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TV puppet satire skewers Kenya's leaders

Popular show raises controversial issues and provokes debate.

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.”