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Joe An Essay by Sam Kahiga June 2008

All my life, I wanted to be either a writer or a musician – or failing that, a painter. Back in 1966, or thereabout, after doing the kind of work artists call slavery, banking on my part, I was lucky enough to be accepted into the then called Nairobi University College to do the only thing I felt I was capable of doing, when the spirit moved me.

Back in high school, I had written several stories, and the only place I could take them, in those old colonial times, was to a weekly magazine called Kenya Weekly News, published out of Nakuru. My first story to be published by that colonial magazine was “Father Come back,” which has since featured in a book titled Potent Ash, co-authored by my brother Leonard Kibera.

While in the University, I was always juggling between the fine arts and singing my soul out on TV, with my band, including artists like Paul Kanywe, who is now one of Kenya’s leading architects.

It was in the university that I met an Englishman called Terry Hirst, who gave me the rudiments of graphic design and fine art. He was a rather shy character, very unassuming for the kind of Englishmen who had colonized our country, a special kind of man, armed only with a pencil and the desire to teach us how to use it as an invaluable tool of expression. Fine art led me into working for Kenya Broadcasting house, the same place I had been welcomed in with my guitar.

I had no idea that Terry Hirst and I would meet again, but we did, after I had come back from Glasgow, where KBC had sent me to study TV production.

On coming back, I came across Joe, a startling magazine, the first of its kind in Kenya. Reading it and seeing the kind of stuff Hirst and his friend Hilary Ngweno were turning out, I felt I had to be part of that humourous bunch. The two friends had conceived the kind of magazine all young artists wanted to contribute to. They gave me a column called “From My View” through which I discovered a funny bone I never knew I had, in my rather melancholic soul.

Both of them became my friends, and Hilary gave me a chance to express some of our music, into a film he was doing for Child Health Organization. Later on, I was to fly to the Habitat Conference in New York carrying his film about Lamu Island and another one I had directed for KBC.

Joe magazine was still alive and kicking some great jokes about the kind of places our films and writing was all about, about the holy and lowly wretched of the earth.

Hillary was to move on to launch Kenya Weekly Review, certainly the best political weekly of its time. Terry struggled on with Joe, trying to beat the odds against a comics magazine in Africa. He usually waved away those kinds of odds: the worst being the fact that Kenya was not ready for humour, as a new-born country too busy building herself and trying to reconcile the old colonial past and the youthful vigour. Few wanted to advertise their yield in that mag. They might have enjoyed it but they also thought of it as frivolous flighty and flippant, in the serious world of nation-building.

Young artists didn’t think so, among them a young school-leaver called Rose Kimotho who worked for a while there, many years before launching a radio station and thereafter a TV station, K24, one of the best in the country.

Joe, the character in the magazine, drawn always in an old coat and with rough beard bald patch on the head was a character everyone seemed to know intimately: the old peasant elderly guy next door; a kindly uncle, only more gifted in wit than your real one and more acerbic. Ask him a foolish question in one of his cartoon strips and you were gladly rewarded with an even more foolish answer…

Terry Hirst and his Joe magazine gave young people of that era a great opportunity to launch their own teething talents into the bluest skies of their highest artistic dreams. Through the magazine, I nursed my own writing talent, and Terry, I’m proud to say, did the cover of my second novel, Lover In The Sky. He also illustrated one of my early short stories.

Few artists, especially cartoonists, in Kenya today do not owe Joe magazine and its creator, Terry, a load of thanks for showing them how to draw and write, in a humourous way, the teething problems of Africa’s toil, as we fly into the future and its challenges.

June 2008

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