Insight Magazine interviews Sierra Leone’s most prolific political cartoonist – De Monk

Why did you decide to be a cartoonist?

Da Monk

I actually didn’t decide to be a cartoonist. However, I just found myself doing cartoons and now I thank God I am widely regarded as one.

When I was in college (Fourah Bay College) I used an ordinary Bic pen to do flyers (handbills) and posters for campus clubs to advertise their social activities like jam sessions and parties. I also did banners and t-shirts for social clubs in greater Freetown and beyond in my own self-taught way. Back then in 1996, I had no access to computers .

After the war, I was back in college in 2001 and I continued doing that. Then I had the opportunity to work as a reporter at one of the then leading newspapers, For di People.

The Publisher and Editor of the newspaper, Paul Kamara, gave me the opportunity to showcase my creative talents. Inspired by one of the greatest writers and satirists I have ever known, Olu Richie Awoonor Gordon of Professor Peep! fame (late),

I started my own satirical column which became popular as Ticha Lemp Lemp. To make it a little bit different, I started doing sketches of the subject matter or of the personalities I wrote about. I guess that’s how I started getting into the world of caricature.

But it was until after college in 2007 that I became acquainted with the computer and eventually the Internet. It was then I started to see different perspectives and began to broaden my horizons.

What motivated you to choose political and social satire?

Politics has always been the dominant subject in our society. Societies have degenerated or developed depending on the politics they practice. This inextricable link between politics and society makes it a limitless source of information for media practitioners. Politics is the lifeblood of society. It is what makes society tick.

That is why when you open the newspapers and magazines or listen to the radio and watch television channels, the top news is about politics and how it affects society. The majority of citizens are attracted to such news because that’s where they all believe to have a big stake.

So it is natural for me to follow political issues and find a way of expressing my opinion on them, especially as they affect the entire society.

Can you remember your very first cartoon and its impact?

Hmmm… Between 2001 and 2002, I can’t remember the exact date now. Paul Kamara traveled to Italy to receive the Northcote Parkinson Fund for Bravery Award on behalf of For di People. So I had the opportunity to serve as Acting Editor in his absence.

It was just after the war and President Alhaji Ahmad Tejan Kabbah was accused of violating the 1991 Constitution after he extended his tenure to six months. I remember I did a cartoon depicting the 1991 Constitution as a girl with the headline: President Kabbah Rapes 10 year-old! The 10 year-old referred to the 1991 Constitution of Sierra Leone, which was ten years old in 2001.

The feedback was mixed. People who were opposed to the ruling government loved the cartoon while others in favour of the government expressed great concern, especially the headline, which they considered to be “alarming”.

When Paul Kamara returned home from Italy, he told me proudly that he got telephone calls from certain personalities in government that it was very daring of me to have published such a cartoon. People said I could have been charged with sedition if it were in other African countries. I was encouraged by the feedback I got from my editor and other senior members of the editorial team of For Di People Newspaper like Sallieu Kamara and Karim Bah.

I actually wish I could lay hands on that publication. It will be a real treasure. I have checked the Sierra Leone Library but couldn’t find filed copies of that edition. It was actually my first edition as Acting Editor and a big launching pad into the cartoonist that I am today.

What do you try and achieve through your work?

The objective of my work is mostly to provoke healthy debate around political and social issues in the hope that such discourse will influence decision making in governance and policy formulation. In addition, it is my aim to entertain in the process.

Have you ever experienced persecution as a result of your work?

Not at all. I try to be as professional as I can be. I also try to focus more on the issues than the personalities.

However, I do a lot of self-censorship considering the fact that we still have obsolete and obnoxious laws such as Criminal libel and Seditious libel in our law books which limit our right to freedom of expression. But I also use my work to draw public attention to the existence of these bad laws, their negative impacts on the media and the wellbeing of our society and the need to have them reviewed or expunged from our law books.

Where do you get your inspiration and ideas for your political cartoons?

The ideas come from everywhere. From casual discussions and reading or listening to the news to looking at works of other cartoonists, brainstorming and consultations.

The ideas or concepts are limitless. I consider every person an artist. We all have the ability to create images in our minds. The only difference with us is that we have a further ability to illustrate such images or ideas on paper and make people see them like real.

What particular work of yours do you think has been your most memorable/impactful?

That is difficult to say. I haven’t done any form of research to determine the impact of my cartoons or satirical writings. But the conversation that follows the publication of some of them sometimes gives you an impression of their impact.

Nowadays, with Social Media it is easier to determine their impact or follow the debate they generate. For example, when I post my cartoon on WhatsApp, I am able to monitor people’s reactions to it. Equally on Facebook, you will see the comments it generates, the engagements, shares and the reach.

Personally, my most memorable one is on the cankerworm of corruption titled David vs Goliath. The Independent Media Commission award winning cartoon depicts a giant built of money notes which symbolises corruption (Goliath) and a Lilliput-like official with a sling which symbolizes the anti-corruption commissioner (David). The cartoon illustrates the enormity of the problem of corruption in Sierra Leone but the Biblical reference to David and Goliath was meant to show unparalleled optimism that it’s a fight that can be won.

