It is all very well for Kenyans to be proud of exporting talent in the form of Charles Bukeko, the actor who appears in the “Coca Cola Brrr” advert that runs on television channels during prime time news. This provides the much needed comical relief particularly when most of the news items are gloomy. When Kenyans watch this advert they are excited at the idea of seeing one of their own interacting with a world audience and causing a stir. Yet on closer observation, FRED MBOGO argues, this Coca Cola advertisement has chosen the cheaper and easier route perfected by Western movie makers: only a white messiah can save Africa from herself!
In Western movies, troubled Africans desperately look out to the good ‘white’ world to be given a life line. African leaders are too busy raping their economies through all manner of corrupt ways. In the end, the movies suggest that there are only two kinds of Africans; the malnourished victim of oppression, and the big man whose word is law and who lives very well from proceeds accrued out of corruption. Only a humane ‘white’ man or woman can rescues the malnourished African out of the quick sand as seen in, say, THE CONSTANT GARDENER, THE LAST KING OF SCOTLAND, BLOOD DIAMONDS, and THE INTERPRETOR.
The Coca Cola Brrr advertisement falls within this category. The main story is that of a man escaping into momentary relief through a refreshing gulp from a Coca Cola bottle. The man lets out the brrr sound that suggests that he is happy from the relief the drink has brought to him. That is all very well. It is also all very well when the same spirit of relief or happiness is spread out to all who down a sip from Coca Cola. The brrr sound floats from one group of revelers to another in flashes that provide a lot of entertainment to viewers.
But what is the rationale of having this brrr fun in the midst of a suggested meeting of heads of state and governments? One version of this commercial captures the main character, seemingly an African statesman, in a gathering where everyone else is seriously paying attention to some presentation. The images here mirror those of a United Nation’s meeting of world leaders. Only in this case the African representative is visibly bored. His ‘Africanness’ is further shouted by the tasty shirt that contrasts sharply to the pristine blue business suits worn by the rest of the delegates.
In the company of this African head of state is what appears to be a court poet. His unclothed legs present him as a scruffy man struggling to fit in a modern world where neat dressing, like those of the other delegates, is necessary. His earphones are clearly much bigger in size than those of the other delegates, perhaps to suggest that he needs, weightier interpretation or his grasp of issues needs magnification! He plays his role perfectly as a jester when he quickly reads his boss’ boredom and promptly passes a bottle of Coca Cola drink to him. The boss takes a gulp and shortly after produces the brrr sound to signal his emergence from boredom. The whole meeting is thrown into a state of confusion as each delegate is curious as to the meaning of the brrr sound. Magically, word spreads throughout the world through all forms of media including radio and television.
It is easy to tell from this advert that the main character, as an African head of state, is presented as lacking in seriousness. He is more interested in having fun than being in a meeting that tackles serous global issues. In the latter part of the advertisement this buffoon’s contribution to the world seems to be only puerile fun of Brrr. He engages other delegates in an exercise of pronouncing brrr. They watch him with amusement as though he were a specimen to be studied closely.
One cannot escape drawing parallels between this African head of state or government with the many African dictators who travel abroad just to have fun at the expense of their many starving and malnourished subjects.
Is this the lasting image of Africa that Coca Cola would like to give to the world? Couldn’t there have been other images of Africa that Coca Cola could have presented if only to provide a balanced or fair idea rather than the traditionally overplayed ‘dark’ continent?
It seems there is no beating the Hollywood agenda in as far as ingraining images in the minds of viewers is concerned. Africa must be troubled and only saved by the outsider who always has to be white.
In THE CONSTANT GARDENER Nairobi’s sprawling Kibera slum is blessed with the coming to Africa of Tessa, an activist who soon finds it necessary to uncover the ills of a pharmaceutical company. It is through her work that the world discovers that instead of working towards eradicating treatable diseases, a profit oriented pharmaceutical company is intent at carrying out research by taking advantage of the largely ignorant population in Kibera.
Only white faces can rescue the slum dwellers from the company’s clutches. The citizens of Kibera, and Kenya, are not involved at all, except for few government officials who have been bribed to allow the company to operate. And, like in the Coca Cola Brrr commercial, African leaders would rather have fun through corrupt deals than find solutions for the malnourished of Kibera.
In the same vein BLOOD DIAMONDS presents Solomon Vandi as an African man in desperate need to reunite his family following the Sierra Leonian civil war of the early 1990s. After a convoluted storyline that provides gripping action and emotional engagement, Vandi’s pain is washed away by Maddy Bowen’s efforts. She is the white woman who pens an article in a reputable magazine about the exploitation by diamond companies that pay warlords to fetch diamonds for them by any means,including annihilating whole villages. The bottom line is that Bowen’s timely intervention has saved a generation of poor Africans.
Further salvation comes in the form of Doctor Nicholas Garrigan who, after escaping from the death machine in the form of Idi Amin, lives to tell the world of the atrocities committed against Ugandans in THE LAST KING OF SCOTLAND, a 2006 production based on the events of the 1970’s when Uganda was under Gen Idi Amin Dada, the murderous dictator. It is through Garrigan’s eyes that viewers can understand the problem that Amin has become to Ugandans. It is also only through him that we get to know that Amin has certain aspects of humanness. But it is also only through him that we can get salvation. The film’s story in the end becomes that of Garrigan’s need to escape beyond Uganda’s borders in order to report to the world about the happenings in the country. Only through his escape from Amin’s hold can Uganda be free of suffering.
When this pattern is replayed in Western films, the sales are guaranteed. Similarly, when Coca Cola plays along by not caring to give the other side of the story, consumers’ purses and wallets easily open up for more drinks to be bought and thus the Atlanta-based US multi-million dollar soft drink’s bank account can never run out of money. One wonders whether it is ethical to play along negative imaging of a people in order to stay in business.
There is no denying that Charles Bukeko’s antics as a comedian have turned his stand up comedy, Papa Shirandula, into a must-watch programme on Citizen TV. It was his appearance in a Bob Nyanja 2007 film, MALOONED, that catapulted him to the popularity that endeared him to the Citizen bosses to give him the Papa Shirandula slot.
Perhaps Kenyans should “recall’ Charles Bukeko like they would an envoy who turns into a rogue ambassador. After all he is not only being ‘used’ but is also ‘abused’ by his collaborators; the Coca Cola company.