Comedies such as Vitimbi and Vioja Mahakamani which have been on air for more than three decades in Kenya (and are popular in Tanzania) have elevated the use of ethnic accents to a point where viewers have been cultured to appreciate comedy only when it portrays characters from defined ethnic backgrounds. FRED MBOGO wonders if a comedy made in East Africa can succeed without the use of exaggerated accents.
Television stations in Kenya have not shied away from comedies whose contents are replete with characters whose ethnic identities are readily relayed to the audience by their exaggerated accents. Popular comedies such as Vitimbi, Vioja Mahakamani, Red Korna as well as Crazy Kenyans, and Kinyonga have taken advantage of well known accents to provide entertainment.
The same trend has permeated radio stations and broadcast commercials for products with the introduction of presenters such as Kiss FM’s Nyambane and Kajairo, Easy FM’s Mdomo Baggy, Classic Radio’s Mwalimu Keng’ang’i and Trufena, as well as Citizen Radio’s Mshamba of Crazy Kenyans street comedians and Loibon of Vitimbi. Most of these comical presenters belong to Red Korna, aired on NTV.
While some of these presenters represent their true ethnic backgrounds, others assume the stereotypical identities, idiosyncrasies and mannerisms of other communities. They are free to use various vernaculars, exaggerating the accent as they wish, in order to maintain the comical grip that makes them keep their jobs.
For purposes of creating comic relief within the tense Tausi storyline on KBC TV in the late 1990s, composers crafted in a character called Kilonzo, a guard in Mzee Kasri’s home whose comic antics were conveyed through his Kamba accent. Why do accents by comedies provide laughter to Kenyan audiences? From a classical point of view, Aristotle’s notion is that comedy is the imitation of people who are “lower types” or who are “ordinary” or what may pass as the “common man.” In the Kenyan situation, the ordinary person may be the woman in the street, the man in the rural farm, the woman who earns through menial means, and the man who has little education and therefore is marginally informed.
A scene from Vioja Mahakamani captures such a man aptly when he is brought before a court on charges of relieving himself in public. The character, we can tell through his accent, is a Luyia. Asked to defend himself, he wonders aloud about the complications of urban life. He has only been in Nairobi for a few months, how can he tell what is right from wrong? “Have mercy on me,” he pleads with the judge. “I have nine children to feed at home.” By “at home” he means his rural farm. The judge sentences him to three months in jail or a fine of Sh10000. As he is hauled away to prison, he turns to those who have attended the court session and asks them to relay the court proceedings to his wife “at home.” What evokes laughter in the Vioja Mahakamani scene is the nature of the speech delivered by the accused. His accent confirms his status as a man who has had limited interactions with members of other communities. His accent together with the revelation that he has recently settled in the city also provides laughter. For instance, when asked where he lives, he states that “ninaishi tu” (I just live). When pressed further he states that “ninaishi nyumbani” (I live at home)!
The accent works here as a reinforcement of the fact that the man is new to the city and still thinks in the rural way. Indeed, the man wonders why it is wrong to “urinate” on “free” land yet there are no crops to be “spoiled” by the urine. Through the accent the man has been reduced to an ordinary man whose problems the audience might be in a position to identify with. The fact that some viewers may at some point have been new to the city or are fascinated by the city from their rural homes makes the man “one of us.” Despite the notion that the judge’s ruling may be harsh, the man’s reactions by his quest that the resulting punishment be communicated to his wife back at home adds humour. The request to those listening to the case is delivered in such a way that may suggest his “dumbness”. He is still thinking in a rural way, as he imagines that the public ought to know his wife!
Were the producers to remove the accented characters from their comedies, there would barely be anything to laugh about. This is because the accents are loaded with certain meanings. These meanings have been popularised over time through stereotypes which describe certain communities as lovers of money, temperamental, arrogant, lovers of cows, or fearful of technology, and so on. It is important to notice that “serious” characters that neutralise the comical effect and are therefore not required to evoke laughter are presented in an accent-free manner. Mama Kayai, of Vitimbi is a case in point. She is supposed to be the “sane” member of Ojwang’s family. Whereas Ojwang is constantly depicted in numerous comical situations that are highlighted through his Dholuo accent and which often result in some disaster or other, it is Mama Kayai’s sobriety that saves the day. Yet for her to be celebrated as the sober force she must not be comical which is why her accent cannot be traced to a particular community.
