By Chesi Lumasia, a visiting Rhodes University student at Uppsala University
Since the liberalization of the media in the 1990s in Kenya, there has been an explosion of comedy among other cultural productions on the Kenyan mainstream media, alternative media and the new media of the Internet. Among the many comedy shows that Kenyans look to for entertainment is Churchill Show, a production of the Laugh Industry that has been in existence since 2009. It is hosted on National Television (NTV), a privately owned outlet of the Nation Media Group and sister to one of Kenya’s leading newspapers, The Nation. The popular show runs between 8 and 9 pm East African Time, and is categorized as family comedy, that is, a general exhibition show that is welcome to the family living room. It is also conveniently available on Youtube.
Under the banner, ‘Churchill Show; more than comedy’, the show truly lives to this mantra. Besides affording Kenyans hearty laughs since its inception in 2007 as Churchill Live, the show offers snapshots of the Kenyan society as it intersects with the global. To this end, it has spawned quite a number of intellectual studies in linguistics, literature and cultural studies; some celebratory, others condemnatory – especially due to its reliance on ethnic and gender stereotypes, the latest being “Ideological undertones in mediatized comedy in the Churchill Show of Kenya” in Joke-Performance in Africa: Mode, Media and Meaning (2018) Routeledge Contemporary Africa publication dedicated to Jesus Christ as edited by Ignatius Chukwumah. As I write this, Churchill Show forms part of my corpus of material for study for a doctoral degree in literary studies at South Africa’s Rhodes University. More about this another time.
For now, allow me to ride with you into Churchill Show that aired on 13th October 2008, which I accessed on Youtube the other day. Captain Otoyo also known as Otos (Kazungu Matano) lands on the stage that is Churchill Show in his usual pilot’s suit, a black one – he keeps changing the colours, but the suit remains the same. Churchill (Daniel Ndambuki), the founder and host, is in some kind of a usual suit though, purple in colour. Churchill Show, however, is not as usually suited. It is ‘Churchill Show Moi Day Edition’, and it seems the Laugh Industry, the producer, has realized that its usual suit of stereotypes won’t do in this special edition. The show coincides with the return of Moi Day, a holiday that had been celebrated in honor of Kenya’s second and longest serving President Daniel Toroitich arap Moi since 1990, only to be abolished with the promulgation of Kenya’s new constitution in 2010. It was, however, restored in an unusual High Court ruling on November 8th 2017 by the not-so-usual Justice George Odunga. It might help you, the reader, to realize that ‘usual’ translates into ‘kawaida’ in Kiswahili, Kenya’s national language and East Africa’s lingua franca that is an offspring of the intercourse between Arabic and the Bantu dialects on the East African coast. Now being usual/kawaida, or describing things as ‘kawaida’ on serious occasions is not taken kindly where I come from – Kenya. One example will serve for now. It is rumored that the legendary Leonard Mambo Mbotela – a retired veteran media personality – once quipped in his course voiced crisp Kiswahili that the retired President Moi had arrived at a state function in his usual, or ‘kawaida’ suit. Usually, the retired president sported a kind of trademark pin-striped suit that came in many shades. It’s quite logical to deduce that Leonard Mambo Mbotela somehow got so much used to this suit type when he served as MC at the then president’s press services (PPS). The suit, thus, became ‘usual’, ‘kawaida to him. Consequently, his remark that the President had arrived donning his ‘usual suit’ cost him his post at the PPS as an MC. So, this was no usual Churchill Show, coinciding as it did with no usual Moi Day.
Thus, Churchill Show dispensed with stereotypes – its usual/kawaida stock in trade – to thrill Kenyans with the memories of the Moi era. Aptly played against ‘Moi Day laughs’ backdrop at its traditional recording grounds at the Carnival Simba Saloon, Nairobi, the show takes place in a typical Moi day sitting room: a couch bedecked in patterned crochets, matching those covering the radio and the red Greatwall TV set. This was the TV set that iconically sat in Kenya’s average living room. It was turned on and off by the knob and tuned same. I grew up in this era, and Churchill reminds me of how the knobs progressively got so faulty that it usually took a pair of pliers to operate them. The set was an accessory not to be played with, but a preserve of the family patriarch. Churchill dramatizes how he thought his father was an engineer because it’s him alone who operated the set. He makes the audience relive the terror of the family patriarch, ‘mzee’ in Kiswahili. “If Mzee walked in and found the set heated, a sign that it had been on in his absence, the whole household, including the cockroaches therein, received a memorable beating!” reports Daniel Ndambuki. Exaggerated, yes, but true!
