Nigerian schools cut history classes — so these comic books are picking up the slack.
They say, 'Those who don't learn history are doomed to repeat it.'
Most Americans know as much about George Washington as they do about Spider-Man.
We all know the deal — guy with false teeth learns all about great power and responsibility while crossing the Delaware, then gets bitten by a radioactive spider that turns him into the first president of the United States, and so on. Somehow, the enduring legacy of some floppy four-color comic book pages is as ingrained in our collective cultural mind as our country's foundational history.
But things are different in Nigeria, where recent changes to the national curriculum mean that history class is, well, history.
The country as a whole decided to shift its educational focus more toward technology and engineering — which certainly makes sense, given the current state of their world. As a result, “history” as a subject has been folded into the larger civics and government curriculum, with maybe a few details touched on here and there in religion or English class.
It's not that Nigerians can't study history; it still exists at the university level, and there are plenty of scholarly texts and award-winning novels written about the country's rich and complicated past, and all of the important lessons that go along with that. But unless it's something you actively seek out, you're left with the short summaries that are covered in civics class, or the oral histories passed down from the elders in your village or family.
And while that kind of storytelling is great for folklore like Anansi and Hercules, it's … not so good for the accurate, objective details that teach important lessons from the past.
Clearly there's only one solution to this problem: comic books!
That's why a group of Nigerian comic book creators founded Panaramic Entertainment in 2007, with a mission "to tackle the high illiteracy rate in Nigeria and enable Nigerians and the rest of the world engage in our rich history & culture, helping to promote and preserve it."
"I got into reading proper through comic books at about age 5," said editor-in-chief Tunji Anjorin. "I feel like the combination of images and words creates a story in still image format capable of entertaining and teaching readers/audience in a fun way. It's an affordable form of low-income entertainment that can bring value to both the readers and creators, and the next edition is always something to look forward to."
Their flagship comic book series, "Okiojo's Chronicles," recounts the history of a different Nigerian culture in each issue.
The publisher has so far released three quarterly issues chronicling the struggles of the Yoruban emperor Oduduwa, the fall of the Benin Empire at the hands of the British, and the legendary exploits of Amina, the warrior queen of Zazzau.
"A 10-year-old who grows up reading 'Okiojo's Chronicles' for 10 years would have read 40 different ethnic groups comics and he would have a better understanding of the people who are left and right to him and [of] Nigeria as a whole," Anjorin told U.S. News.
But even those 40 comic books would barely scratch the surface of the more than 250 ethnic groups recognized in Nigeria.
And yet, that daunting challenge is not enough to keep Panaramic from pursuing their ultimate goal of publishing a comic book for every single ethnic group, so that future generations can learn about and from the histories of each splendid culture. (Even if it does take 60 years or more.)
"If you just look at the past, if you look at when we started democracy, we seem to be making the same mistakes over and over again," said Oriteme Banigo, the series' creator. "In our stories we emphasize ... why this has happened, why we should remember it, and how we could stop ourselves from going through the same issues moving forward."
Comics aren't just a sneaky-clever way to get kids into history. For Nigerians, they also represent an opportunity to reclaim their country's narrative and share their own stories with the world.
Another new publisher called the Comic Republic recently launched the first-ever all-African superhero universe, full of colorful heroes of color to rival the massive world building of companies like Marvel and DC.
And a Nigerian creator named Roye Okupe also founded his own YouNeek Studios and launched a sci-fi comic called "E.X.O."
"I want [audiences] to see a different side of Nigeria, our booming tech industry, amazing city architecture, unique culture, African humor, Afrofuturism … a side that is not regularly shown in mainstream media," he told The Guardian.
Comic books are surprisingly effective tools for education, empowerment, and change. They engage readers with their stunning visuals, and challenge different parts of our minds to work in tandem to comprehend the combination of words and images.
It doesn't hurt that they're affordable and accessible to everyone. "A reader of any age can usually interpret the message," Anjorin told Upworthy over email. "Comics are also easier to share through digital format."
Currently, Panaramic's comics are available in print at schools, bookstores, newsstands, and even through a local restaurant chain in Lagos. But as the company tries to break through to the international market, they're also offering their books online for the low, low price of $1.
"Every comic book industry has their own signature, so we would be bringing in our own way of depicting ourselves and the rest of the world as well as our culture and ideologies," Anjorin said in an interview with Spaceboy Nigeria. "So I took it upon myself to create my own comic book universe and introduce the average Nigerian and the rest of world."