Using comics to learn German

  • 2021-12-14
  • Gabriel Kombassere
  • Comment
Many comics on a table
© Editions eGrenier

In parallel to his work at the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ), Ib Zongo is also very active in the comics scene. He gives an interview in which he enables us to delve into his passion for comics, and tells us how his stories contribute to learning German in Africa.

Mr Zongo, you’ve already been active in the comics scene for 13 years. How did you get started back then, and what are your books all about?

My first book has the title ‘Etudiant Yako’ (Student Yako). It deals with an African youth trying to complete his studies despite social difficulties, despite structural issues – and he is ultimately successful in doing so. It’s therefore essentially about the social difficulties faced by students in West Africa.

Who are you mainly addressing via your comics?

I write about a wide range of topics. In addition to student life, I also cover aspects like migration, radicalisation, multiculturalism, freedom of expression, but also topics like love or the quest for happiness. I tend to have a specific readership depending on what I’m writing about. One thing that is always true, however, is that I make comics especially for young people in Africa.

I write about and describe things that I see, that I feel and where I believe they’re also relevant in the everyday lives of my readers. I hope that I speak to people through my comics, and that we may even come together in searching for solutions. I also ultimately hope that I encourage readers to discuss the topics raised in my comics.

Yet in some of my comics I simply want to make the readers laugh. Anyone reading my comic ‘Mayo’, for instance, and who remembers their own time on campus, is bound to laugh at some scenes, and find themselves reflected in them. Humour is just as important as the serious aspects of life. 

How many books have you published to date?

I’ve published a total of six books in the last ten years. In each case two as part of a series on migration and ‘Etudiant Yako’ – one more in each of these two series is yet to appear. And then there’s also the comic ‘Jahnheinz Jahn – eine kurze Biografie’ (Jahnheinz Jahn – a short biography). It deals with a German ethnologist and intellectual who engaged with African literature, and to whom we owe gratitude for a large archive in Mainz. I collaborated with the Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz to turn his biography into a comic. So I also address readers who are interested in German and African history and literature. I’m also currently working in parallel on three further comics.

How do you sell your books?

I’d have to say that it’s quite difficult. Those who choose the comics industry do of course have to develop a very precise plan regarding how to publish their works and reach their target group. In my case, the comics are generally printed here in Germany and then shipped or flown to West Africa. They’re then sold in bookshops. We also have a and a , which we use to try and market the comics. It takes a lot of energy and word-of-mouth recommendations.

How do you engage with your readers via your favourite topics?

We look out for events involving books, comics and reading. Recently in November there was a book fair in Burkina Faso, for example. It’s an event that takes place every two years. This is the first time I’ve attended it and I presented my work there. I spoke with young people and decision-makers, but also with students and school children.

What is your connection to Germany?

I’ve a very strong connection to Germany: I was professionally involved with the DAAD, the Goethe-Institut and the German Armed Forces, and for almost eleven years I’ve been working for the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit, the GIZ. I also have close personal connections with Germany: my wife comes from Bonn and our children have roots on both continents.

Do your comics sometimes deal with Germany?

Yes, and most of my comics are also available in Germany. There are many scenes that are set in Germany and involve aspects relating to Africans living in Germany: migration, integration, German bureaucracy, intercultural misunderstandings, and so on.

School children and students in West Africa use your comics to learn German. How did that come about?

I received a request from the Goethe-Institut a few years ago. It involved familiarising German teachers with comics and showing them how comics can be used in the classroom. Because teachers often have limited teaching materials. At that time I used the medium of comics to consider the didactic-pedagogical perspective with the participants. We worked on specific topics, such as the environment, food and drink in Germany, festivals in Germany, regional studies, and the like. I used this workshop to demonstrate how you can use so-called catch notes – quick drawings – to explain words and put them into context.

I also worked directly with school children, whereby they used comics to learn German. I also used these topics there too: the environment, eating and drinking in Germany, festivals in Germany and so on. It involved specific situations as well, such as buying tickets or ordering in a restaurant. It was also interesting to encourage the school children’s creativity; in other words to see how they would think about conversations, for example, and write them in the speech bubbles. This led me to the idea of developing a textbook for the African context that works with comics. I’m currently working on that.

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