Puppets, Political Satire Popular on Kenyan TV

14 October 2010

Photo: AP
'XYZ Show' creator Godfrey 'Gado' Mwampembwa, right, prepares the puppets for the show at his studio in Nairobi, Kenya, 21 May 2009 (file photo)

In its third season, the XYZ Show is using puppets and humor to lampoon Kenyan politicians, while tackling controversial issues for 15 minutes each week on Kenyan television. It uses sketch comedy to tackle issues such as corruption and political privilege.

For many Kenyans, the evening news often is frustrating. Near daily reports of political squabbling, corruption and government incompetence add to public cynicism. For 15 minutes every week, though, TV audiences tune in as their leaders are held accountable. Taking its cue from the day's headlines, the XYZ Show presents its own version of the news, using a small army of life-sized puppets to satirize Kenyan politics.

The idea of poking fun at Kenyan leaders is not new. Groundbreaking comedy group Redykyulass often imitates Kenyan politicians for television gags, but XYZ director James Kanja explains that the XYZ concept is fundamentally different.

"We have had a few comedy TV shows that have tried to do that. But it has always been more of comedy than satire," he said. "And, that was one of the reasons why we chose to go with satire because we can say much more and we can bring in a seriousness to the comedy that you normally do not get."

The writers of the show also use the broadcast as a forum to probe the post-election clashes that rocked Kenya nearly three years ago. More than 1,300 people were killed after President Mwai Kibaki and Prime Minister Raila Odinga accused each other of fraud in the December 2007 presidential election. After Kenya failed to investigate the violence, the International Criminal Court initiated its own probe.

In the first episode of the XYZ Show this season, puppets portraying Higher Education Minister William Ruto and Finance Minister Uhuru Kenyatta seek advice from Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir on avoiding arrest by the court.

None of Kenya's leading politicians have been spared by the XYZ Show. In one sketch, a puppet of Prime Minister Odinga complains to former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan about Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki.

In 2008, Mr. Annan mediated a peace agreement between the Kenyan president and prime minister that ended nearly two months of violence. On XYZ, the former U.N. chief has been featured as a frustrated, and occasionally aggravated, marriage counselor for the two.

XYZ is the creation of Godfrey Mwambembwa, better known in Kenya as Gado, the editorial cartoonist for the newspaper Daily Nation. For nearly two decades, Gado has used his space in the paper to criticize Kenya's leaders and highlight issues of national concern.

Gado says the inspiration for XYZ came during a 2003 visit to the set of the long-running French political satire television show "Les Guinols de L'info" or "News Puppets."

But many Kenyan TV stations did not share Gado's enthusiasm for puppet satire, saying the subject matter was too controversial. So, using his own money and funds from the French Embassy in Nairobi, Gado produced a pilot which he hoped would convince the stations. The pilot sat in Gado's desk until 2007, when he showed it to French journalist Marie Lora. In the wake of the post-election crisis, Lora was convinced the show could work in Kenya. Together, Lora and Gado sought funding from organizations such as the Ford Foundation and the Prince Claus Fund for Culture and Development to film the first season.

Although the XYZ Show has won the admiration of most viewers, politicians such as Public Service Minister Dalmas Otieno, call the program "weird," saying that Kenya's leaders are being victimized for the sake of profit.

XYZ's fans say the show can be a vehicle for positive change in Kenya. Gado, though, expresses modest hopes for the show.

"At the end of it all, we will just leave it to other people to judge our legacy or the XYZ legacy," said Gado. "If we will be able to contribute in fighting corruption, I'll be more than happy. If we contribute in good governance, then I'm more than happy. Obviously, we are contributing to freedom of the press, freedom of expression. In many ways, we will be happy if we can contribute in a small way."

Whatever its impact, XYZ entertains audiences with its unique brand of Kenyan news.

Director James Kanja says fans can expect even bigger things in future episodes. XYZ plans to expand its cast of characters, which already includes U.S. President Barack Obama and pop-singer Michael Jackson, to touch on broader issues. But Kanja says XYZ's puppets will always poke fun at Kenya's politics.

"There are a lot of things that go on around this society that we need to ask questions about and that is the main reason why we do XYZ. At the end of the day, whoever we are poking fun at - you probably deserve what's coming your way," said Kanja.

XYZ's creators are working to expand the program to a 30-minute, year-round broadcast.