In this scene, Churchill further dramatizes how the black and white images got ‘coloured’: a prismatic transparent plastic was affixed to the screen! He asks the audience to appreciate their harsh parents and applaud their ingenuity, their lies notwithstanding. Such harsh parents are the reason they are gathered at the show in the post-Moi Era for a Moi Day Special edition. Well, the TV set was majorly for the news, and the household got terrorized not so much for watching it for leisure in Mzee’s absence as for wastage of power. It ran on direct current supplied by a used rechargeable car battery for lack of electricity, and the cost of recharging the battery occasioned an unpleasant hole in the old man’s pocket!
Churchill establishes the nostalgic mood by leading the audience in singing the song “Uvivu ni adui mkubwa kwa ujenzi wa taifa,” – Laziness is the greatest enemy to national building – a popular number by a section of Kenya’s military, the Maroon Commandos that woke us up every morning, urging everyone from the farmer through the office clerk to the school-going child into hard work in the nation building project. It was then succeeded, as if on cue, by the seven o’clock news, which Churchill comically, reads in the mould of Leonard Mambo Mbotela: “Mtukufu Rais Daniel Toroitich Arap Moi leo atafungua shule ya Isinya Girls’… Habari za biashara: Mtukufu Rais Daniel arap Moi baadaye atafungua soko jipya, Kitengela… Habari za michezo: Jioni ya leo, Harambee Stars itachuana na timu ya Cape Verde ambapo mgeni wa taifa Mtukufu Rais Daniel Toroitich arap Moi atahudhuria mechi hiyo… Utabiriri wa hali ya hewa: Leo kutakuwa na manyunyu na hali ya jua wakati Mtukufu Rais atakuwa akielekea huko Kisumu. (In the news H.E. Daniel Toroitich arap Moi will officially open Isinya Girls’ School. Business news: H.E. Daniel Toroitich arap Moi will later officially open an air market at Kitengela (some township towards Maasai Mara Game Reserve). Sports news: H.E. President Daniel Toroitich arap Moi, as the chief guest, will grace a football match between Kenya’s national team and that of Cape Verde. The weather forecast: the weather will be punctuated by showers and periods of sunshine as H.E. President will be heading to Kisumu – a city in Western Kenya, bordering Lake Victoria). Simply put, Churchill amplifies how His Excellency, the President was virtually the news, and the news him, on the Kenya Broadcasting Corporation (KBC), the only channel on TV then. The Kenya Times newspaper, owned and published by the Kenya African National Union (KANU) – Kenya’s only political party, was the Paper and ultimate bearer of Truth.
With the ‘Tawala (Rule) Kenya’ tune playing in the background, Churchill (in typical comedic tone and role), playing Sammy Lois (the man who filled Leonard Mambo Mbotela’s gigantic shoes at Moi’s PPS) at a past Moi Day function, but happening in the now, brings it to the attention of the President (the philosopher-king) that marching before the presidential dais in His Excellency’s honour are platoons of ‘slay queens’ (colloquial for young naïve women who do not date broke men, but the elderly well-to-do popularly known as ‘sponsors’) and slay kings (the queens’ counterparts). He intones that the slay queens have greatly contributed to the mushrooming of ‘sponsors’ in the country. The MC describes ‘sponsors’ as old men of means aged between forty and seventy, who do not want to accept and act their ages, but choose to luxuriate in their fortune with slay queens as though they were young men. He informs H.E. the President that this platoon’s rallying call is ‘no romance without finance.’ As he marches in mimicry, he introduces to the president the next detachment: socialites. It is led by one Vera Sidika (a Kenyan socialite brazenly proud of her plastic beauty). It is famous for its contempt for clothing, it is renowned for bleaching dark skins and enlarging bums, and is well notorious for globe-trotting, selling nothing but onions and tomatoes! Then comes the unit of ‘sponsors’ or Masponyee (Masponyee is Sheng – a mixture of English and Kiswahili, with a spicy dose of local dialects whose providence in is to the east of Nairobi, popularly christened ‘Eastlands’). The procession is completed by what the MC calls the ‘Group admins,’ a regiment of rude men and women who are arrogant because of their power to add and remove people from WhatsApp groups without consultation. Comedy has just begun getting sweeter.
