Cameroonian political cartoonist Issa Nyaphaga is no stranger to the often violent implications of free expression in a nation plagued by restrictive laws. And like many other creators around the world who have faced legal threats, imprisonment, and exile, he is fighting back by providing a new space for citizens to have their voice heard.
Dubbed “Radio Taboo,” Nyaphaga developed a local radio station in his home village of Nditam that not only offers a channel for other local Cameroonian people to speak, but also helps educate their community about issues such as public health, social rights, and ultimately freedom of speech and expression. In a recent interview with Sampsonia Way, Nyaphaga talks about his own trials and tribulations that allowed him to understand the importance of free speech, but also what it means to provide that right to thousands of other people in the remote rainforests of Cameroon.
“In 1989, the Berlin Wall fell,” Nyaphaga recounts. “’The wind from the East’ impacted the political life of many African societies. Many regimes in Africa were dictatorships, and this opened up freedom of speech for their own communities. My friends and I started a newspaper to distribute information to people who could not read.”
This was the beginning of what would become a lifelong carreer in cartooning, and Nyaphaga’s ultimate goal was to support the “democratization” of Africa in a turbulent time when religious and political viewpoints urged citizens to silence. “We started that culture of cartoons and comics and graphic novels in the newspaper because it was the only soapbox that artists had to express themselves freely and get paid and also design anything that was new in their society.”
Along with expressing himself freely, though, Nyaphaga faced legal persecution and became the target of many political officials. In the 1990s he was tortured for his newspaper publication and like many other Cameroonian artists of the time was ultimately forced into exile from his home country. In exile, he moved to the United States and France where he became more familiar with cartoonists and journalists from around the world and their unique struggles. From his international exhibitions and experiences, Nyaphaga decided to give back to his home country and founded the non-profit organization Hope International for Tikar People and now Radio Taboo.
We are going to provide the community with broken down information. It is not something political, but all community radio, with all community involvement. In Cameroon, there is a high rate of sexual mutilation for girls. There is something called “breast ironing,” where mothers are ironing their daughters’ breasts so they will not be raped. They are hurting their own children. There has also been a lot of attacks against gay people. People think that are doing witchcraft, or black magic. So there are mob attacks. HIV/AIDS is not well understood in the country, either. So this radio station is going to talk about subjects that people do not often discuss: topics that are taboo. It will open up discussion.
Nyaphaga, like many creators who are put in challenging positions, has found a unique channel to get not only his voice heard, but also the voice of his community. “The radio is very powerful because the voice can travel anywhere,” said Nyaphaga. “In rural Africa, people have to do something as they walk to the farms, so they buy a radio or a cellphone. So we don’t even have to provide radios to the people, we just have to build the structure, the studio, train the team of villagers.”
Although the station will face many obstacles itself, Nyaphaga is hopeful that its growth as a source for public information in his community will not only provide a public service and teach citizens about relevant issues that impact their daily lives, but will also open their eyes to the importance and necessity in speaking freely about the issues that they face.
“I believe that education and information is power. Power is not only having a lot of money or having a gun in your hand, or that you can sit in any institution designed to marginalize people. That is a very superficial power. Power is to be able to give education and information to people so that they can be empowered.”
To read the full interview with Sampsonia Way, click here.
Contributing Editor Caitlin McCabe is an independent comics scholar who loves a good pre-code horror comic and the opportunity to spread her knowledge of the industry to those looking for a great story!