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Similarly, the judge in Vioja Mahakamani, as well other court officials who are only facilitators of the comical goings-on between the accused and the witnesses, are presented in accents that do not reveal their ethnic backgrounds. An interesting perspective from the Reddikyulass trio “Walter Mong’are, Tony Njuguna, John Kiarie” is their portrayal of politicians on television. Politicians in these instances are depicted in laughable situations where, through their muddled speech and actions, the audience are kept laughing. In one segment for instance, Joseph Kamotho who was a Minister in the KANU regime is acted out as a visitor in former President Daniel arap Moi’s home. At the time of his visit their favorite programme “Reddikyulass” happens to be aired on television. The programme, it is decided by the President, must be recorded. Both men fiddle and fumble with the recording machine, their discussion bringing out their Kikuyu and Kalenjin accents. Together with the incongruous element of a President and a cabinet minister fumbling with the electronic equipment, the actors present the “ordinary” nature of the otherwise “extra-ordinary” (VIP) status of the characters. The situation is laughable as a result of the reduction of the characters from their positions as members of a higher class to those of a lower class that are ignorant of basic issues that can be handled by people with little technical expertise.
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Roads minister Simeon Nyachae is often portrayed as a man who, after a few English sentences, resorts to his native Kisii language. His impatience with the nuances within English is explored here. The fact that he may be a fluent English speaker is lost to the audience as the comedian who takes on his role delves into rapid-flowing Kisii in showing the frustration inherent in his English language speech. This depiction certainly trivialises the issues at hand but is laughable as it reveals to the audience the idea that the minister, despite his status as a member of a higher and more sophisticated class is just another ordinary member of “our” society. It also gives the audience some sense of “justice” in the thinking that: “Even though we cannot compete in reality, we are equal deep within ourselves. That despite the hardships we have as “common people” who cannot reach you, you too, Mr Minister, is just as ordinary as we are. We laugh at you, we are laughing at you!”
With Moi in retirement, top on the menu of comedians is President Mwai Kibaki and his wife Lucy. Reddikyulass attend corporate functions as the “First Couple” acted by Njuguna as Kibaki, Kiarie as Lucy and Mong’are playing an aide to Kibaki. Also selling in this category are politicians like Raila Odinga, Uhuru Kenyatta, Kiraitu Murungi, William ole Ntimama, the late Sharif Nassir and Charity Ngilu. It is worth remembering that it is these comedians who once depicted President Moi as an astute Lingala music dancer with a romantic heart; an old man who sings love songs to his lover. And because men of the cloth also laugh at others, they are laughed at, too. Bishop Margaret Wanjiru of Jesus Is Alive Ministries, Pastor Pius Muiru of Maximum Miracle Centre and Roman Catholic Arch-Bishop Raphael Ndingi Mwana a ‘Nzeki, make quite starring roles under this category.
Gospel musician Faustin Munishi also employs comedy in his Maisha na Injili VCD recording that features Samuel Ngugi and Geoffrey Njiraine Macharia as Samiet and Shonara, respectively. Employing Maasai identity and accents, Samiet and Shonara lament problems plaguing Christians under crafty and scheming “preachers”. They even slap the Maasai title, “Ole” (Son of), on Munishi whom they refer to as Faustin Ole Munishi. Because comedians are sometimes too truthful in their acting, not everybody is amused. Upon coming to power in early 2003, President Kibaki and his wife were reportedly unhappy with how the First Family was portrayed by Reddikyulass who were running their show on KTN. It is said that the President ordered the termination of the programme. But as an attestation that people like these comedies, Reddikyulass video tapes were dubbed, sold and re-dubbed almost in equal proportion with the fast-selling Nigerian home videos. Although out of television set, such comedies kept on sweeping across corporate world and social gatherings and did not take long before returning to the set by “public demand”. Comedies such as Vitimbi and Vioja Mahakamani which have been on channel 1 of KBC TV for more than three decades have elevated the use of accents to a point where viewers have been cultured to appreciate comedy only when it deliberately, through exaggeration, portrays characters from defined ethnic backgrounds. With stereotypes that circulate informally within communities about other communities the comedies acquire certain meanings that may not be obvious to all. Yet the comedies through their acts also pass certain messages particularly as regards the “togetherness” of the various portrayed ethnic backgrounds. In essence the comedies explore the possibilities of a hostile-free co-existence between the diverse ethnic communities.
By laughing at “each other”,viewers may reduce the insecurities sowed in them by politicians about other ethnic groups to a harmless level. Viewers may become at ease with members of other communities as the “ordinariness” of each is explored. The fact that there can be a sense of equality through the depiction of characters in situations that may be embarrassing, dumb, trivial, and therefore laughable may work as the catharsis. That is, every one of the tribulations explored is brought to a safe “nothing is really wrong after-all” situation. But can there be a comedy made in Kenya that can survive and be successful without the use of exaggerated accents?