The story begins here.


In 1977 I was hired full time by the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) as an Art and Design officer... only two others existed in the organisation (one in Geneva and one in New York both working as graphic designers for UNICEF greeting cards). My job however was different. As part of a team of young professionals put together by John Balcomb... five of us were assigned to assist 18 governments in East Africa to improve their public heath and public information outreach. There was a communication specialist (Revi Tuluhungwa) two full time photographers (Bill Campbell, Esben Thorning and later Arild Vollan); a film maker (Phil Vincent); a journalist (Maggie Black) along with myself as a graphic artist. Our jobs mainly entailed working with government information services and helping them to create better quality products in each of our fields of expertise (Film, Photography, Writing and Illustration) A secondary goal was to train local artists, photographers and film makers to continue producing a higher standard of work and to report our work back to HQ. We were nick-named 'Balcomb’s boys' which included Maggie.

Pretty soon however my work took on a new dimension.

In the midst of the Ogaden war, the Somali government had little capacity to deal with the influx of refugees into makeshift camps along the border. Our photographers came back with horrific images of children dying. Over 30 camps sprung up over a period of months containing up to half a million refugees. Most were pastoral and nomadic Somali speaking Ethiopians. They had never lived in close proximity in such numbers before... and both infant and maternal mortality began reaching very high numbers. The hygiene habits of a nomadic family are very different from what is required in a city of twig huts, especially for the health of young children.

At that time there were few International NGOs or charities working in East Africa and UNICEF was by far the most influential mover when it came to Emergencies. Alongside the need for food, water, drugs and emergency supplies, there was a growing need to help spread awareness of illness that could be prevented... through the use of better communication techniques.

I was dispatched to Somalia to help produce visual communication materials that would help volunteers in the camps better communicate health messages, especially with non-literate Somali mothers.

I should add that up to this point there were already a few posters, produced by education establishments in Mogadishu and some imported from overseas to spread awareness on hygiene. Some of these showed black American mothers taking a shower in a sophisticated bathroom environment. (Their logic being... if it showed a black American model in the photo, that this would do for communication across Africa.) As you might imagine the Somali women could see nothing in these images to relate to... and many of the imported posters and flip charts were ignored.

On the other hand whenever I collected a group of Somali mothers together and sketched them doing all the things we needed them to do to help save their children... there was immediate interest. I remember being surrounded by onlookers as I sketched and photographed the refugees themselves. And when I showed the drawings back to them, their immediate response was to laugh, and then they started discussing what was in the illustration!

It was wonderfully satisfying... to have such a receptive audience. It was like using the attraction of a street artist, only adding an important story to each drawing I made. Although living conditions were appalling, people had more down time than in normal nomadic life. They were a captive audience if you like… and although I had no thought of bringing down Somalia’s infant and maternal mortality rates I did think this work could help individual families.

They took great interest in studying the sketches (no instant photography in those days) and in time they would be able to tell which tribe the model in my sketch was from and how many children she had from her clothes and the jewelry. When this set of illustrations was completed as line drawings, we printed them on an old Roneo machine and had volunteer students from Mogadishu take them round the camps and chat to people about hygiene, clean water storage and general preventative health issues.

For the next six years I spent time travelling to various countries across East Africa to conduct training workshops along with Ministries of Information and Training Institutions on this idea of 'Illustrations for Development.'

Basically the aim of 'Illustrations for Development' was to show how young mothers even in the remotest locations could be reached with visual information. Despite their isolation, despite their illiteracy, no mother wants to lose her child, so even with enormous cultural differences in each place, this work was understood to be of help and therefore relevant to most parents. If it worked in an isolated refugee camp how much easier could it be done in villages or urban areas? Artists however were not a top priority to send to such places in these days. (I knew of no others at that time) Aid was a serious business and the field response teams usually only included logistics people, medical doctors or nurses.

Of course the use of visual aids within each country’s education system was well established and many great examples existed of illustrative work. But I am talking here especially about people in rural East Africa who were largely isolated from both health services and educational opportunities (and more importantly outside the tax base and therefore often a low priority for government.) A journey to reach these communities was often difficult but when you got there, there was no competition for their attention. As a result non-literate mothers could be reached with visual information if it was styled to their community and needs. Children could be saved from a needless death if their parents understood and acted on some pretty basic preventative health measures.

Aside from outright drought and civil conflict, most people managed to survive in these isolated areas without any health intervention of any kind but the cost in child deaths was always high. Almost 200 children per 1000 live births died in these areas. This is what you might call (somewhat cruelly) nature's balance, in what the UN called ‘pockets of poverty.’ (In western industrial countries and in most capital cities where health intervention is taken for granted the figures were more like10 children who died per 1000 live births.)

