One of Uganda’s best political cartoonists, Dr Jimmy Spire Ssentongo, has published his first collection of humorous and dramatic cartoons titled Uncomfortable Laughter in which he lampoons the mighty and powerful as well as the ordinary people for their various transgressions.
The 116-page collection that was published with generous support from Kuonyesha Art Fund contains more than 140 of Ssentongo’s hilarious cartoons published in The Observer newspaper in Uganda and elsewhere from 2016 to 2020.
Ssentongo, who is a columnist and editorial cartoonist at The Observer newspaper and trades under his middle name Spire, does not spare the hypocrisy of Ugandan politicians, the brutality of security personnel, religious leaders and ordinary citizens in his hilarious and hard-hitting cartoons.
The comical works of Spire, who is a household name for the consumers of this genre of criticism, tackle the themes rotating around societal ills like the menace of grand corruption and greed, the decaying health system, abuse of power and impunity, political violence, unkept promises by politicians, nepotism, undemocratic practices and President Yoweri Museveni’s overstay in office, among others.
Initially Spire lampooned Museveni with an AK47 rifle and dressed in his signature big hat and military boots. Now the President appears with water, money or blood dripping from a mineral water bottle tied to his hat.
“In the most generous description, the presidential bottle irrigation initiative of around 2016-2017 was dramatically shameful, especially appearing in the 21st century. I, therefore, chose to make him to always carry the ironical burden of his irrigation bottle, which as well symbolises a bankruptcy in ideas and innovations that has come to characterise the ageing president,” Spire told Sunday Monitor.
“On the other hand, the bottle serves to as well show what is actually being irrigated – politicians’ pockets (patronage), his grip onto power, corruption, among others. I came to characterise him this way partly under the inspiration of the South African cartoonist Zapiro and his Zuma shower,” he added.
Spire portrays the brutal, notorious and overzealous armed security personnel dressed in berets with the dreaded Nazi ‘swastika’ symbol.
“It characterises the brutality of our police. Of course the Nazi relation is an exaggeration, but that’s how the instrument of ridicule works. Part of the idea is to make them uncomfortable with their actions and image,” Spire says.
He says laughter is one of the everyday forms of resistance.
“Through facades of playfulness, strong messages are passed across. Boundaries of political censorship are tactfully crossed and wide audiences are reached through simple but loaded presentations whose appeal cuts across a wide spectrum of social and literacy levels. And, in this era of wide mobile phone coverage and social media use, it only takes minutes for an image to get everywhere,” he writes.
“It is not only about resistance and criticism though, some of the cartoons you will find in here are simply for laughter’s sake. They are all based on real events and issues, but in some cases simply to make humour out of them. In all cases though, context is very important for understanding why a particular cartoon spoke the way it did. Under different circumstances, it may mean something totally different, perhaps even not being funny at all,” Spire says.
“In The Observer, my cartoons usually carry no descriptive captions. For they are supposed to communicate on their own. But, considering that they usually address issues happening at the time, they may not be understood at different time without the memory of their particular temporal instance. It is for that reason that they are here captioned; and also to speak to those that may not be familiar with Uganda’s stories,” he adds.
During the course of his work some of his cartoons have annoyed some people in high office. “It was only one cartoon, way back in 2008. It was a cartoon of the Mufti Mubajje, during the days when land-related conflicts were at the peak among Muslims in Uganda. Sheikh Mubajje had said that he was guided by Allah in selling off the land he was accused of illegally disposing of. In the cartoon, he was clinging on a tower of the mosque while other Muslims down were digging it up. He was pointing to the skies saying: “Ask My Guide Allah,” Spire recalls.
“In the skies I had drawn an image of an old man with a long beard – the sort of usual Christian depiction of God. Little did I know that this was blasphemy in Islam. I was to learn that Allah shouldn’t appear in any picture. Some Muslim leader wrote to The Observer demanding an apology, “or else…” The apology was made in the next issue,” he adds.
As to why he decided to take on cartoons as his way of lampooning our leaders and society in general, Spire, says: “It all started out as a passion for cartoons. I had seen and admired cartoons by Snoggik FM who used to draw for the New Vision newspaper in the 90s. The passion was deepened in Kenya when I came across Gado’s work (Godfrey Mwampembwa). I literally got obsessed with his cartoons, which I would cut out of papers into an exercise book album I created. I still keep it to-date. I loved the way he lampooned and ridiculed Moi (President of Kenya) and other politicians.”
“I found cartoons to be an easily captivating way of passing across heavy messages, especially around sensitive topics. Many of our people would want a good laugh and are not so into reading detailed stuff. So, I decided to wrap my messages in humour. Besides, in a country like ours, it was one of the ways of dodging censorship,” he added.
As to how he goes about sketching his cartoons of the day, Spire, says: “It usually starts with getting a topical issue to focus on - then an idea of the message that I want to put across, followed by a concept on how to execute the cartoon. The actual drawing is more like downloading from head to paper. It takes me about 15 to 30 minutes of sketching. I do the colouring on computer, usually about an hour or less. That’s a finished cartoon.”
