Grosshauser was invited to the small southeast African nation of Malawi as part of Project WET’s involvement in a larger project called Read Malawi!—a multi-year, USAID-funded effort to promote literacy in a nation in which nearly four in 10 people cannot read. He was chosen to teach Malawian artists how to create engaging, child-friendly material for use in the literacy campaign. It was his first trip to Africa, but he had no time for culture shock.
“What I found right away was that I had a lot in common with the illustrators. We’re all used to tight deadlines, and we all hate revisions,” he laughs. “Really, though, the human condition is the same all over, and since we were all illustrators, we could relate to each other.”
That’s not to say that he didn’t have to make some attitude adjustments.
“There is a tremendous difference in conditions,” he explains. “There would be times when I would be trying to teach and the power would go out. I had to remember to be flexible. If we didn’t have power, for example, we could work on sketching. I never knew what the day would bring.”
While it was Grosshauser’s first time in Africa, his lively, colorful illustrations—many of them depicting African life—have been on the continent for some time. Project WET’s partnership with the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) has allowed three Project WET Kids in Discovery series (KIDs) booklets that he illustrated—Healthy Water, Healthy Habits, Healthy People, Discover the Nile River, and Water is Life—to be distributed in 15 countries in sub-Saharan Africa. But Grosshauser would be the first to say that drawing the Africa of photos and his imagination is a far different experience than being on the ground, working directly with locals to draw similarly engaging illustrations.
“The guys I was working with have amazing artistic skills. Their drawing is just beautiful,” Grosshauser enthuses. “But they don’t have much to work with. They had these cheap paints—the kind we would buy here at a discount store—and that made it so much harder for them to work.”
The difficulty is compounded by the lack of available technology for artists. Grosshauser does most of his work on computers, an innovation that allows him to “do 10 times as much” as when he works the old-fashioned way.
“In general, what they are doing is so much more difficult than working on a computer,” he says.
In the hope that technology will be made available to the illustrators with whom he worked, Grosshauser did spend time teaching them computer illustration basics to allow them to move forward—when and if such a time comes. He’s trying to make sure that will be sooner rather than later.
“Now that I’m back (in the United States), I’ve been keeping in touch with the illustrators, and we’re working on some fundraising to try to get them laptops and basic software,” he says. “A laptop would be really ideal because it would allow for a battery backup in case the power goes out.”
Heath Kathewera is one of the illustrators who worked with Peter during the weeklong training, and he is a firm believer in technology—and in Peter’s skills as an artist and teacher.
“We believe it’s a must these days that every illustrator is able to use a computer in their work,” Kathewera said in an email. “And we have found Peter just the right person who can help us achieve this goal.”
Kathewera also indicated that Grosshauser did more than just take note of the less-than-ideal art supplies the Malawian illustrators were working with—he also improved them with his own stock.
“Peter brought his own personal art materials that he freely gave us,” Kathewera said. “They are of very good quality unlike those that we are able to purchase here in Malawi. The materials he brought like water colors and brushes, just to mention some, are helping us a lot in the Read Malawi project.”
Project WET Senior Vice President John Etgen—who accompanied Grosshauser on the trip and watched some of the training in action—confirms that Read Malawi! project leaders have already noted a positive change in the artwork that local illustrators are submitting.
“Within the project, we have been told that they are already seeing differences in illustrations from those that they received in the first round,” Etgen says. “Through Peter’s efforts, the illustrators are working in a more effective way.”
This process is somewhat different from what Project WET normally does, he adds.
“We do a lot of training and raising awareness around water, but this kind of skills training and capacity building is new for us,” Etgen explains. “Peter’s training and the application of technology to art really has amazing possibilities for these illustrators to build their careers long beyond this project.”
In addition to his work training illustrators, Grosshauser also worked on four Project WET posters that will be used within the Read Malawi! effort, highlighting the program’s ultimate goal: helping more Malawian children learn to read.
That is why Etgen is quick to note that Grosshauser’s training will not only impact the skills and abilities of the illustrators but also the prospects of Malawian children.
“The real goal of this project is the improved literacy of kids in Malawi—and especially for them to understand that there are connections to water, which is where Project WET comes in,” he says. “Water connects us all.”