White Cartoon Character Saving the Wildlife in Kenya?

Published: 20 August 2014

Country: Kenya

by Alexia Kalaitzi

ben_10_As illegal hunting has become an increasingly serious threat for the wildlife in Kenya, a drawing competition was launched challenging children, from 6 to 14 years old, to come up with an animation character who will have the power to protect elephants and rhinos.

However, the character should be an alien helping already famous cartoon character Ben 10, who was created several years ago by an American animation studio. Ben 10 has the power to change into various aliens, each with their own special abilities and skills. But some have already expressed their concerns about Ben 10, a white-boy coming from America to save the Kenyan wildlife from poaching.

“The notion that it is only a Ben 10 character who will be able to save the wildlife is kind of reminding the same notion that Africans can only be saved by Europeans. Moreover, it gives the impression that we, as Africans, do not have heroes which kids can look up to and even imagine, as so to give their own interpretation in the form of an illustration or animation,” Njeri Wangari, a prominent Kenyan poet and blogger, told the Media Diversity Institute (MDI).

MDI has contacted the marketing company HDI Youth Marketeers and we are awaiting their comments on this issue.

“Very few kids know about African legends such as Shaka Zulu or African cartoon heroes such as Akokhan, who also happens to have similar powers with Ben 10. And this is partly because organisations or companies like Cartoon Network do not see the value of creating such cartoon characters inspired by such African legends. That, in a way, shapes childrens’ understanding and appreciation –  or the lack of it – regarding african heritage and culture. The characters kids are looking at are mostly white and male. So they will grow up believing that Africans cannot be characters in animation or cartoons, which is a very bad perception. I believe that having a Massai character, for example, would be ideal, especially for this kind of challenge – saving the wildlife- as the Massai community has coexisted with wildlife for centuries,” Wangari added.

The significant lack of African cartoon characters, who could represent African ideals, traditions and cultures, is quite alarming, as it creates a media environment which is not representative of the life in these countries.

“When girls, for example, are exposed to the image of princesses who are white and have long, flowing hair, they reach a point where they feel they are not beautiful because they have kinky hair,” Wangari commented. She concluded saying that when kids are exposed only to Western cartoons, they will learn to appreciate Western ideals and values much more than their own.

The latest trends in the cartoon world tend to promote the value of diversity. Artist Alesandro Palombo has illustrated prominent Princesses of Disney with disabilities, while the Bald Cartoons project presented well-known cartoon characters with their heads shaved to help support children dealing with cancer.