By Frederick Noronha
fred at bytesforall.org
For Leif Packalen (59) it all started when his Finnish friend in Tanzania wrote in to ask if Leif had anyway of transferring useful dairy-cattle ideas from Ethiopia to the poor who so badly needed it. Leif’s romance with the scraggly line has gone strong for over a decade-and-half. Now, he’s spreading the message across parts of Africa and South Asia.
For Leif, and his New Delhi-based pen-and-ink friend colleague Sharad Sharma, comics are not just something trivial that entertain kids. These drawings say much more than the proverbial thousand words of the picture — more so when large sections of people still can’t read or are sticken by poverty, illiteracy and a crying need for information that reflects their reality.
Leif Packalen started World Comics and Sharad Sharma picked up and extended the idea via worldcomicsindia.com. While Leif — a former commercial attache in Africa for the Embassy of Finland — has held training camps in half-a-dozen African countries, Sharad has been spreading the idea across half-a-dozen Indian states in this sub-continent sized country, and other parts of South Asia.
In end-November 2005, both teamed up in Goa’s sleepy Madkai village, to host a training-for-trainers camp, which they hope will spread the idea, to more of those who can use it.
Put briefly, their idea is remarkably simple — yet effective. You don’t need to be an artist to express yourself in drawing. “If you have a good story, you can manage with less skillful drawings. But if you have a lousy story, there’s no drawing that can rescue it,” Leif told a dozen-and-half trainers-in-the-making at Goa.
On simple A4-sized paper worked, non-profit groups and tribal young men and women find an alternative to searching for that elusive access to the media. Leif’s message is: wall-poster comics can be put up anywhere. Wall-poster comics create local debate. Wall-poster comics are simple to make, and inexpensive.
“The idea is to enable people who have something to say, to convert their ideas into comic-format. This can then be transferred into a wall-poster or a brochure,” he explains.
Sharad says that “anyone from eight to eighty” can work on this idea. And, he has the creative work of Lakhindra Nayak of Jharkhand, Deepak from Uttaranchal, Champalal of MP, Sujata in Orissa, Noel from Tamil Nadu, Zuala of Mizoram and Rina of Nagaland to make his point.
In largely-literate Finland itself, this media is being harnessed largely for marginalised groups. Immigrants, refugees, minorities. “But I must say, our international work takes most of our time,” adds Leif, who incidentally studied business administration and international marketing. He also worked in a development cooperation project in Tanzania, after being an embassy official in Nigeria and Sudan.
So, he’s not an artist?
“I’ve trained myself,” he corrects you speedily. “On realising the power of comics, I went to a comic-making course. Then, to drawing classes. In fact, I started drawing only at the age of 42, and had not drawn anything before that. Adult (continuing) education is very good in Finland.”
Drawing, he believes, is a skill you acquire only by drawing. “It’s not a gift from god. I took a degree in commercial art in 1998, at the age of 52.”
Sharad Sharma, an artist who has worked with Indian mainstream television, has been extending Leif’s idea, and his slogan of ‘comics power’. But he’s been not just stopping where Leif left off, and invites keep coming across South Asia for him to conduct trainings. “This is my 25th workshop in one year. We have been busy (and can only manage (to spread the idea) by) training more trainers,” says Sharad.
Leif adds: “I’ve been quite many times to India. But WorldComicsIndia has become very strong. So, now, I mostly come here to learn. My vision is to see this method of grass root communication being exported from India to other places.”
“We develop pictorals on parenting issues,” says Rina Nath of Kolkata. From the poor urban quarters of Manchester (UK) come two community workers Kezia Lavan and Kath Taylor who say: “We hope to use this idea in building more community participation (among those marginalised in an affluent society). We had a wonderful workshop with World Comics in May this year.”
Meanwhile, in Mizoram, the idea is being moulded to preserve almost-forgotten folk tales, and pass these onto local children, in the more-than-catchy comics form. In Tamil Nadu, some of the victims of the December 2004 tsunami were also encouraged to use the comic form to get an alternative media voice for themselves.
“Most of the time when the word ‘comics’ is uttered, people think it’s for kids. But anyone from eight to 80 can participate (in the training). It’s not even necessary to be an artist,” reassures Sharad. Involving women is important, he stresses. Men take to comics more easily, but women hold the key in development.
Sharad encourages trainers to get neophytes to write a story, break it into manageable parts, translate words into visuals, place the text on a rough draft, boldly knock out all but the bare-minumum of wordage, and so on….
For their work, they already have something to show. It’s an 28-page booklet subtitled ‘Wall-poster Comics: A Great Campaign Tool‘. It carries cartoons in the Mizo language, tips of how to get your message out, and suggestions on how to ‘text’ your drawings. Then, there also are stories of afforestation in Jharkhand, the neighbour’s pig from the North East, drug-addiction issues, the story of an eye-doctor from Madhya Pradesh, and a Jharkhandi story of elections… from a people’s perspective. You wouldn’t think a line-form more associated with entertaining affluent and middle-class kids could actually talk all these issue.
Villagers can surely pick up the rudimentary elements of drawing. They do need some tips on how to reflect the moods in an egg-shaped face. Or how to depict people and motion. Drawing movement, sound and other effects is also briefly explained.
The end-message is simple: this simple idea works. If only more could get down to try it out. ‘Adivasis neh jeeti ladayee‘ (Tribals won the battle) is the title of one theme about the story of the Tawa Dam project in Madhya Pradesh. “When you’re using comics in this way, there should be an insider element in it,” says Leif. And the voice does come across. ###