Plain Ink: Comic Books for the Developing World

We got Osama bin Laden with a crack team of Navy SEALs, but there are other ways of fighting terrorism, too. Comic books, for example.

We got Osama bin Laden with a crack team of Navy SEALs, but there are other ways of fighting terrorism, too. Using comic books to educate people in countries like Afghanistan, for example.

Last year, Selene Biffi, a self-described "serial social entrepreneur," was working as a UN consultant in Kabul. The local office of the UN Fund for Population Activities and the Afghan Ministry of Education wanted to produce a school textbook teaching kids the basics of health, agriculture, and natural disaster mitigation. But in a country with myriad ethnic divisions and a literacy level around 25 percent, communicating to a broad audience in print can be difficult.

So Biffi collaborated with a French artist who had lived in Afghanistan to produce comic books instead of traditional textbooks. As Biffi explains, "the comics had to be representative of the many Afghan ethnic groups yet favor none of them, culturally acceptable yet presenting accurate health information." The comics she produced for the UNFPA (a few pages are below) tell the story of a young wife who moves in with her husband and teaches people in his village about sanitary meal preparation and smart family planning, among other things.

Building on her experience in Afghanistan, Biffi recently founded Plain Ink, a nonprofit to create and distribute free, educational comics to children and communities in developing countries. In addition to continued work in Afghanistan, Plain Ink is also testing a comic about sanitation in Jalilpur, a rural village near Varanasi, India.

Here are a few pages from Biffi's comics for Afghanistan. She explains what they depict below.

Biffi explains:

The comics tell the story of two boys, Hakim and Rasoul, two boys from a rural village whose time for marrying has come. Hakim marries Jamila, the neighbours’ daughter, who happens to be 15 and comes from a good, but traditional family. Unfortunately, Jamila’s sister had died some time before and Rasoul is left with no bride. Until one day, sitting on the edge of the village, he sees a group of girls passing by, and thinks he may have found the right one. The families get acquainted, and a marriage is contracted. Rasoul and Layla get married and she move to her husband’s village. People think she is weird, as her father sent her to school and she does things much differently from the rest, like washing hands before cooking and touching food, or planning to have a small family. When Hakim and Kamily get sick, it’s Layla that call a doctor and tends to them, convincing them that health is a serious thing and that they have to change their way of living. Seeing the improvements, the mullah praises their efforts and the whole village will follow in their footsteps.

The idea here was to talk about some basic ways to keep one’s healthy [sic] and shed some light on the importance of girl education and discouraging under-age marriages (very common all across the country, espeacially in rural areas) while being as respectful as possible.

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