Thursday, 26 July 2012

Grassroots comics workshop in Sign language, in Tanzania 2011

Petra Juva, Art teacher and Deaf Culture activist, sent us this report:

The Finnish Association of the Deaf has arranged four cultural exchange projects in Africa during 2007-2012: i.e. in Namibia, Ethiopia, and Tanzania, and most recently in Uganda. The Finnish Ministry for Foreign Affairs funded these projects. The purpose of the exchange has been to acquaint the Deaf in Africa with different areas of culture, to promote their Deaf cultural identity, and improve their skills in social interaction and self-expression, this way also strengthening their self-esteem. Five instructors from Finland were in charge of the different workshops. In addition to myself, the other participants were Maija Koivisto (drama), Marita Saunamäki-Barber (theatre and poetry), Juho Saarinen (dance), and Marko Vuoriheimo aka Signmark (rap). Graphic artist Oscar Lönnholm instructed the comics workshop in Uganda in my place. Here I will tell about the comics workshop in Tanzania.

The workshops in Tanzania were arranged at the Russian Cultural Centre in Dar es Salaam on January 22-31, 2011. Approximately fifty Deaf persons from Tanzania participated. They were divided into five different workshops. The language used for the instruction was Tanzanian Sign language and International Sign, and there were also some participants who knew American Sign Language (ASL).

The first day of the comics workshop in Dar es Salaam.
Seven persons between the ages of 22 and 40 participated in the comics workshop, six men and one woman. Some were skilled in drawing and some were quite inexperienced, but comics were a new thing to them all. Many were concerned that they had not drawn anything since they went to school. Their worries were unwarranted; they were quick to learn and understand the idea of comics. They also clearly enjoyed drawing. It was wonderful to see their development and the joy of the experience.

The method used in the workshop was the grassroots comics -method. The participants practiced drawing, created a story, planned the script, and learned to compact the story into four frames. New comic strips were produced all the time. The group was hard-working and interested in drawing comics; nobody wanted a break when I suggested it, they all wanted to continue drawing and working.

The workshop was conducted in Sign language.
In the beginning of the workshop many participants thought that the most important thing was producing an ”excellent picture”. The content, message and story were left without much focus or were forgotten altogether. During the workshop we discussed the importance and meaning of the story, and the participants gave comments and feedback to one another. We also discussed the situation and status of the Deaf in Tanzania as well as their own experiences. Right from the start it became clear that the participants had a very low level of Deaf awareness. With higher Deaf awareness they would be able to produce information bulletins and transmit information about issues concerning the Deaf to the general public and other Deaf.


Apollo Nsenga, who has moved from Uganda to Tanzania, produced a joke about interpreters: A Deaf man is dating a hearing woman and decides to ask an interpreter to interpret in order to get to know the woman better. But instead the interpreter snatches the woman and walks away with her. Apparently in Uganda it is not uncommon for the male interpreters to snatch the hearing girlfriends of their Deaf clients.  

Many participants began to think about what they would like to improve and which things in their society were upsetting them. The status of the Deaf is weak in Tanzania, just as it is in many countries in Africa. There are almost no Sign language interpreters available, and many Deaf live secluded in the countryside with no skills in Sign language, without being aware or their rights, not being allowed to drive, etc. But even if there are many things that can be improved in the developing countries when it comes to the status of the Deaf, the participants were optimistic and proud of what they are and eager to advocate for their rights. During the course we also shared a lot of Deaf jokes.


A detail from Evaristo Mlelwan's comic strip about a Deaf boy attending school with hearing children. He doesn’t understand what the teacher is saying and is generally confused about almost everything. In the comic ”Shule ya msingi viziwi”,the boy is allowed to change schools and is happy about how well he can understand and learn new things in the Deaf school in sign language. Delighted he tells his mother about it. This story relays the message of the importance of the Deaf schools and sign language. 

After these discussions the participants began producing a good number of stories about and with messages regarding Deafness. Many used humour in the comics and many also dealt with unpleasant experiences.

The workshop of one week was short, but much was accomplished. The workshop went well in spite of small problems here and there. We had to haul our papers and other equipment with us, and change rooms many times, because there was no permanent working space assigned to us. The centre had no copying machine, the machine at CHAVITA (Tanzania Association of the Deaf) did not work and the one at the hotel was overly expensive. In spite of that, we managed to copy the comic strips and put together the comic books! They will be distributed via CHAVITA for people to read, for instance in Deaf schools and Deaf clubs.
A detail from John Mpenda’s strip ”Kuelekea makanisani”. People are praying in church, kneeling, with their eyes closed. When the minister asks everyone to rise, everyone else does so, except the Deaf person. He remains kneeling until he notices everyone else has gotten up, and then he gets up feeling embarrassed.

All comic strips were exhibited on the wall at the closing ceremony of the cultural exchange for the participants of the other workshops to see. The artists had a chance to present and explain their comics in Sign language. I was so proud of each and every one of them! They were also planning to arrange comics-meetings in the future and CHAVITA promised to try to support them. I hope that the meetings take place and the seed for comics-enthusiasm grows so that this activity can spread via the workshop participants!

Petra Juva

The workshop participants with Petra Juva.

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