Without a doubt, Terry Hirst touched many lives and played a key role in the growth of the art of cartooning and “indigenising” editorial cartoons in Kenya. And he remained humble as he continued to use the pencil to inspire as an artist, teacher and mentor.
“Long before I could even read, I interacted with the late Terry Hirst’s illustrations and I always felt that I understood and related with his stories in a thought-provoking and mesmerising way,” my former Literature lecturer told me when I informed him I was preparing a tribute to this departed legend.
“Terry had a fascinating way of using illustrations to breathe life into stories and situations in the country, a trait that enabled him to excel as an editorial cartoonist and comic writer,” he added.
Terry gave hitherto unknown writers like Sam Kahiga an opportunity to hone their writing skills when he and Hillary Ng’weno launched Joe magazine.
Paul Kelemba (Maddo) in his popular column It’s a Madd Madd World that has been running for more than 25 years observed: “He moved to Kenya for two years in 1965, and stayed. If he hadn’t, many of us cartoonists would probably have charted different artistic paths. His teaching, comic stories and editorial commentaries electrified and hooked us.”
“Terry’s remarkable understanding of African culture, society and politics emerged in the characters he created that inspired numerous cartoonists of today. We cartoonists mourn his departure but celebrate him. We shall remain eternally indebted to his great soul whose humble humour helped cool Kenya for nearly 50 years,” Kelemba added.
The young cartoonists have pushed the frontiers of the country’s democratic space further but Terry’s influence went beyond mentoring. I will remember him for whetting my appetite for the written word and well told narratives through his comic series Pichadithi.
The series title coined from two Swahili words picha (pictures) and hadithi (story) was without doubt one of the longest published comic series that was also grounded in the African traditional oral literature.
It had more than twenty 30-paged comics that were developed from various popular fables, myths and legends that were told in various Kenyan communities and they were a joy for young readers.
However, it did originate from a dark phase in his life.
“In 1982, Kenya had just gone through the trauma of the attempted coup d’état,” Terry said in an interview I had with him in 2013.
“Working in the mainstream media had become politically very repressive, and I had been forced out of my job as an editorial cartoonist at a national daily shortly before, and my re-appointment as a lecturer in graphics at the university failed to be confirmed in related circumstances.”
Faced with the usual artist’s problem of how to make a living, he decided to venture into comic books.
“The thing I wanted to do as an artist was to make comic books, but no comic book industry existed in Kenya,” he said.
He managed to persuade Kul Graphics, who were already in the market as pre-press professionals and publishers, that an unexplored market existed that they could both benefit from.
“In effect, Kul Graphics had become my patron/agent, and would pay me upfront on receiving the completed, camera-ready, artwork monthly, thus financing the completion of the next month’s issue. Happily for me, the series was popular from the start, and soon achieved a monthly circulation of over 20,000 copies,” Terry added.
Titles included Kenyatta Prophecy, The Greedy Hyena, Wanjiru the Sacrifice, The Amazing Abu Nuwasi, Lwanda Magere, The Ogre’s Daughter, The Adventures of Hare, The Wisdom of Koomenjoe, A Poor Man’s Bowl, Terror in Ngachi Village, The Cunning Squirrel, Omganda’s Treasure, Children of Sango and Simbi the Hunchback, among others.
In the typical Kenyan socialistic style of sharing knowledge, I lost a significant part of my treasure trove from miscreants who borrowed and never returned the comics. I have been rebuilding it but several titles have been out of print for several years.
I was not the only one who liked these comics. I have received numerous inquiries from Kenyans who would like to buy them and perhaps, an enduring tribute to Terry Hirst would be to reprint the entire collection to entertain a whole new generation of readers.
I met the publisher recently when he was promoting Professor Ngugi wa Thiongo’s Weep Not Child and he revealed that similar conversations had been held with the Hirst family. The reprinting conversations should now be realised for the Hirst legend to continue inspiring readers.
Terry was also a trailblazer in the use of cartoons for development work when the “editorial cartoons doors” closed.
“Other doors opened with a whole new market in the field of development communications,” Terry told me in the interview.
There were lots of opportunities and he received commissions from ministries, institutes, NGOs and other donors to work on illustrations on soil conservation and tree planting, immunisation and child health, sustainable development and zero-grazing, and information exchanges with children.
The fieldwork took him to every corner of the country and enabled him to be a pioneer once again in the use of cartoons for civic education.
Long before Gado aptly drew the caricature of Wanjiku, who became the emblem of reforming the Constitution, Terry had been working on these issues. Working closely with Davinder Lamba and the Mazingira Institute, he was involved in the production of a documentary comic book in the mid and late 1990s and up until the period leading to the Bomas conference.
His name is etched in the history of this country as a mentor, teacher and crusader of good governance. Using his art, he pushed and inspired others to push the frontiers of democracy, human rights, nationhood and nation building.
If and when the Pichadithi comic series is reprinted, Terry will continue to reach from yonder. He will endure like the cowboy once popularised by the late Amka Twende and Othorong’ong’o back in the 1980s on television series Vitimbi.
“A cowboy never dies. And when he dies, he never rots. And when he rots, he never smells. And when he smells, nobody knows,” the late Amka Twende and Othorong’ong’o would happily say as they entertained viewers alongside TV legends Mzee Ojwang and Mama Kayai.
This cowboy will never die. His written, illustrated work and those he mentored and inspired as cartoonists – men and women of letter or just fans – will ensure Hirst’s enduring legacy.