This blog post is the fourth in a series by Esther McConnell, exploring graphic fiction and publishing. These posts are being written as part of Esther’s second project on the Project Management and Research undergraduate module at Cardiff University.
Interview with Dr Lisa El Refaie, Part 2: WhizzKids United
Dr Lisa El Refaie is a senior lecturer at Cardiff University. Her main research interests are in visual and multimodal communication, with a particular focus on newspaper cartoons, autobiographical comics (or “graphic memoirs”), and the use of visual storytelling in health campaigns. Much of her work has explored the differences between verbal and visual/multimodal forms of metaphor, irony, and humour. She is currently giving a third year module on the Graphic Memoir at Cardiff University’s School of English, Communication and Philosophy.
WhizzKids United is a charity with which I worked to deliver a programme of workshops for children based around comics.
It is based in South Africa and was founded by Marcus McGilvray. They use football training as a tool to teach children life skills and how to protect themselves against HIV and AIDS. They are working in KwaZulu-Natal, which is an area with the highest incidence of HIV in any province of South Africa. A large proportion of the adult population are infected with HIV, and so of course a lot of the children are born with it. Many others get infected later, when they are teenagers. It is a very serious problem.
Although the football training is successful, they also want the children to go to the WhizzKids United health clinic where they can get tested for HIV and where they can find support, medication and counselling if they are positive. They were finding that quite a lot of the kids taking part in the football training weren’t going to the clinic (maybe because it takes effort and is quite far from where they live).
How did the comic book workshops fit into the charity’s work?
There are two workshops, one basic introduction to comics drawing and one more advanced workshop teaching the children how to construct simple stories in the comics medium, During the advanced workshops, which took a whole weekend, the children split into groups, talked about and then created little comic strips about HIV and AIDS.
The programme was in part to attract more and different children. Not all children will like football and so this helped access them. Secondly the aim was to actually produce a usable pamphlet to be distributed to the children and community at the end of the workshop. The third aim was, during particularly the weekend-long workshop, to afford the councillors an opportunity to talk to some of the children in detail about what’s going on for them. Half of the children there were HIV positive. Many of them had never talked about the fact they had HIV. Despite taking medication everyday, the taboo had meant that for many of them it had not even been discussed in their families. The workshops provided them an opportunity for them to actually talk about. Some of the children became quite emotional, they hadn’t realised that other children were in the same situation. I feel it came out as they were talking and producing their stories. You can see it in the comics.
Did any other emotions come out in the comic strips?
Some of the children felt embarrassed about people knowing they are HIV positive and for that reason they were not always taking their medication; in some of the comic strips that really is apparent.
On the other hand the groups that were made up of children who weren’t HIV positive tended to talk about safe sex and getting tested. The children who are positive dealt more with how to tell your friends, family. The different natures of the groups affected the story told.
How did the children react to the idea of comic strip creation?
The children really enjoyed it and in fact many more came than the centre was expecting. Normally, with this sort of activity, they might not turn up or come late. In fact they all turned up, right on the dot of 8 o’clock. The original idea was that they would come up with the stories together and then one or two would do the drawing, but in the end they all wanted to do the drawings. So we ended up with multiple versions of the same comics.
The fact that there was a product at the end… There are tons of charities in South Africa giving out the same lessons over and over again. I think the presence of a concrete product that they could be proud of and would be used really seemed to appeal to them. They really liked that.
How did the comics turn out?
There isn’t much art at school there at all. This probably shows in the drawings, they look like much younger children’s drawing. Yet for that they look really very beautiful and very affecting. They are so untutored and so individual. They really have their own style. By one’s teenage years here, with all the art education, a student will understand the models and expectations. But they had none of that, and what we have as a result is fantastic.
The comic artist made some changes to make the story clearer (especially with several versions of one story). The artist, Steve Marchant, is based in the UK. He has worked himself with disadvantaged young people, getting them to draw comics themselves and then selecting and colouring the drawings to make them more attractive and coherent.
Do you think these comics have more power in their use of images than in a normal written pamphlet?
Of course partly children are attracted to the colours and drawings and so on, but also the messages have to be put into mini stories. This makes use of narrative, which is always better in trying to convey messages about behaviour. Just telling people what they should and shouldn’t do is not necessarily very effective. Having said this, the stories were a little more didactic than I had expected. The children had a particular genre in mind.
I would like to extend my thanks to Dr Lisa El Refaie for this fantastic interview. For more information about the charity and to download the full pamphlet, go to the Whizzkids United website.