/ 20 June 2023

Kenya’s ungovernable Esther Kazungu

Img 8625 (1) (1)
Esther Kazungu. Photo: Pau Shinski

When Esther Kazungu quit her job in 2020 to become a full-time content creator, there was no back-up plan. But this leap of faith, combined with an enviable work ethic, has paid off.

The multitalented comedian and activist from Nairobi, Kenya, has taken social media by storm, boasting a combined following of more than 300 000 across TikTok, Instagram, Twitter and YouTube. Kazungu is known for her eclectic and relatable content but it is her hilarious skits of parliamentary sessions in South Africa, many of which have gone viral, that confirmed her superstar status.

Growing up, Kazungu dreamed of being an entertainment news presenter or radio host. But when she realised that dream — getting a job as a video journalist at a big media house after her degree from Moi University — she realised that she wanted more. 

“I would wake up in the morning and think, ‘I cannot do this forever. This cannot be it,’” she said in an interview.

It didn’t help that she was earning less than a male colleague. So, in 2020, when she was asked to take a pay cut because of the pandemic, she decided it was now or never — and became a full-time content creator.

Giving up the security of a job and a salary seemed like a crazy decision, as many people were quick to tell her, but Kazungu knew what she was doing. She had already enjoyed some success on social media but she noticed that the really successful creators were the ones who gave it their full attention.

To the naysayers, she would cite the example of American YouTuber Liza Koshy — who created one of the fastest-growing YouTube channels of all time, raking in millions of dollars in the process — as an inspiration.

When pressed for a Kenyan example, she would respond: “I’m going to be the first one!”

IMG_6919 (1) (1)
Continental: Creator Esther Kazungu has nothing less than global stardom in her sights. Photo: Supplied


After the initial rush of excitement, reality began to bite. Engagement dwindled, as did her income. She started to think she had made a terrible mistake but she kept showing up. “I told myself, ‘This is the only plan, so just keep creating and posting; it may take years.’”

Kazungu did not have to wait that long. One day, she woke up feeling dejected and frustrated. “I spent the day in tears.” The very next day, she had a novel idea.

TikTok was filled with videos of people imitating film scenes and music videos. Why not do the same for the most dramatic content of all — politics? And where better to start than South Africa’s uptight, yet ungovernable, parliament, already made infamous by comedian Trevor Noah’s frequent barbs?

The more she researched, the more material she found of South African parliamentarians behaving badly. She had struck comedy gold. She recorded her first video and posted it with trepidation and no expectations.

It went viral. Kazungu hasn’t stopped going viral since, attracting fans including actress Pearl Thusi and the South African opposition lawmaker Mbuyiseni Ndlozi — who himself is occasionally lampooned in her skits. With the online attention has come deals with big brands, such as Safaricom, Gilbey’s Gin and CeraVe skincare.

WEMBE SQUAD BTS DAY 1-53 (1) (1)
Movie-ing on up: Esther Kazungu in the 2021 Kenyan film Wembe Squad. Photo: Grey Were

Shoot for the stars

To Kazungu’s surprise, she has found that even as she pokes fun at politicians — and she has cast her net wider in recent months, doing hilarious impersonations of lawmakers in other countries, including Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda — she is sometimes enraged by them.

“I would speak to young Kenyans on social media and discover that we all had the same questions. For years the government has been taking loans and the question is, where is this money going?”

She has channelled some of this frustration into her videos, which for a content creator comes with considerable risk — partisan audiences might be alienated, while companies tend to shy away from anything remotely controversial. At the same time, her authenticity is what makes her videos so relatable. “Ultimately, what I’m saying is, ‘Yes I will make fun of you in these videos, and we can all laugh, but, when necessary, I’ll also call you out.’”

And that, perhaps, is the secret to Kazungu’s success, and explains her ability to transcend borders and nationalities and appeal to viewers everywhere — something that had been her aim from the start. “I just want to be a global star,” she said. 

As far as we are concerned, she is already there.

This article first appeared in The Continent, the pan-African weekly newspaper produced in partnership with the Mail & Guardian. It’s designed to be read and shared on WhatsApp. Download your free copy here.