By Bamuturaki Musinguzi
Published October 17, 2012
Ugandan President Yoweri Kaguta Museveni addresses supports of his ruling National Resistance Movement party during its executive elections at Namboole Stadium in Kampala. After the address, the President walks down the dais to shake hands and interact with women supporters from Soroti District. The women kneel respectfully and shake hands with the President who is clad in a trademark grey suit and yellow necktie.
But no sooner is the address over, greetings exchanged and the President gone than the supporters realise the President they have just bidden good bye isn’t Museveni but Herbert Ssegujja alias Mendo Museveni, a 28-year-old secondary school teacher and master mimic and comedian imitates President Museveni to near perfection.
Holder of a Bachelor’s degree in Performing Arts from Makerere University and a diploma in Education from Kyambogo University, Ssegujja has just left for the American Comedy Institute in New York City, USA, to attend a one-year programme in Comedy Performing and Writing under a partial scholarship.
The programme is intended for people who know they want careers in comedy. It culminates in a showcase at Gotham Comedy Club, New York’s premier comedy club attended by talent agents, managers and casting directors from CBS, ABC, NBC, HBO, MTV, Paramount, and Nickelodeon.
“I want to make comedy my lifetime career and my dream is to open a comedy institute in Uganda,” Ssegujja tells ArtMatters.Info in Kampala. “Comedy has a future in Uganda. People have begun to appreciate comedy and we can measure this by the big turn-outs at our shows.”
Ssegujja ventured in comedy at the age of 11 when he started off mimicking a talented Luganda radio announcer, the late John Ssalongo while he was still in primary school. As he grew up, he performed special mimicry roles in secondary school dramas.
Born in a family of four in Boowa village, Luweero District, Ssegujja singles out one performance during Museveni’s recent presidential campaigns as his best act in which movement supporters, once again, confused him for President Museveni.
“I entered Nambole Stadium in an open roofed Toyota Prado and campaigned as if I was Museveni. After my address the supporters started trickling out of the stadium thinking they had listened to Museveni who had been delayed somewhere on his campaign trail,” he says. “Museveni’s campaign team got worried and devised means of returning the supporters to the stadium. So I was put in the presidential fleet that drove towards the stadium in which I managed to attract the people back to the venue.”
Ssegujja says he draws his material from Museveni’s speeches that are often tinged with humour, proverbs, wise sayings and idiomatic expressions.
“I like his stammering. His mannerisms are so funny which make him more of a comedian than the President. I like his left arm and hat which I think are his trademarks. His movements are so funny and I can tell his mood depending on what he is dressed in. when he is in a military combat he is a no-nonsense person. He is fast when in a suit, and when he is tied at home he is in casual wear,” Ssegujja says.
So what else has the 28-year-old done in his mimicry of Museveni?
Just before his State of the Nation Address, President Museveni, dressed in a large light blue oversize long-sleeved shirt, khaki hat, black scarf and gloves, black trousers and black army boots on a cold evening keeps a brief, closes his eyes and raises his right hand while drawing back his head like he is thinking of how to start. Museveni sips from his mug of milk and places it back on the table. He then begins by saying that while he was returning from Amuria District recently he listened to a local FM radio playing a Luganda song with lyrics to the effect that ‘Abantu bakooye’ (People are tired).
“I am telling them that if they are tired they should go to hell because I was the first to get tired when I fought for peace in the bush. If you live in Kampala around the State Lodge, Nakasero, you can’t escape the loud noise that will cause you more tiredness,” an angry Museveni informs the nation.
But once again this is Ssegujja doing what he knows best, impersonating Museveni at Fun Factory’s weekly Comedy Night show at the Plaza in Kampala.
During the address to the nation, the President says that those who think that being President of Uganda is like being in heaven should think twice because it is not easy to govern. “In fact, governing Uganda is like driving a four-wheel truck on a road that has potholes with no fuel. Driving such a truck needs people with experience and vision. I laugh at people who think leadership is gambling. Leadership needs people who are focused.”
Turning to the Youth Fund that has generated controversy, the President clarifies that the government has set aside this money for the youth with business strategies and not for gambling.
“I was told that there is an increase in rate of gambling by the youth through betting on football teams. I am not giving this money to people going to bet on soccer, moreover, from Europe – that is promoting neo-colonialism. The bad thing is that Africans are not good at predictions. They always lose. How do you predict wins for a team like Arsenal while knowing very well that Arsenal can’t win because it does not buy good quality players?” the President says.
Ssegujja, who started imitating the President in Alex Mukulu’s play ‘Akattambwa’ in 2003, can perform seasonal impressions, sketch and stand-up comedy.
He came face to face for the first time with Museveni at the sendoff party of Amelia Kyambadde, President Museveni’s principal private secretary who had resigned to join politics on July 30, 2010. He sent the President into prolonged hearty bouts of fitful laughter while the audience was left wiping tears of joy.
“Before the performance I felt nervous. When the President arrives you feel his presence especially when he is in a military uniform. I was trembling and had difficulty in memorising my script,” he says. “However, I was determined to go and kill him with laughter. I did my best. Immediately he saw me approach the stage Museveni burst out with laughter, wiping tears and making his guests to follow suit. I was amused and I almost burst out laughing myself, too.”
Ssegujja has since performed ten times before Museveni including three occasions in State House in Entebbe.
He says what he finds interesting is the reaction of the people, who think it is inconceivable and unbelievable for him to imitate the head of state.
“They find it weird and scary. Yet for me it is as normal as any other performance. I have observed three types of audiences: the first laughs out loud; the second thinks the real Museveni is on stage; and the third keeps quiet, almost scared of the larger than life figure I am bringing out.”
Ssegujja says it never occurred to him that Museveni would take his mimicry in bad faith.
“I prepared my foundation very well because I never cast him in bad light or image. I promote his image, party and love him as President. He might have weaknesses but I can’t have them on stage,” he says of the formula that he uses.
In preparation for a performance he says he writes a script and practices how to deliver the speech and costumes depending on the function, time and prevailing weather. He says that he finds the costumes expensive.
“I find the costumes a little bit expensive. For example, I must select his particular shirts because he does not dress in every fashion. Everything is oversize except from the shoes I put on size nine. Shop keepers always wonder why I buy large shirts and yet I put on medium size. “I assure them that I am buying them for my big brother,” Ssegujja says.
Ssegujja has only been stopped once from imitating Museveni. “After a long rehearsal the Local Council III chairman in Buwama stopped me at the last minute from mimicking Museveni at the official opening of Kyankobe Polytechnic Institute in 2003 while I was still a student at Kyambogo University. The chairman said: “Do you want us to lose our jobs? They could not imagine anyone imitating the President.”
Ssegujja teaches African and European history at Standard High School and Greenlight High School in Zzana, Wakiso District. Comedy is his second job.
“Although the bigger part of my income comes from comedy, I still enjoy my teaching profession. I like history because every fact is backed by a story which I can sketch into comedy. I don’t find any problem in combining comedy and teaching. My lessons are all in the morning so I am free in the evenings for my comedy,” he said.
Ssegujja, who also mimics US President Barack Obama and Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe, has also done parodies of Museveni and Col Muammar Gaddaffi, the late Libyan leader sharing ideas on how to stay in power.
Mimicry, Ssegujja says is primarily about observing a character and trying your level best to behave as though you were that character. So he does a lot of research on the President. He owns a collection of his proverbs and speeches on both audio and audiovisual formats.