Captain Otoyo lands. (He never ‘arrives’ like everyone else!). In this edition, however, much as he lands, he does not play his usual Luo (one of Kenya’s major ethnic groups stereotyped as proud and arrogantly living large) braggadocio role. He is the humble captain who nostalgically pilots the audience into the glorious days of the Moi regime. But before he takes to the aircraft’s controls, he makes light of the associations of slay queens with sponsors: there is a university student murdered allegedly by her lover, the county governor, and another one – a TV girl facing murder charges alongside her handsome fiancé for the murder of another slay queen and a ‘prominent’ business woman at a very tender age. In the face of these unsettling scenarios, Otos claims that slay queens now want nothing to do with sponsors and handsome men. “Whom are they left with?” he poses mischievously. It’s the hard-faced, not so-good-looking, ugly men like himself that they previously despised. He chants a song “Wanaokudharau siku moja watakusalimia kwa heshima” (Those who slight you will one day salute you respectfully) for effect. It’s a gospel number by Kenya’s Annastazia Mukabwa and Tanzania’s Rose Muhando. He says, to peals of laughter from the audience, “I tell you Smart Joker’s (another supposedly not-so-good looking comedian) phone is off the hook. He’s on demand! We are busy.” It is their time to shine. The handsome and moneyed have no chance now. They squandered their opportunity.
“It is time to separate the Peugeot men from the Subaru boys!” the captain reminds his audience to wild cheers. His audience is truly the Moi Era men and women. He is one of them. They resonate with him. He then ridicules them as Moi’s 8-4-4 education system (where eight years were spent at primary school and four each at secondary and university) products. No sooner had they given up their mothers’ breasts than they took to Moi’s packet tits: milk children! The reason they have refused to grow up. He rubs it in with a hyperbolic gyration to the tune ‘Sisi wana wa Nyayo’ (We the children of Footprints’). Nyayo is the philosophy of peace, love and unity that Moi adapted upon ascension to power in 1978 upon Mzee Jomo Kenyatta’s death to continue propagating the latter’s legacy. The tune characterized President Moi’s itineraries to and by schools which saw lessons cancelled so that both learners and teachers would line the streets, waving miniature paper Kenyan flags singing adulations to the president. Captain Otoyo demonstrates how girls and women madly gyrated their backsides to entertain the head of state who’d then gift them stashes of cash to hold parties at the schools visited and passed by. Enough schools – no single boys’ among them – had MOI prefixed to their names before they knew it! Otos tickles his audience with tales of how money freely flowed then, contra today, and one easily picked it from the road to take to their mother, who’d give them a thorough beating, but still use the money.
Captain Otoyo’s ride nears conlusion with a detour to the ‘Moi day classroom, and through the then lower primary English curriculum text of Hello Children that starred Mr. and Mrs. Kamau, their children Tom and Mary and baby Peter, and their cat. Tom once lost his pencil, which was all the while seated on his ear, yet went round asking everyone if they had come across it. Desperate, he ended inquiring from the cat, which responded, ‘meow’! How hilarious! So much can be read into this, but again, as I said before, story for another day, maybe!
In valediction, Captain Otoyo, completes the voyage on quite a high note: the characteristic irony with the audience, especially the ladies’ segment, is that, although they are Moi days’ progeny, they don’t look it. They must be doing something to their skins to dispel aging. Yet, ancestors of the Moi era, they remain in conduct and character. Moi is ninety-four remember! Of course, other comedians joke about the utility and incredulity of Google Maps among other trendy topics of how the gospel industry in Kenya has gone rogue, including Michael Jackson’s dancing prowess and the inconveniences that come with living in a bedsitter in Nairobi. The Kenyan politician and how he typifies the devil is not spared either. Most importantly, though, this episode of Churchill Show communicates much more (and in multiple styles) than a novel would in the same span of forty-seven minutes. That is the beauty of this mode and medium of cultural production, circulation and consumption. Unbounded as it is, mediatized comedy teaches and delights, perhaps better than any narrative that is conventionally bounded between book covers.