Has the potential for controversy ever stopped you from drawing a particular subject or do you seek controversy?

I don’t seek for controversy, but I think the kind of work I do thrives on controversy. When your work sparks controversy it provokes debate and you begin to see different perspectives that you the author can also learn from. One of the limiting factors to development in the country was the fact that important national issues that affected the general populace are discussed by few groups of people only. My cartoons are meant to expand the frontiers of national discourse for more actors to come onboard.

In this job I learn every day and I am always excited. Controversy only motivates me further.

In general terms, how do you see political cartoons impacting citizens and the political discourse?

I believe political cartoons are essential ingredients (or they should be) in the general content of the media and they are a powerful tool of expression. I personally enjoy the ability it gives me to use humour to tell truth to power without attracting vengeance from the personalities behind such power, except for extreme pieces.

Generally, the impact of political cartoons on the political discourse in Sierra Leone is growing gradually and citizens are beginning to appreciate or comprehend their relevance. But I think we need to have more cartoonists to add different perspectives to the discourse. For now, I can only see myself and I am just one view point. People need to see cartoons representing different viewpoints on one subject.

I have tried to rally around a couple of other colleagues that I know, but who are not active, so that we can form an association and perhaps seek further opportunities like training. I am still working on this and hopefully we will be together soon.

The newspapers also need to start commissioning cartoonists and dedicate reasonable spaces to their works as is the case in other countries like Guinea, Ghana and Nigeria. That way, political and social cartoons can take their rightful place in the national discourse and it will inspire a new generation of professionals after us.

Do you believe your work had an effect on the recent elections and if so what?

Apart from doing political cartoons, I work extensively with CSOs, NGOs, UN Agencies, etc. developing and producing Information, Education and Communication (IEC) materials on a variety of awareness raising campaigns.

During the General elections 2018 I illustrated the Sierra Leone Bar Association’s ‘Handbook on Electoral Laws and Processes in Sierra Leone’; I illustrated Campaign for Good Governance’s (CGG) ‘Civic Education Handbook for Elections in Sierra Leone’; produced posters and billboards promoting women’s participation in the elections supported by CGG; produced posters on Electoral laws for Society for Democratic Initiatives and its partners; among many others. I also produced several cartoons on countering incendiary speech online through positive use of social media which was supported by the Network Movement for Justice and Development (NMJD) and the University of Edinburgh.

I believe all of this help to inform and educate the public on the electioneering processes, the do’s and don’ts and guide public debate around the elections.

During the recent elections – which cartoon do you believe had the most impact?

Judging by the comments and shares on social media I believe the cartoon on the leadership struggle within the All People’s Congress (APC) may have had the most impact. Titled ‘Who wants to succeed me?’ the cartoon depicts the President by then, His Excellency Dr. Ernest Bai Koroma, his vice Victor Foh and Ministers of Government who had expressed interest to lead the party into the 2018 General Elections.

The vice president expresses concern that his boss doesn’t seem to realise that he also wants to succeed him as President. A sequel to this cartoon is the ‘APC’s Last Super’, which came on the eve of the much anticipated APC National Convention in the city of Makeni, which was an attempt by President Koroma to prepare the minds of potential flag-bearer bidders for the big surprise that awaited them in Makeni.

However, I think the series of illustrations I did for CSOs and other professional institutions like the Bar Association had more impact because they were devoid of any imagery and were basically to educate the electorate on the election processes.

What do you think is the future of political imagery in Sierra Leone?

I think with the advent of social media you see a lot of political imagery (not just politics, every discipline in fact) flying around; some are meant basically for humour while others are extreme. Sierra Leoneans are beginning to understand this kind of balance in information dissemination.

I have been doing these kind of stuff in my Ticha Lemp Lemp column well before the emergence of social media in this small corner of the world and a lot of people did find it amusing as well as educative and they are keen to see the column back in the papers.

So with the level of understanding growing, the future of political imagery will be interesting.

In which newspapers has your work appeared?

My work started in For di People. Later in Independent Observer, Concord Times, The Exclusive, The New Tempo (defunct), Kalleone Entertainment & Sports (defunct), Africa Young Voices (AYV). Nowadays I syndicate my work with all the newspapers in the country gratis.

On one occasion, in my early years, The Times newspaper in London published one of my cartoons on corruption alongside an article on Sierra Leone and I was paid 250BP for it.

Are you a member of any political party in Sierra Leone?

I am a member of the biggest political party- Sierra Leone.

How do your subjects react to your cartoons?

The reaction to my cartoons, especially political cartoons, is always mixed. Depending on which side of the political divide they are, people criticise or appreciate my cartoons. In some other instances people just criticise because of lack of understanding of the issues or how they perceive the cartoon.

Nevertheless, negative or positive, the reactions only motivate me further to continue to do my work and improve on it.

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