Satirist behind Kenyan Spitting Image out to make the powerful squirm again

The Times of London
Nairobi, Kenya

A promotional poster for the first season of XYZ. It has made for uncomfortable viewing for Kenya's political elite
A promotional poster for the first season of XYZ. It has made for uncomfortable viewing for Kenya’s political elite

He has braved legal and physical threats and been called weird by a government minister but the man behind the Kenyan version of Spitting Image refuses to be intimidated.

“Kenya needed a show like this,” Godfrey Mwampembwa, 40, said before the broadcast tomorrow of the second series of his popular satirical TV show.

The Tanzanian-born 40-year old comic is better known as East Africa’s leading political cartoonist, Gado, and has mercilessly lampooned the greed, corruption and arrogance of Kenya’s elite in the Daily Nation newspaper since 1992.

When his XYZ show was broadcast last year it was a first for Africa, where leaders are often prickly about criticism and quick to impose media laws or throw critics in jail.

South African television bosses refused to air a similar satirical puppet show, deeming the subject matter too sensitive.

That XYZ has been allowed to air at all is a sign of the unusual degree of media freedom in Kenya but even so it was not an easy sell.

Mr Mwampembwa was turned away when he first approached broadcasters in 2002.

It was not until he persuaded a handful of international donors to give him enough money to make a 20-minute pilot in 2007 that a private television station, Citizen TV, agreed to air the show.

XYZ’s satire is not limited to its home country. Michael Jackson, President Obama and the Somali insurgents al-Shabaab have been attacked, but its domestic politics offers the richest vein of material.

In one episode last season the Kenyan President and Prime Minister were shown in a prison spoof. The image of senior politicians in striped convicts’ uniforms was powerful because of the impunity that Kenya’s leaders have long enjoyed.

An imminent investigation by the International Criminal Court into politically inspired violence that left about 1,500 dead after a fraudulent election three years ago may mean that reality soon imitates art.

“We put them in jail! Then people started to actually discuss the issues we were raising,” Mr Mwampembwa said. “Others said we were being disrespectful but that’s the point.”

Among the moulded caricatures is the former UN Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, who brokered the deal that ended the violence in 2008 and occasionally flies in to paper over cracks in the troubled coalition government.

Also present is the ICC Chief Prosecutor, Luis Moreno-Ocampo, who has promised to bring to justice those most responsible for the killings. He is expected in the country next month.

“When we started we were a bit timid but we slowly shifted to become harder. Nothing is off-limits now — we’ve satirised the First Family, religious leaders; we try not to run away from anything,” Mr Mwampembwa said.

“What we’d like to see is not just for people to laugh but for them to think about the issues we raise and to act.”