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close this book Boiling Point No. 25 - August 1991
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View the document Culture-Specific Illustrations
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Culture-Specific Illustrations

Extract from an article by Juliet Waterkeyn in Waterlines, ITDG, Vol. 9 , No 4.

Because there is a shortage of good communication and training material the temptation is to use standardized picture codes. "'Anything is better than nothing" is the general feeling and it is often assumed that all African or Asians will identify with the subject matter as long as the features in the faces depicted are generally appropriate. For posters, articles and training material the diversity of people, custom, mode of dress and type of house and environment, demands a more sensitive approach to illustration. Pastoralists and farmers cannot both look at the same picture and identify with it. What is appropriate in town will obviously not be appropriate in the rural areas (see examples).

The health messages are the same, but the illustrations must reflect the society for whom they are produced. A kitchen inside an Orma hut in north- east Kenya (left) and (right) washing plates outside a Luo house in western Kenya.

On the other hand, if villagers see themselves depicted, complete with the correct details of their particular types of cooking pots, dress, livestock and housing, there will be a sense of importance that their own area has appeared in print. An equivalent pleasure is felt in an urban situation when one can recognise one's home town depicted in a film, or one's own friends in the crowd scenes.


If training material is developed specifically for the area concerned, drawing on local knowledge and building on good local customs, the messages are more likely to be accepted by that community.

This "culture-specific" approach to developing training materials has introduced a novel type of development art, "ethnographic illustration". The artist's powers of observation and his ability to depict what he observes, faithfully, demands a sociologist's eye for relevant detail. Visually documenting a traditional society demands an insight into rural ways and a knowledge of public health issues. Ideally the artist should be involved from the beginning with the research and development of health messages. Convincing results cannot be obtained by relegating the artist to the status of a technician merely producing drawings under instruction.

The editor regrets that Boiling Point does not always achieve this objective and asks contributors to send appropriate and reproducible photographs etc. with their articles or reports. The problem is even more cliff cult with cartoons where our artists may have to settle for an African or Asian "prototype". Our advice is that the more simple the figures are, the less likely they are to have inappropriate details but perhaps cartoonists are born and not made.