Africa lost a brilliant cartoonist last Saturday, April 21, 2012 when Frank Odoi died in a freak bus accident. I felt compelled to write a tribute to Frank who I didnt know well, but I admired immensely. I wrote it for Sunday Nation, Kenya to appear April 29, 2012. May he rest in peace and wherever he is, i trust he will continue creating wonderful comic books.
A TRIBUTE TO FRANK ODOI (1948-2012)
By Margaretta wa Gacheru
“…I want to be remembered for [my] comics. I’d like to sit back and create comics for both children and adults…with stories like Akokhan.” Frank Odoi.
The acclaimed Ghana-born cartoonist, author, children’s book illustrator and master storyteller Frank Odoi shared this hope with Kimani wa Wanjiru in an interview he gave on April 6, 2011. He also confessed the sagacious Konadi Chronicles were his creation, a work of fiction whose wisdom consoles his family, fans and dear friends who are still in shock over the news that Frank passed away last Saturday night, April 21st, due to a freak accident.
It was around 8pm and the driver of Frank’s Double M bus swerved to avoid hitting a drunkard on Jogoo Road, but in so doing, the bus flipped over and two people died, Frank and a woman, both of whom were seated near the front of the bus. Everyone else survived.
The tributes to one of Africa’s greatest cartoonists have been pouring in from all over the world. They have been received both by Frank’s immediate family, his wife Carol and two daughters, Francesca and Francene, as well as by his closest cartoonist friends, Gado, Maddo and Kham.
Also known as Godfrey Mwampembwa, Paul Kelemba and James Khamawira respectively, the three shared office space with Fran for the last 12 years and, on a daily basis, witnessed the creative genius of this Ghanaian who adopted Kenya almost 40 years ago.
Coming to Kenya in the mid-1970s, soon after he completed his course in Fine Art and Design at the Ghanatta School of Art in Accra, Frank began his illustrious career drawing satiric cartoons with Terry Hirst at Joe magazine.
It wasn’t long thereafter that he began drawing cartoons for the leading East African newspapers, including The Daily Nation, where he took over the task of chief editorial cartoonist from Hirst himself, East African Standard, Kenya Times, Daily Monitor and New Vision, both from Uganda.
He was so prolific that his cartooning career extended across Africa, from Ghana’s Daily Graphic to Noticias of Mozambique. His cartoon art was especially loved in Scandanavia where his work appeared both in Finland’s Helsingen Sanomat and Denmark’s Dejembe Dapanda. It was also featured in the BBC magazine Focus on Africa, and he was also featured in various BBC radio interviews.
But as he told Kimani wa Wanjiru, he preferred comics to cartoons. Having grown up reading super-hero comics like Superman and Batman, he was inspired to create his own African super-hero. Akokhan is a mythical figure who Frank hoped would one day become a blockbuster movie just as Hollywood has made popular film versions of comic book characters like Spider Man and Wolverine as well as Superman and Batman.
Frank called Akokhana “fictitious fantasy” influenced by various world-class cartoonists, by Heavy Metal magazine which featured international cartoonists including Frank, and by the stories his mum and dad used to tell him while he was growing up in Ghana, scribbling and incessantly drawing “on the blackboard of Awaso Anglican Primary School.”
Born in Tarkwa, a mining town in western Ghana, Frank was the third-born child and only son among his parents’ eight children. His sisters clearly adored him and freed him from doing most family chores so he could pursue his two passions, drawing and football. He told Kimani his two favorite teams were Manchester United and Chelsea.
Frank was inspired by a number of global cartoonists, but his number one artistic inspiration was the Renaissance artist, Michelangelo. “He is my god,” he said in his 2011 interview. Remarkable in so many different ways, what Frank most quickly recalled about Michelangelo was the way he worked on the Sistine Chapel ceiling.
“He painted heaven and hell while hanging upside down,” Frank said, always able to see the humor in art just as he did in everyday life.
One of Africa’s most prolific artists, Frank illustrated everything from children’s books (for East African Educational Publishers) and magazines like Fleur Ng’weno’s Rainbowto comic books like Kul Bhakoo’s Pichadithiseries and his award-winning Golgotiseries. He also contributed to World Bank-funded calendars (2011, 2012) for the World and Sanitation Program (WSP).
He also created comic books for a number of development agencies, including Laban, the Samburu warrior who grappled with the issue of HIV/AIDS and Faith, a young girl who comes from rural areas to town and tackled teenage trials that most African women and girls face.
The two comic books that earned him international acclaim were Golgoti which was first published in Finland and Akokhan which came out as a book in 2007, thanks to the joint efforts of World Comics Finland, the Finnish Ministry of Foreign Affairs and East African Educational Publishers Ltd., Kenya.
Locally, Frank teamed up with his fellow cartoonists to produce several ambitious satiric magazines. They included Penknife (2002-2003) which for three years he co-authored with Gado, Madd and Kham as well as with Victor Ndula and Steenie Njoroge. Kenyan audiences came to know Golgoti as a series in Penknife, and after it folded, in the Standard as a weekly pull-out for a year. Golgoti was also a popular cartoon series in Ghana and Tanzania.
Other projects he co-authored with Kham, Gado and Madd included The Heroes, Us, published by Doctors without Borders (Medecins San Frontieres) and the satiric magazine, The African Illustrated, which was launched in 1997 in time to feature the flight of Zaire’s Mobutu Sese Seko in his ‘Factfile Africa’ column on ‘Democrazy’.
Frank had solo exhibitions of his cartoon art in Denmark, Finland and Sweden as well as in Algeria, Brazil, Nigeria and Kenya. He also participated in numerous group shows with fellow cartoon artists in Kenya.
Voted Kenyan Cartoonist of the Year in 1985, 1986 and 2004, he earned a similar title in Ghana in 2005 and won Best Kenyan Strip Cartoonist of the 2008.
Commenting on the meaning of one line that often appears in Akokhan, Frank said “Where grass has grown, grass will grow” refers to the invincibility of Akokhan. Sadly, the artist didn’t personally possess the same attribute, but his comic art surely does. Frank Odoi will be long remembered and esteemed for his immense contribution to contemporary African art.