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TV puppet satire skewers Kenya's leaders

Popular show raises controversial issues and provokes debate.

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.