TV puppet satire skewers Kenya's leaders

NAIROBI, Kenya — In a dank prison cell two men in striped convict uniforms play cards. What makes this scene unusual on a Kenyan television station is that the felons are President Mwai Kibaki and Prime Minister Raila Odinga.

The real leaders of the country are still at large but their puppet likenesses are banged-up in prison as part of a weekly television satire.

As the popular "XYZ Show" prepares for the premiere of its second season in October, its 40-year-old creator Godfrey Mwampembwa told GlobalPost why Kenya’s recent violent political turmoil meant the time was right for the satire.

“After the 2007 elections we argued that it was the right time for a show like this; that Kenya needed a show like this: we have one [coalition] government and no opposition so we needed to strengthen criticism,” explained Mwampembwa.

The scene with Kibaki and Odinga in jail deployed pitch black humor to suggest that the country’s top leaders should be held responsible and face justice for the murder and mayhem that marked the 2007 polls that brought them both to power.

It’s a debate that few Kenyans dare enter into publicly. “We put the president and the prime minister in jail!” said Mwampembwa proudly. “Then people started to actually discuss the issues we were raising. Others said we were being disrespectful but that’s the point!”

The "XYZ Show" follows in the subversive footsteps of other puppet satires that ridicule pompous political elites around the world.

In Britain, "Spitting Image" ran for 12 years from the mid-1980s spawning a hit single and appearing occasionally on the U.S. channel NBC despite its parochial focus on British politics and culture. And after more than two decades, "Les Guignols" remains one of France’s most popular television shows with its daily seven-minute slot on station Canal Plus.

These puppet satires and their human counterparts such as "The Daily Show" or Britain’s "The Day Today" are however a rarity in Africa where leaders tend to take a dim view of such mockery and frequently impose draconian media laws to curb unfettered freedom of expression.

But in his day job as a newspaper cartoonist Mwampembwa — better known by his pen name Gado — has made it his business to be a thorn in the side of Kenya’s political establishment. His lacerating political cartoons describe grotesque tableaus of greed, corruption and
arrogance lampooning Kenya’s elites without mercy. His black-and-white caricatures have appeared in the independently owned Daily Nation since 1992 and represent one of the country’s sharpest political critiques.

Like his friend and fellow political cartoonist Jonathan Shapiro, or ‘Zapiro’, in South Africa Gado’s cartoons have gotten him into trouble and even elicited the occasional death threat alongside the more mundane lawyers’ letters.

“Some senior politicians have complained bitterly, they have attacked Citizen TV [which airs the show], one called 'XYZ' ‘weird’ and accused us of peddling lies,” said Mwampembwa. But at least the show wasn’t cancelled as Zapiro’s planned satirical puppet show was earlier this

In addition to constantly lampooning Kenya’s notoriously corrupt and self-serving politicians, skits have included Michael Jackson being told off by God for turning white and satires on Somalia’s Islamists and pirate gangs.

For Mwampembwa the show has been a labor of love for seven years. He first took the idea to broadcasters in 2002 but was turned away because of the sensitive subjects he wanted to tackle and because puppets are expensive: each life-like caricature with its expressive face and moving eyes costs about $4,000.

Mwampembwa begged and borrowed to produce a 20-minute pilot episode in 2007 but still his dream of bringing his satirical cartoons to life seemed impossible until funding was provided by international donors.

“'XYZ' has given us an opportunity to create a new idiom and to exploit humor to get the message across, to ask fundamental questions about leadership in our country and about values,” said Joyce Nyairo, program officer for media, arts and culture at Ford Foundation’s
Nairobi office.

Nyairo explained that Mwampembwa’s impressive skills in political satire were also key to Ford Foundation’s decision to give $100,000 toward the development of "XYZ." A further $150,000 grant is being considered for future series.

In the "XYZ" workshop in Nairobi’s industrial area, the legless bodies of Kenya’s leaders huddle together on a table. There are 16 puppets in total — including a white-skinned Barack Obama with ears like satellite dishes — and more on the way. Luis Moreno-Ocampo, chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, had just been finished when GlobalPost visited and the un-dyed molded
head of Kofi Annan, the former United Nations secretary-general who helped broker Kenya's peace after the 2007 polls, was resting on a potter’s wheel.

“When we started we were a bit timid but we slowly shifted to become harder. There’s no shortage of material so far! Nothing is off-limits — we’ve satirized the first family, religious leaders — we try not to run away from anything,” declared Mwampembwa.

From the looks of the new puppets, season two is set to tackle some of Kenya’s thorniest recent issues head-on: impunity, justice and tribalism.

It is comedy with a serious, and much-needed message, as Mwambembwa explained: “What we’d like to see is not just for people to laugh, but for them to think about the issues we raise, and to act.”