In 1981, World Health Organisation (WHO) began calling for 'Health for All' so that these high Infant mortality rates could be brought down. In 1990, the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) called for “Education for All.” Most of these initiatives aim to inspire the political will. Actually achieving health or educational services “for all” would take decades. However, it was also clear from the field experiences of many UNICEF staff that communicating in the right way with people in these isolated communities would create a response. Even in the absence of a health post and formal schooling, a well-informed mother could make a significant reduction in these high Infant Mortality Rates, within her own family.

A child survival revolution was initiated by UNICEF and despite its radical overtones many people could see its purpose immediately. The mass media, especially radio and television, was a fast growing sector in every country. The knowledge was already there and the means to distribute information was increasing, all that was needed now was to unlock this potential for understanding in poorer communities. (Remember we are not talking ideology here, we are talking about improving the delivery of useful information to parents in places where it’s most needed.)

These interests led me to research in visual literacy. Several studies already existed, most notably those by Andreas Fugelsang. I began to research how people in the north of Kenya in nomadic groups like the Rendile and Samburu and the towns-folk in Marsabit, responded to seeing visual images sometimes for the first time. I accompanied Dr. David Wiseman and his wife Joanie whom I had helped to design a set of teaching posters, on a field trip. I wrote up this encounter as 'The Marsabit Experiment' in 1978 and it was published in the October issue of 'Visual Education' the official magazine for the UK's National Committee for Audio Visual Aids in Education. It was about reaching out to people that were outside the loop of any formal education, and the reception to my article was very positive among education specialists.

My UNICEF supervisors then decided I should be educated more and so they sent me on a Summer Course to Stanford University, Palo Alto. This one time only summer course in 1979 was publicized as 'Message Design for Development Communication' and was run by Professor Everett Rogers assisted by Professor Bella Mody. It was during this summer course that I also met two other people that influenced me greatly. One was Ed Palmer who had done most of the initial research on the formation of 'Sesame Street', for Children's Television Workshop in the late 60’s. The other was a scholar named Bruce Cook who had written up a huge thick study of Visual Literacy in Papua New Guinea. Bruce's study was so large and thick he struggled to lift it with two hands onto the podium to present its findings.

Now... I must divert a little here so that my next paragraph shares the credit it is due. (Remember these are the days before Google, when nearly all information was stored in printed form.) Just before Bruce appeared on stage, Ev Rogers and I had been talking and I'd said to him how fascinating all this research was for me and that there was just so much of it around. He then told me that although it existed, very few people actually took the time to read through it or use it. He sited his own dissertation that he said he had placed in the main library at Stanford University after its publication. He assured me that since that day no one had ever read it... and the reason he knew this was that he had placed a ten dollar note inside the pages and every year he checked, it was still there!

Enter Bruce onto the podium carrying one of the thickest volumes of a study I'd ever seen. At the end of what was a good brief presentation I challenged Bruce. Taking Ev's theme I asked Bruce what he was going to do with his big study to make sure that artists like me were encouraged to read and utilise its content. I quoted from my own book on Illustrations for Development... which asked artists whom they were drawing for. I asked for whom he had done the research. Was it to be printed for notice by the academic world, or to really help the people at the heart of his study? Surely it was going to be of most use if this information was passed onto artists in Papua New Guinea who are currently responsible for drawing visual aids. Only then would rural people benefit from better more appropriate illustrations. Later Bruce produced a pocket study of his findings and in the introduction mentioned our encounter at Stanford.

Ed Palmer's research into what captivated children's attention when they watched TV was another fascinating study. Ed's main aim was to use research to inform artists who would then be responsible for designing animation and puppets for the TV programme Sesame Street. Here was an official link between researching how something was perceived (as opposed to preparing what you think will be entertaining and educational) and the role of the artist to set ego aside and accommodate these findings. (It’s like the difference between a chair that is designed for its wow value by an artist and a chair that is designed to be ergonomic and comfortable, through study of the human sitter.)

Despite its value to all thirty participants who had come from a variety of poor countries, at the end of the course all the participants suggested that if such a course were to happen again, it would be more valuable to have it in a country that faced the problems we had been discussing all summer! To my knowledge the course never took place again. On my return to Kenya I felt a little more qualified to continue doing this work with UNICEF. I certainly had the backing of Ev Rogers who came to East Africa to help us more with research…and no I did not go to the library and take his ten dollar note!

Aside from understanding how important the message (to illustrate) was, I now appreciated that artists were in the chain of events to help communicate basic health messages in poorer rural areas. If our audiences were mostly non-literate mothers, often the only problem for artists was to know what was needed. Our sponsorship of workshops and training for government information officials began to include many more local artists into the mix.

Continued…a move to Nepal.

George McBean 2012