but in the end they are not.  They don't belong anywhere.”

And so, in 1997, the non-profit World Comics Finland was born.

Since then World Comics Finland has been active many times in partnership with Sharad Sharma and World Comics India in India as well as with groups in Tanzania, Kenya, Mozambique, Morocco, Burundi, Benin, Latvia, Lebanon, Estonia, Indonesia, Ethiopia, the Netherlands, the UK, Sweden and Finland.

“Normally we do not train artists or professional artists,” says Packalen.  “We train community activists.  And the only demand is that you must be willing to draw.

“Most people say 'I don't know how to draw.'

“We say, okay, don't worry about that.  That's the last thing you do.  You must have a story which is good.  Do you have a story?  Yes, of course they have.  So it becomes like if you have a story which you want to put on the wall, we can teach you how to make the comic.”

Wallposters from World Comics workshops

Some examples of grassroots comics in action:

lGay Kenya Trust (G-KT) took advantage of training sessions in Nairobi in order to make wallposter comics another advocacy tool in its quest for "legal reform and creating a human rights environment in Kenya where all LGBTI are recognized as full and equal members of Kenyan society."

lThe African Movement of Working Children and Youth (AMWCY) tapped World Comics workshop expertise to help spread its twelve-point declaration of child worker rights throughout western Africa, with the comics now a regular feature on its website.

lA "Rights of the Girl Child" grassroots comics' workshop in Barmer in Western Rajasthan, India, focusing on gender discrimination and infanticide resulted in more than 300 comics posters, which in turn inspired a "Rights of Our Daughters" campaign and motorbike rally which disseminated the posters to surrounding villages.

lThe Mozambican Association Ajuda de Desenvolvimento de Pova para Povo arranged workshops with World Comics Finland in order to give graduates of its Teacher Training Colleges an added tool in communication and development work in their rural postings.  As a result, Mozambique now has over 1,300 teachers versed in the making of grassroots comics.

["Because grassroots comics build on local issues, local community involvement, and local visual culture, there is no need for further outside intervention once the basic skills have been learned." -- from Grassroots Comics, a Finnish Ministry of Foreign Affairs publication by Leif Packalen and Sharad Sharma]

Presently downloadable grassroots comics training manuals are available in Arabic, Finnish, Estonian, French, English, Urdu, Hindi, Somali, Swahili, Kirundi, Russian, and Portuguese.

If grassroots comics find strength through low tech, World Comics Finland finds a strength in staying grassroots itself – building relationships with small NGOs, community activist groups and organizations with a positive social agenda, like the Finnish Psychologists for Social Responsibility, which helped facilitate a grassroots comics workshop at a Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon.

Packalen: “We work with people who are interested in working with us.  We are not going around promoting it on a large scale.  We don’t have the resources.  We are a volunteer organization with few people.  We have about 30 members of which maybe 10 are active.  We have done a lot with a few people.

“But if you make this into a very big campaign, say funded by the World Bank – spread grassroots comics in poor countries in Latin America or wherever -- and you get so many hundreds of thousands of dollars for that, then you get different types of people involved when there is more money."

Along with wallposter comics, World Comics Finland teaches activists  how to create larger cartoon posters, eight and twelve page activist comic books, and accordion minicomics.

Packalen on grassroots comics in his native Finland: “We have been working a lot with immigrants -- and now we have branched out to all kind.  Retired people, intellectually handicapped people, people who belong to some sort of specific group who have a common identity and something on their mind.  Under-age asylum seekers we did for a few years.

“There's this empowering element in it.  It's not like a competition that I'm drawing better than you.  It's like they have got their voice on the wall in a way that other people can read and, of course, judge.  Because they are on issues that there is a debate in society.

“And I think to create debate is the only way you can move things forward.  Otherwise you just wait for the generals and the government to tell you how things are.  When you have a debate on the local ground you can get things moving . . . and then the grassroots comics are an additional tool.

“When people see for the first time comics that are made by grassroots people they are amazed -- because it is amazing.

“There's this Indian development writer, Frederick Noronha, who said ‘Why didn't we think of this before -- it's so obvious that it's working.’”