Africa

TV puppet satire torments Kenyan elite

Staff Reporter

A rapping president describes himself as "a real bad dude" and a set of parliamentarians suffer from a brain disease called "corruptophaelia".

A rapping president describes himself as “a real bad dude”; a prime minister and vice-president fight over lavatories; and a set of parliamentarians suffer from a brain disease called “corruptophaelia”.

Welcome to Kenya, as seen and portrayed by Africa’s version of Spitting Image, a daring puppet satire that is steadily pushing the boundaries of free expression and outraging the Nairobi elite. The XYZ Show, now preparing for its second series, proved a huge hit when it was launched in May. Its well-aimed barbs delighted a devoted and growing audience, while scandalising the politicians who are the show’s main target.

One Cabinet minister denounced the programme as “weird”, while another complained that villagers were mistaking the puppets for the real-life equivalents. But to the relief of viewers, the government decided not to order it off the air, even after a clip entitled “What if Kenya was perfect?”, which depicted President Mwai Kibaki and the prime minister, Raila Odinga, in jail in The Hague for crimes committed during last year’s election violence.

“As soon as that episode ended, my friends were calling me to see if I’d been arrested,” said the creator of The XYZ Show, Godfrey “Gado” Mwampembwa, the best-known newspaper cartoonist in East Africa.

Gado has been working on the idea since 2002, when he visited the set of Les Guignols, the cult French puppet show. Given the Kenyan public’s obsession with politics and the local history of comedy, he believed that there was a ready audience for the continent’s first televised puppet satire.

Initially, although the Kenyan media is among the freest in Africa—Gado’s biting cartoons in the Daily Nation newspaper are proof of that—major television stations and corporate sponsors judged that lampooning the country’s leaders before a potential audience of millions was a step too far.

Undeterred, Gado sent a sculptor to France for a month to learn how to make puppets—the sculptor returned home with a lifesize latex Kibaki—and produced a pilot episode with financial help from a few Western donor organisations.

Citizen Television, a popular private station, eventually agreed to broadcast the show on a late night Sunday slot and to sign away editorial control to Gado. One of the first episodes satirised a sex boycott by MPs’ wives angry at their husbands’ refusal to work together in the coalition government. “We had people calling the station straight away to say it was taboo to talk about politicians having sex,” said Wachira Waruru, managing director of Citizen Television. “Others said we were disrespecting their leaders by making them say stupid things.”

Other viewers complained that the programme was too timid. With politicians providing no shortage of source material, Gado’s all-Kenyan production built more puppets and took more risks with the content. Odinga’s outburst over the lack of a red carpet and VIP lavatories at an official function inspired the lavatory fight episode.

Finance minister Uhuru Kenyatta, notorious for suing local newspapers for defamation, was mocked for describing a massive hole in the budget as a typing error. A doctor explained the MPs’ corruption disease by dissecting the insect-ridden brain of former president Daniel arap Moi—who might well have locked Gado up in his torture chambers over the episode were he still in power. Even Kibaki’s wife, Lucy, famous for storming a newspaper office after midnight over a story that upset her, was seen as fair game.

It did not take long for the political class to counter-attack. Public services minister Dalmas Otieno moaned in a press conference that the Kibaki puppet had had its nose twisted by one of the other characters. Aides to Vice-President Kalonzo Musyoka complained to Citizen about their boss being shown “giggling like a schoolgirl” and questioned if the show was politically motivated.

“Most Kenyans understand that we’re providing a new platform for debate,” said Gado. “It’s just the political class left behind.”

Kenyan politicians are not the only people to have suffered ridicule. A jug-eared, foul-mouthed Barack Obama was shown debating with Osama bin Laden, who wore a Nike turban and drank Pepsi while pledging to end Western civilisation. After the death of Michael Jackson, his puppet equivalent was questioned by God about why he changed his skin colour and about “those little boys”. “Because I’m bad,” Jackson replied.

With The XYZ Show‘s second series due to begin in January, Gado is pondering ways to include figures from elsewhere on the continent. In South Africa, his friend and fellow cartoonist Jonathan “Zapiro” Shapiro created a similar puppet satire for the South African Broadcasting Corporation, which refused to air it after seeing a pilot. Instead, episodes of ZA News are released directly to the internet, including on the M&G Online. “Maybe we can do a brief swap—an Obama for a Zuma,” said Gado. - guardian.co.uk

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