By Natasha Sebunya
Title: UNCOMFORTABLE LAUGHTER (2020)
Author: JIMMY SPIRE SSENTONGO
Publisher: Self-Published (with generous support from Kuonyesha Art Fund)
Price: Ug. Shs. 50,000
Sold at: Uganda National Theater Box Office Kampala & Book Point, Bugolobi
Dr. Jimmy Spire Ssentongo’s 116 page collection of cartoons “Uncomfortable Laughter” (2020) is a priceless stock of what’s been happening in Uganda. For those who can no longer stomach the news, for those who do not see their reality reflected in the official government reports, for those looking to laugh, and for those who do not believe us, Spire sets a fine table for justice to be served.
Spire is already a household name and a social media sensation –on Facebook as Spire Cartoons (officially) and on Twitter as Dr. Jimmy Spire Ssentogo. The cartoonist’s sharp and sarcastic humor has taken the words out of a frequently dumbfounded audience and given us art and therapeutic laughter.
Why you should get the book despite all his cartoons being readily accessible:
Veteran journalist Joachim Buwembo makes a strong case in the book’s foreword:
“While Spire is now readily accessible on social media, compiling this book is a highly welcome step because, well, a book is a book. It calls for reflection, and you can reach out for it from your favorite corner in your house”.
Reading Spire’s collection of cartoons in one entity is like giving yourself special laughing treat. Every time I have opened “Uncomfortable Laughter” book and not laughed hard. How he affords to make you laugh at the absurdities our politics presents
The sequence of events
As if on cue, the book begins in 2016 with a cartoon of President Museveni “so lamely” swearing in as President of Uganda, one hand holding the “wholy bible” and the other with a gun to Besigye’s head, who he is also stepping on.
Throughout 2017 to 2019 Spire also chronicles the other big political moments of our times; the A 102 (b) Constitutional Amendment (‘Togikwatako’) saga which he portrays as a Uganda Constitution being raped and pissed on by political leaders; there are the local elections which were not as eventful as what we have seen in 2021 but equally colourful in rigging and opposition suppression.
The books ends in 2020, with a cartoon portraying a happy and newly wedded couple Erias Lukwago and Dr. Kiiza Besigye, the former clad in light blue wedding gown and the latter in an azure blue suit, both emerging from a blue hut, while Nobert Mao, only reduced to viewing the “two lovers” from his green hut, with envy. This evoked memories of “Song of Lawino” where she complains about her husband’s political fights with hi
Why the Museveni Obsession?
Dr. Jimmy Spire Ssentongo has in many an interview on various news outlets and on Facebook admitted to being a Museveni fanatic as a child. He says continued coverage of the President is as impassioned and knowledgeable as you can expect from someone who has been following His Excellency from childhood.
When asked why/ if he is against NRM, Spire stated that he is merely a voice for those that are suppressed. I find myself after reading this book in agreement. In the 2020 campaign season, Spire pokes fun at a Kyagulanyi ‘chilling’ on an island, still with the dreadlocks and composing his raps in preparation for the campaign. But true to reality, as soon as the state begins to unfairly treat him and other opposition, Spire goes to the pen to depict the malpractise and point out the gross violations of law and human rights. Spire seems to have a soft spot for the oppressed not just with Kyagulani but in this same collection is his cartoons amplifying Stella’s unfair treatment by the education minister, MISR and the president.
The President is not his only focus; Spire does not spare the Parliament, portraying the rampant corruption within it, be it downright theft, the incompetence of some ministries or the emptiness of some such as the Ethics Ministry. He pokes fun at the notorious political flip flopping not just of politicians but even pundits like Balam, Eddy Kenzo and Chameleone.
With Spire no one is Spared
It’s not just political all the time. There are many social moments he comments on. The religious scandals of the past 5 years. Pastor Bugingo’s marital situation, the infamous imam who mistakenly wedded a man, and the cult following of Pastor Mbonye.
When you look at these cartoons daily, its jokes, looking at this collection however, you see patterns, you see how things stay the same, you are sensitized about Uganda. I do not want to say politics because politics is something we assume is over there, something we can avoid, something we walk into willingly. This is about Uganda, about where we all intersect.
I imagine Spire waking up every day to read yet another absurd headline and making sense of it with cartoon, so that we can care, take note, and never normalize the absurdity even if the only weapon is to laugh at it.
In the book’s preface, Dr. Jimmy Spire Ssentongo tells of his mother who, through navigating her strict disciplinary measures, taught him how to navigate power with laughter. His ethos seems to be: Make them laugh.
Spire is also well learned, published in international journals as well as being a columnist for the Ugandan newspaper the Observer. He teaches ethics not just in his cartoons but at Nkozi University.
Feeling detached from the public and the people who needed these conversations more, the doctor thought to merge his philosophy with his talent for humor and drawing to bring half a lifetime of theory into accessible language.
Many have complained and written on our literary desert and working in the publishing world I am painfully aware of how hard it is to get Ugandans to read.
But do Ugandans understand cartoons?
On this topic Mr. Ras elaborates in his praise for “Uncomfortable Laughter”:
One time, a reader wrote complaining that he had issues understanding John Nagenda’s column (One Man’s Week) because the English was too hard for him. Nagenda in his usual arrogant manner replied, “If my English is too complex for you, try Kingo cartoons.”
Having told that story, I would describe Spire’s cartoons as actual interpretations of events in the most brutal manner using simple drawings. On the surface the cartoons are not for simple minds. However no mind is too simple to interpret them.
Mr Ras (Charles Onen).
According to artist Alex Kwizeera, “Spire’s work is fundamentally aimed at addressing the socio- politics of Uganda, and it is of aid in the transformation of her peoples and of the universe at large.”
I too think that Spire’s book encourages us to read and think more.
In the book, Spire says that he got his inspiration from the famous GADO. A Tanzanian-born but Kenyan cartoonist. Inspired by him, Spire set out to emulate but like all true artists eventually should, set out to find his unique style and voice.
Spire’s drawings are distinct for his academic mind first of all. It is true that some cartoons are simply there because they are funny, but others are political statements, arguments and theories. For example Spire has taken to drawing a bottle in many of his cartoons. The bottle which is also the cover art of this book. The bottle was born after his excellency mentioned the Luweero irrigation scheme as a liable policy plan. So bemused by a presidency in this century proposing an unbefitting policy Spire used the bottle to symbolize the patrimonial politics of this government. Pouring out tiny drips of incentives, as small as the few drops of water seen falling from a bottle hanging or assumed to be hanging from the President’s hat.
He also has another theory of the “yellowrization” of institutions that should be neutral, and whenever an official is believed to be tainted by the partisan politics, they are drawn with something yellow, their clothes, their nose or another body part.
What do cartoons do?
The academician S. Plumbs thinks of cartoons as a means of exposing a certain kind of truth, the political cartoon is one of the most powerful weapons in the journalistic armory. It can accuse, encourage, debate, convey opinion and allow the reader to consider an issue from a different point of view.
For Dr. Spire, cartoons are our way of going around/ living with difficult realities. If we did not find a way of laughing about these things like corruption, political madness, disease, poverty, poor social services perhaps they would have killed us earlier than they do.
One thing for sure is UNCOMFORTABLE LAUGHTER will leave you in stitches of laughter and later contemplation. This a book worth reading as a family.
[Copies of UNCOMFORATABE LAUGHTER are available at Ug. Shs. 50,000. For deliveries call 0750-873818.]