A move to the Caribbean


A move to the Caribbean

Max Howard who was in charge of the Walt Disney Animation studios in Florida and whom I met in Prague invited me to give my presentation on UNICEF animation to his artists in Orlando in 1991. This was an important occasion for me. I stuck to my findings about how influential animation could be, while at the same time I realized the enormity of the task to take some of these messages to scale. If one person was to try and animate a Disney film it would take them 300 years to make it. (Because here at Disney some 300 animators worked for one year on a film that was 90 minutes long.)

I was already beyond the stage where I had time to do any animation myself within UNICEF (although I always found time for story boarding and wicked cartoons) and I began to focus on cooperating with other artists from Caribbean and helping them train in the art of animation. At the end of my talk the artists at Disney agreed to help me do this. At their own expense they came to Jamaica to help train some 20 artists from the Caribbean and Africa. After the Jamaican workshop Disney agreed to take one of the most promising artists from Barbados, Guy O’Neal, and train him at the Disney studios for six months at their expense. This initiative was then repeated with UNICEF country offices selecting artists from other developing countries to be placed for training at several schools and studios including Warner Brother and the New York School of Visual Arts. A James Grant Fellowship was offered to some artists to help them train. Artists would then return to their country and begin nurturing the seeds of animation where they did not exist before.

Disney studios also helped UNICEF develop Maximo a character for Latin America. Maximo was a Toucan bird that became a spokesperson for UNICEF on Immunization and several other health issues. Maximo and was used most prominently in Ecuador where he was created and a mascot and live appearances helped spread his popularity during immunization drives.

My job in the Caribbean Area office was not soley focused on infant mortality as it had been in Nepal and East Africa but it did include life-skills for teenagers along with general health issues for new mothers. Using animation I designed and produced three short animated films. Safe Motherhood, Childs Play and The Teen Years that were storyboarded and scripted in Barbados; given an appropriate Caribbean sound track and then animated at the studios of Walbercy Ribas in Brazil. (Whom I’d met in Prague) These films covered the birth and life of a mother and child in the Caribbean based on Facts for Life messages. They were safe and educational.

At that time there was a scare over the rapid spread of HIV/AIDS and the projections were dire for all the small islands states unless more could be done to warn teenagers of the dangers. Under the guidance of Professor Waldron a local surgeon who was among the first to appreciate the dangers of HIV AIDS in small communities where tourism was a factor, I began to do more hard hitting posters and a more edgy cartoon series to run in the local newspapers. I knew from the beginning it would be a controversial venture since one of the main obstacles to sex-education in schools (and at home) was the church’s traditional stance against both the use of condoms and any talk that might instigate sexual activity too early in teenagers. Meanwhile our research was indicating that teens were already sexually active at dangerously young ages.

I contributed a comic strip entitled Sam and the sex patch, to youth newspapers under an assumed name. The name McBean (which in Scots means ‘son-of Bean’ and adopted the Kenyan Kalengin words for ‘son of’ and ‘bean’ and took the name Arap Kundi.

Sam and the Sex Patch … was designed for teens entering puberty where the protagonist Sam was given a newly invented Sex Patch (imaginary of course), that reduced his sexual urges. (At that time the idea of patches to help stop smoking etc. had just been introduced and were very new.)

Sam had a girlfriend called Trish who also wore a patch and they went out on ‘abstaining’ dates together. Let me stress that most young people were listening to rap, dub and calypso with some very explicit lyrics and videos. Many of the plots and ideas in the Sam cartoons came from discussion groups with teen children themselves as the comic strip progressed.

Sam and the Sex Patch tried to help teen children become better informed about early and unprotected sexual activity. The strip ran in the Barbados newspapers and youth magazines for several months until it was suddenly banned mysteriously from the newspapers. Almost as a result of this ban I received many letters and fan mail for Arap Kundi to continue and a printed version of the entire strip series became a popular ‘underground’ success. A comic magazine called Plus 10 with contributions from local artists Winston Jordan and Mark Maynard also tried to capture the attention of young people. It is refreshing that today church leaders have at last seen the wisdom of preparing children for their reproductive life with relevant and age appropriate information.

Communication and development in remote forest cultures

Suriname and Guyana were two mainland countries covered by UNICEF’s Barbados office. They had some very different social issues to deal with than the rest of the Caribbean Island states from Jamaica down to Trinidad. On the mainland there were still several isolated communities in the rain forest some of which had been nomadic until the 1970’s. A tribal group in Suriname called the Maroons, were brought to South America on slave ships from West Africa. But before they landed they revolted against their captors. They made their way into the interior of Suriname and set up villages in much the same way they had lived in Africa. In the late 1980’s it was possible to find these communities living in huts decorated in much the same way as those in Africa. They survived by holding onto their culture, even while their language and ways of life changed at home in West Africa. They had however suffered from the consequences of a five year uprising against the government and things began to change also for them.

Meanwhile within the same country of Suriname, deep in the rainforest there is tribe called the Tiriyo who live in a place called Tepu on the banks of a winding river. Here is a thin airstrip cut from the forest where a group of Dutch missionaries first encountered this nomadic group and helped them to settle in the 1960’s. (It is a three-hour plane ride from Paramaribo over rainforest that looks like a massive garden of broccoli.)

Neither of these communities had a written language. The Maroons had learned how to speak Dutch, (this country was a Dutch colony) while the Tiriyo were taught how to read and write their own language by the Dutch missionaries, in a special effort to ‘preserve’ their culture. The first book to be translated into the Tiriyo language was the Bible.

Now aside from the fact that if you learn to read and write Tiriyo in this village, the only person you can write a letter to who will understand it, lives in the hut next door… the young people in the tribe began to understand they lived in a ‘country’ as well as a village. They learned that in this country called Suriname there were other people from Java, Europe, Africa among other native tribal groups, most of whom spoke Dutch as well as their own languages. Also, that if you wanted to read more… there was more written in Dutch than in Tiriyo. We were told that some of the young men of Tiriyo set off on an epic two-month journey through the rainforest to the capital Paramaribo and they came back with a TV and video player. Life for the Tiriyo began to change fast after access to video and TV, inspired in many ways by the natural curiosity of their young people.

UNICEF was in a unique situation in those days to seek out and learn about remote communities. In most all cases UNICEF’s presence was in response to a cry for help. Although official figures indicated an Infant Mortality Rate of some 60 deaths per every 1000 live births… in these two communities is was suspected to be over 200 deaths per every 1000 live births. The Maternal Mortaility Rate was also incredibly high with death related to child birth being the largest single killer of woman.

For more case studies on children living in remote communities around the world at that time see Sara Cameron’s website.

George McBean 2012