On the role of a cartoonist in today’s newspaper world, Spire, says: “A cartoonist is a socio-political critic that can no longer be ignored. In a small piece of drawing with a few words, we say much more than would fill a page or two. A cartoonist has a bit more licence than the writer or reporter to say what many would shy away from. We can be harsh without being seen to be impolite, we can easily touch the untouchables in what might appear like jokes while hitting hard on issues.”
“Humour takes a very special place in the lives of many Ugandans. We always find a way of laughing about things, even in hurtful moments. We crack jokes at funerals, we laugh about our social and economic pains, we make jests out of our failures too. In many of our social media platforms, there is a constant flow of jokes,” Spire observes.
“Some have argued that this is some sort of therapy, our way of going around or living with difficult realities. If we did not find a way of laughing about things like corruption, political madness, disease, poverty, poor social services, perhaps they would have killed us earlier than they do,” he adds.
Spire says his academic orientation is in philosophy, art was mostly a self-taught passion. “I mostly studied in seminaries, where art was not taught. I only studied art in the last two terms of Senior Four. I was later briefly taught by a Ugandan artist called Mr Leonard Kateete, based in Nairobi under the sponsorship of my uncle, Fr Ben Lutaaya. I studied for my first Philosophy degree in Kenya.”
His caricatures can also be found on his Facebook page: Spire Cartoons.
“Of my parents, my mother was the tough one,” Spire writes. “Sometimes she would give you this eye that needed no accompaniment of words to send a strong message. And you would know that going ahead with whatever had displeased her was at your own risk. She wasn’t really violent, but that eye! That eye!”
“Be that as it was, we always found our way around her toughness. Often, we maximally utilised every opportunity to make fun of and laugh at her – especially at some distance. We would do it hard, partly entertained by her helpless vulnerability to the humour that she wasn’t sure how to deal with without being misunderstood. At times, failing to resist the joke, she would also join us in laughing at herself. This way lightening the atmosphere, we would often be able to get away with certain otherwise culpable acts,” he adds.
According to Spire, this was his first site of learning the usefulness of humour in speaking to the more powerful and addressing rather sensitive issues.
“Many years later, I was to carry the approach to school, but very cautiously – since teachers in many of our Ugandan settings guard their space vigilantly. It is in national politics that I found relative freedom. Compared to some other African governments, the one of President Yoweri Museveni has been relatively tolerant of satirical criticism, especially through cartoons.”
“While it lasts though, it is not lost to me that the freedom is not guaranteed. Whereas scholars of political satire such as Daniel Hammett (2010) have observed that ‘political cartoons function as a key indicator of the democratic health of a polity,’ in Uganda the same government that lets cartoon criticism pass unabated has violently clamped down on other political critics numerous times,” Spire observes.
“In the unpredictable political environment akin to what are referred to as ‘hybrid regimes,’ I found it safer to use a method not so easy to be confronted by a government still somehow keen on appearing to be democratic. Even where it was excessive, it would want to dress up its actions with legality and steer clear of impressions of arbitrariness. But satire can easily laugh itself past the hands of law. In any case, in the event of being accused of being undemocratic in purging political dissent, government could always cite critical cartoons as an indicator that there was freedom,” Spire says.
According to Spire, political freedom is not that much a features of Uganda’s political history. As such, political cartoons found little expression.
Earlier mainstream cartoonists such as Tumusiime Rushedge (aka Ekanya), James Tumusiime, Fred Senoga Makubuya (aka Snoggie), and later Charles Onen (aka Mr Ras) mostly worker for government newspapers, which meant some degree of censorship.
“Their cartoons, though quite witty, often avoided subjects that would rub big government shoulders the wrong way.”
More politically daring cartoons were to come later in the Monitor newspaper that was more inclined to the Opposition. The more remarkable ones here were Stanslaus Olondo (aka Stano), the late Moses Balagadde (aka Mozeh), and more recently, Chris Ogon Atukwasize – and some freelance ones such as Richard Kato (aka KatoFM), he adds.
Spire is an Associate Dean in-charge of research and publication at the School of Postgraduate Studies and Research, Uganda Martyrs University.
He is the chair of the Centre for African Studies at Uganda Martyrs University.
He is also a part-time lecturer, Department of Philosophy at Makerere University.
Spire, who was born on August 14, 1979 in Uganda, attended Kimanya Blessed Sacrament Primary School. Bukalasa Minor Seminary and Kimaanya Blessed Sacrament SS for his O-Level. Uru Seminary (Tanzania) for A- Level.
He went to the Apostles of Jesus Major Seminary in Nairobi for a Diploma in Philosophy and Religious Studies and Urbaniana University (Rome) in Italy for a BA Philosophy.
He also went to Makerere University for a Masters degree in Ethics and Public Management and London South Bank University for a Master of Science in Education for Sustainability.
He holds a PhD in Humanistic Studies from the University of Humanistic Studies in Holland.