Zimbabwe: Comedy’s cautious climb
Zimbabwe’s nascent comedy scene is quickly spreading across the southern African nation, from its capitol’s urban landscape to other major cities; and growing in its diversity, from its humble beginnings in stand-up to news satire distributed via DVD. However, in its infancy, comedy in Zimbabwe still faces challenges as the topics it touches upon make political parties, businessmen and segments of society uncomfortable, forcing some to tread lightly and change the foundation of their acts, and others to be at the mercy of the censorship board and police.
Freemuse Zimbabwe stringer, Ish Mafundikwa, dives deeper into the 20+ years that comedy has surfaced on the stages of Harare and spread to Bulawayo, tackling politics, economy, race relations, religion and sex.
Zimbabweans love a good laugh. For a long time some jokes spread throughout the country through word of mouth, the equivalent of what in this day and age would be “going viral”. While everyone could repeat or tell original jokes, the idea that someone could be paid to tell jokes was something that happened in far-off lands and on television. Redd Fox, Flip Wilson, Dave Allen, Benny Hill and the Two Ronnies were some of the most popular comedians on television around independence time in 1980 when, because of improved remuneration, more blacks could afford television sets, a luxury previously only afforded by whites and well-to-do blacks.
This state of affairs changed in the mid-1990s when a then young, mixed-race Edgar Langeveldt dared to be a standup comic in Harare, the capital city. He was so convinced that comedy was what he wanted to do that he dropped out of university where he was studying law. Langeveldt, now 46, took to his chosen career with gusto and joked about everything from social to political issues, though his stock-in-trade was playing on his being mixed race and the idiosyncrasies of that section of the Zimbabwean community – so-called “coloured” in his part of the world.
Langeveldt became the darling of the black middle class and the white expatriate community who frequented the uptown venues where he performed. However, the political aspect of his comedy was not well received by some, and in 2000 he was attacked and had his jaw broken.
In January 2001, he told the BBC that his attacker claimed to work for the state. That same article reported that a Member of Parliament walked out of a Langeveldt performance at a beauty contest and the following day four armed men “stormed the office of the organizer and threatened to close the annual event down”. For a while, the comedian worked outside the country. “I don’t want to die for comedy. I thought to myself – maybe it’s time I took a holiday, let everybody cool down,” he told the BBC at the time.
Unfortunately, today Langeveldt only performs sporadically and has moved to a family farm. Nevertheless, he made an indelible mark on the Zimbabwean comedy scene and for his efforts he received the Prince Claus Fund in 2005 “for his use of humour to create spaces of freedom”.
The Next Stage
Though he could easily have guarded the monopoly he had on the nascent Zimbabwean comedy scene, Langeveldt was not territorial. While working on a sitcom in 2000 he noticed that Michael Kudakwashe, one of the actors, spiced up his lines to make them funnier. “He said I was funny because I did not stick to the script, as I added my own funny bits,” Kudakwashe reminisced.
At the time, Langeveldt had a weekly show at the now-closed Book Café – a venue that provided a platform for aspiring performing artists of various genres – and gave Kudakwashe a slot on his show.
“I gave it a shot and despite some teething problems I just kept going,” Michael K, as Kudakwashe is now known, said. “Langeveldt later invited Victor Mavedzenge, a visual artist and wannabe comedian, with whom I performed as a duo. We were known as The Guests as we were guests on Edgar’s show.” When Langeveldt stopped his weekly show, Michael K and Mavedzenge continued performing as the duo. Then, around 2007, Mavedzenge relocated to the United Kingdom and Michael K continued with the show alone.
Michael K started his career as a comic at a time of worsening political, social and economic crises in Zimbabwe: the Zimbabwean dollar was in a freefall, potholes on the roads were morphing into craters, service delivery was getting more and more erratic, and political violence was widespread. Pieter Dirk Uys, the South African comedian who found fame poking fun at the absurdities of apartheid, once said the apartheid regime wrote his script for him; the same could be said of the situation in Zimbabawe for Michael K.
“Naturally I incorporated all that, but I had to package it carefully, tread carefully and do it cleverly when I dealt with issues and politics,” he said.
