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Popular Comic Strip Pokes Fun at Africa’s Middle Class

September 23, 1985

NAIROBI, Kenya (AP) _ Every day thousands of Africans faithfully follow the exploits of Bogi Benda, comic strip character who drinks too much, womanizes, worries constantly about money and treats his wife as a vassal.

″He is the new African middle class,″ maintains cartoonist James Tumusiime, a Ugandan living in Nairobi.

The nicest thing said when Bogi Benda’s name came up during the United Nations international women’s conference here in July was that the cartoon ″depicted women most pathetically.″

Despite such criticism, the popularity of Bogi Benda has soared in the 10 years since Tumusiime, 35, took over drawing the English-language comic strip.

Nairobi’s daily newspapers compete fiercely for the strip, which has appeared at different times in four local newspapers. It currently appears in The Standard.

Tumusiime is considering an idea to base a television situation comedy on his character.

The strip is no longer carried in any Ugandan publication, but can be read in newspapers in Lesotho, Tanzania, South Africa and Swaziland, where it is translated into Siswati, the local language.

Bogi Benda is the only cartoon to originate in black Africa that appears in more than one country, Tumusiime said.

″Bogi Benda reflects the pattern of life common to most of black Africa, especially English-speaking countries,″ the artist said. ″There are problems with drinking, promiscuity, money. There are no boundaries as far as those problems are concerned.″

Like Tumusiime, most of black Africa’s cartoonists deal with light, social humor. Political cartoons are almost unheard of, and that has often caused problems for Tumusiime.

″It is a belief here in Africa that cartoons are expressing indirect information or teasing heads of government,″ he said. ″You always have to be very careful, you can easily offend someone. Most African bigshots don’t take jokes very well.″

He said Idi Amin, the former Ugandan dictator, ordered him killed because of one strip.

″He misunderstood my joke,″ Tumusiime said.

The cartoonist took over the forerunner of the Bogi Benda strip, the same character but with the Ugandan name Ekanya, in 1975 when the cartoon’s creator fled Uganda and Amin’s repressive government.

Tumusiime, an agricultural economist, worked in Uganda’s Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock in the Amin government, but also had an academic background in fine arts and an interest in cartooning.

The strip that offended Amin ran shortly after the Feb. 17, 1977, murder of Anglican Archbishop Janani Luwuum, whose death was blamed on Amin’s henchmen.

The cartoon character went into a butcher’s shop and asked the proprieter, ″Do you have a sheep’s head?″ to which the butcher replied, ″No, I have a human head.″

″Amin thought that when I referred to butchery and the human head I was referring to him indirectly and the murder of the archbishop,″ Tumusiime said.

The cartoonist was forced to go into hiding for a month while his editor sorted out the matter with Amin.

Tumusiime took the strip with him to Nairobi in 1981 when he came to the Kenyan capital to study for a master’s degree in agriculture and economics. He adopted Bogi Benda as the character’s name because it was African-sounding, but easily pronounced in English. It has no particular meaning.

The cartoon strip and three popular Bogi Benda books have helped entrench Tumusiime in the African middle class which his comic strip pokes fun at. But the similarity ends there, said the artist.

″The character does not have much to do with me as an individual,″ he said. ″The concentration of all those negative things in one man is purely for dramatic purposes.

″The cartoon depicts an immoral man who is not a good example.″

″I think the interest in the cartoon is more then it deserves,″ he added. ″I don’t think it is more humorous than other cartoons like Andy Capp or Blondie or Peanuts which appear in African newspapers.

″The reason why it is the center of attraction here is that we are in search of some form of identity, trying to develop our own sense of humor.″