Sunday, 19 August 2012

Comic Sans

Alex popped into the VSO office one day in August 2011 to get a refund on our electricity bill, when the programme manager called him into her office.  
"Alex, would you like to get a head start on your placement?" she asked - Alex wasn't due to start his placement until 22nd August 2011, to end 21st August 2012.  
"Sure" he said.  He'd been doing some voluntary teaching at an after-school club, but was keen to get going on his placement at the Legal Assistance Centre. 
"Great" came the reply "we'd like you to do a simple translation of the government policy on caregivers. It would be great if it could be written and published in a format that's accessible for the majority of caregivers in the country.  VSO has the budget to publish this simple guide in English and four other Namibian languages.  How does that sound?"

Alex was excited about the project - coming from a publishing background, he had the technical expertise to project manage the production of a simple guide on the policy, and was looking forward to creating a publication that would be of real benefit to the 10,000-20,000 caregivers in the country. But where to start?

Looking at the policy was a snore-fest. Written in 'international English', it was difficult enough to read for a native English speaker, let alone a caregiver sitting in their wooden hut in the rural north of the country, whose first language was not English. Alex had his work cut out for him. Spending hours pouring over the text, he finally managed to write a text that encapsulated the main points of the policy - without all the fluff and bad grammar. 

Now came the more interesting task - turning the text into a comic. Alex decided this wasn't something he should do alone - the caregivers themselves should decide how they would like the comic to look. He conducted several focus groups with various caregivers, at Friendly Haven, and then at the VSO Conference in Grootfontein, November 2011.  In our second round of research sessions on male caregivers, conducted all around the country, we'd joined forces with our colleague Tricia who was researching the level of implementation of the government policy - after her questions, we took the opportunity to ask the participants which aspects of the policy they would most like to see explained in the comic.

Alex at the Grootfontein conference, introducing the idea of a simple guide comic


Working with different groups, who came up with suggestions on the comics

Group 1 presenting their ideas

A potential 'scene' for the comic

Group 2 (group 'apple') presenting their ideas

Group 3 describing what they considered to be the important parts of the policy for the comic

Group 3's contribution

What was apparent from all the consultations was that most groups liked the idea of the policy being described in a dialogue format - one character telling another/others about what the policy contains.  They also wanted the comic to focus on parts of the policy that explained remuneration, including remuneration of expenses, supervision, the home-based care kits and their replenishment, and transport issues.

Alex now had enough to go on to start creating the comic - which would start with the story and dialogue. Creating a skeleton dialogue, Alex circulated the draft script first to colleagues, and then to his focus groups. Many caregivers commented on the script, the characters, and the issues dealt with. VSO's Carolina made some good points regarding the use of Namibian versus British English.  The rest of us added a little colour  gleaned from our time in the country ("Oh my sista!").  And finally, a script took shape... 

Alex sent the script to the artist most commonly used by the LAC, a talented man called Dudley - a Brit married to a Namibian and settled in Windhoek. He'd done cartoon comics for the LAC many times before, and they are a popular method of communication and advocacy in Namibia, covering a wide range of subjects, including 'How to Register the Birth of Your Child' to 'What is Domestic Violence'. So when his first design came back, it was beyond exciting to see how the comic had taken shape. A few drafts later, the English version was ready to print!  The link is provided below...


However, the tricky step was to come... translating the comic into Afrikaans, Rukwangali, Damara-Nama and Oshindonga.  The choice of only four was tricky, as there are many official languages in Namibia that  the text wouldn't be translated into - or example, Oshiherero and Silosi to name just two, which meant that the Caprivi strip was effectively being ignored.  Whilst English does cover most of the country, the limitation of funding meant a choice had to be made: Oshindonga to cover the populous Owambo tribe, Damara-Nama to cover the South of the country and the Central West, Afrikaans to cover most of the country, and Rukwangali to cover the Kavango region in the North. 

A colleague of mine from Friendly Haven, Lisiana, translated the comic into Afrikaans and Damara-Nama, and Alex managed to find two others to translate the text into Rukwangali and Oshindonga. The problems started when it came to proofing the texts.  Any translation publications must be proofed at least twice to ensure the text is free of errors and 'literal translations'.  None of these other languages, however, are centrally-controlled or have authorative versions of the language. The English-speaking world can consult the Oxford English Dictionary on questions about English - Oshindonga, however, could have many interpretations and is, itself, a dialect of a larger language family.  In Afrikaans, Alex was offered no less than 10 different possible words for 'caregiver'.  Proofing took months, and months.  And even when the Afrikaans version went to print, the printers (Afrikaaner-owned) returned the text with corrections angrily scribbled all over the galley proof.  Once the Caregivers' Conference was over (where the Minister for Health,Richard Kamwi, launched the English version of the simple guide), Alex spent his last month furiously working on these texts, finally handing them over to Kat, our VSO colleague at NANASO, to finish during her last six months. We're excited about the final versions coming out and being made available to the thousands of caregivers across the country, so that the text may be read in their native languages.