16 March 2013

Puppets triumph in Kenyan elections

The puppets are the only victors in this year's presidential elections in Kenya. Nearly four years after it was first aired following a long production struggle, Kenya’s controversial TV satire programme “The XYZ Show” is now taking on the presidential and general elections with its characteristic wit and insight.

Puppeteers in lime-green hooded shirts patiently freeze under the blazing studio lights as a team hoists and adjusts impossibly funny loads on their heads. Gloved hands reach overhead and…voilà! Suddenly, a latex puppet springs to life.

“Quiet! I need silence, you guys are just chit-chatting. The puppeteers need to hear playback,” says the floor manager in a remarkably cool tone considering the ruckus around him.

These are just a few of the reflections of the scene taking place currently in Nairobi. It wasn't always like this. In the late-nineties, Eric Krystal of the then Family Planning Private Sector in Kenya flew down to South Africa, where I was then based, to check out our 'Puppets Against Aids' program, which was successfully making its way through Africa. Eric insisted that we come to Kenya to start training local troupes in puppetry and how to put messages across to audiences locally. The rest is history. I am proud to say that the Kenyan puppetry scene is now one of the strongest and most durable in Africa. The puppeteers have gone on to train other puppeteers throughout the region over the past fifteen years and are now taking on the television elections as well.

This is the set of “The XYZ Show”, Kenya’s first-ever satirical puppet TV programme, which lampoons the country’s politicians and fearlessly tackles some of the country’s thorniest issues with side-splitting aplomb.

Days before Kenya’s landmark March 4 polls, the team is recording its election special at a studio in The GoDown Arts Centre in downtown Nairobi. This episode will air on Sunday, the eve of the elections, and there’s a palpable sense of purpose underlining the buzz in the room.

“This is a very critical moment for the show,” says Godfrey Mwampembwa, the programme’s creator and producer.

Mwampembwa – better known as “Gado” across Kenya – pauses briefly as he considers the occasion. “This is what we’ve worked for all these years. This is such an important election. This is such an important year for Kenya. As much as we have pushed for this freedom of expression, a lot more still needs to be done.”

Gado has long known that Kenya had room for a satirical puppet TV show, but it took years to convince others to make it happen.

More than a decade ago, the 44-year-old political cartoonist was struggling to get such a programme on air. In 2003, on a visit to France, he asked his host, the Alliance Française, to set up a visit to Canal Plus, the TV station that broadcasts the satirical puppet show, “Les Guignols de l’info”.

“That visit was discouraging because their operation was so huge and we had nothing,” explains Gado. “But on the other hand, it was also very encouraging because it was like, man, this is great; we must do it.”

Years of hustling passed, including a clumsy attempt to make a puppet in Kenya before Gado managed to send a local sculptor to France for a month-long training session in puppet-making. That trip resulted in a pilot clip that Gado tried to sell to Kenyan TV stations.

In mid-2007, Gado happened to mention his pet project to a French journalist during an interview. “When I saw the pilot, I got it at once, having grown up with the French programme, “Les Guignols de l’info”. That was before the [December] 2007 elections,” said Marie Lora-Mungai, now the executive producer of “The XYZ Show”

After a year of fundraising, the first episode finally aired on Kenya’s Citizen TV in May 2009 – to scathing reviews.

“Things were not working well when we started. The animation was not good, the writing was very bad,” laughs Gado, displaying some of the sharp judgment that has helped whip the show to its current standards.

Nearly four years later, “The XYZ Show” has polished its act and is ready to tackle its first elections.

The excitement on the set is now palpable. With the sound rehearsals over, the cameras are ready to roll and the once-raucous room is now silent and concentrated.

“…and action! says the director.

“This is The XYZ Special,” says a latex TV anchor called “Keff Joinange” - a doppelgänger for seasoned Kenyan journalist, Jeff Koinange. “We are live at the election centre…”

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