Mwampembwa takes wit to TV

'XYZ Show' satirizes Kenya's ruling class

KIGALI, Rwanda He may be the most feared man in Kenya. Ask a random sampling of the country’s peevish politicians, and he’s certainly the most hated.

But Godfrey Mwampembwa, better known as Gado — the brilliant, barb-quilled cartoonist for Kenya’s Daily Nation newspaper — has more friends than enemies.

In a country where government critics are as abundant as the scandal-plagued politicians they denounce, Gado’s satirical cartoons are perhaps the best bellwether of which way the winds of public opinion are blowing in Kenya.

Now, after nearly a decade of lampooning presidents, prime ministers and parliamentary leaders with his pen, the Tanzanian-born artist has taken his caustic wit to the TV screen.

Following in the tradition of the U.K.’s “Spitting Image” and France’s “Les Guignols,” “The XYZ Show” is a puppet show using satire to take on Kenya’s ruling classes.

Produced by Nairobi-based shingle Buni, and directed by James Kanja, “The XYZ Show” bowed May 17 on Royal Media’s commercial network Citizen TV.

Through a weekly mock-news broadcast, the show pokes fun at — and raises questions about — the scandals that rock this east African nation.

As it wraps up its first successful season, the show seems to have struck a chord: More than 2,000 fans have joined the show’s Facebook group in just three months, and at least one prominent politician has voiced bitter complaints about the show with broadcasters.

While Gado says “The XYZ Show” has “exceeded (his) expectations,” it was a long time in the making.

It was conceived in 2002, when he began working for the Nation and, as he puts it, “the so-called winds of change started blowing” in Kenya.

President Daniel arap Moi was on his way out after more than two decades of autocratic rule. Multiparty politics had been introduced. The press, tightly controlled under Moi, was finding a fresh voice — one increasingly critical of government.

But despite a robust history of political stage comedy in the country dating back to the days of British colonial rule, “The XYZ Show” was a hard sell.

Western-style satire was new to Kenya; according to Gado, broadcasters were expecting slapstick comedy and “didn’t seem to get” what he was trying to do.

Then there was the cartoonist’s insistence on having editorial control, an attitude that made many wary of backing such a politically sensitive show. Broadcasters balked at the show’s premise, fearing legal action under the country’s notoriously stringent libel laws. But Gado didn’t back down. “We said, ‘We would control the content, because we know where we want to take this. We want it to be independent. We want it to be fair. We want it to be hard-hitting.’

“That, for us, was non-negotiable.”

Perhaps the greatest challenge had less to do with politics than cash.

“The XYZ Show” is expensive. During its first season, each episode cost close to 1.2 million Kenyan shillings (nearly $16,000) to make — a small fortune for local TV.

Six years after he began shopping his proposal to broadcasters, Gado decided to take his idea to outside donors.

Finally, with help from the Ford Foundation and several foreign embassies, “The XYZ Show” was ready to hit the airwaves.

Early reviews were not kind. “The first show, we were hammered,” says Gado, admitting that initial episodes were “not as good as we wanted.”

But as the season progressed, “The XYZ Show” began to find its voice and a growing legion of fans.

By the time the final episode aired on Aug. 9, the message boards on the show’s Facebook page were crowded with comments, debates and demands for a better timeslot in season two.

Gado already has commitments for funding for the second season, and several advertisers — ever wary of appearing to take sides in the country’s political debates — are showing tentative interest.

The cartoonist is grateful to be working in a country that is among the continent’s freest.

South Africa’s pubcaster SABC pulled the plug on a similar program that had been in development for years, fearing viewers weren’t ready for such a sensitive show.

Most importantly, Kenya’s politicians continue to bicker and embroil themselves in scandals, providing the show’s creators with plenty of material to work with.

“That’s a gift for us,” says Gado.

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