A Critical Audience
One can never be too careful in a country like Zimbabwe where even ordinary people take it upon themselves to police what others can say.
“After every show I would have somebody come up to me and say, ‘you are funny but be careful the way you are going people are watching you’. I even had a discussion with some gentlemen who were quite nice: they bought some beer, which they shared with me, but it was the way they said certain things that told you something was not right,” Michael K said. Those gentlemen advised him to slow down and to stick to “light” issues. “They did not go into specifics but said I knew the jokes they were talking about.”
“I had created a character called the Minister of Impending Projects. It’s a fictitious minister and ministry but it was a composite of various government ministers who promise much but deliver little; who talk a lot about the plans they have to uplift peoples’ lives, but the plans are never implemented,” he said. “I was just saying this is what happens, and unfortunately, some people were not happy about the way I was speaking truth to power.”
The warnings kept coming, but Michael K did not stop. As a result, he and Mavedzenge were arrested.
“Not for the minister sketch,” Michael K pointed out. “They said they got a tip off that we were denigrating and insulting the government and the president, they said someone had called them.”
After a performance, seven people in plain clothes came on stage and flashed their IDs, told the two they were under arrest and took them to a police station. Luckily for the comics, Mavedzenge’s girlfriend had videotaped the show, allowing police to review the tapes for two days, during which the comedians were locked up and interrogated.
“After they realized we did not have a case to answer, they let us go. Some lawyer friends had voluntarily approached the police to demand our release, but the police denied them access to us. We got off with warnings not to do anything that would get us arrested again, otherwise we would end up in jail,” Michael K said.
Interestingly in this case, it was the police and not the Censorship Board that wanted to stifle the comics.
“As a standalone comedian I do not have to submit my intended script to the Censorship Board before performing, but if we were to do something big like a comedy festival they’d want a breakdown of what each comedian will be joking about,” Michael K explained.
Breaking New Ground
Things are different now for the comedian, as he has to deal with the Censorship Board more frequently after joining Zambezi News, a satirical spoof of the news. Zambezi News was created by poets and musicians Samm Farai Monro, aka Comrade Fatso, and Tongai Leslie Makawa, aka Outspoken. They package their “news” on DVDs that are distributed throughout the country as the state-owned television station won’t come anywhere close to airing their features.
“We do not get played on state-owned tv and we are not even interviewed on radio stations, so we have to be creative in getting our material to the people,” Comrade Fatso said.
Comrade Fatso says they have to submit their scripts to the Censorship Board before they shoot the DVDs; yet despite their acerbic take on issues and individuals in Zimbabwe’s body politic, they have never had a script rejected.
“We submit our scripts, they are approved and we go out and shoot and we even submit our DVDs to the board once completed. The law requires that we apply for police permission when we shoot street scenes and the police have always played ball and given us the nod and actually provide officers during shoots,” he said.
He did concede that having to submit scripts for vetting does create an element of fear and self-censorship: “We do realize that at times we are sailing too close to the wind and tone down our material.”
But in a glaring example of how various authorities deal with issues in Zimbabwe, some state officials wanted to know if Zambezi News had permission to launch one of their DVD series.
“So despite some official saying it’s okay, you never know whether it’s cool with another official from a different office altogether,” he said. So caution is the mantra when the satirical group deal with issues such as President Mugabe and his ruling Zimbabwe African National Union – Patriotic Front (ZANU PF).
Zambezi News has tickled the funny bone of many, but there are also those who look askance at it. For starters, Comrade Fatso is white and, given Zimbabwe’s colonial history and the still existing racial tensions, to some he is not qualified to comment on the issues of a black country and to others it seems he is mocking black people.
“I have had some ZANU PF supporters challenge me and also got some negative comments on my Facebook page when I commented on something,” he said. But it is not just government officials or party supporters who feel offended by some of Zambezi News’s jokes; their satire has also drawn criticism from religious leaders and their followers for religiously themed skits. There are many charismatic preachers building new churches and claiming to be prophets in Zimbabwe, taking advantage of the difficult times and urging their congregations to part with their hard earned cash in exchange for “miracles”.
“We have done some sketches on churches and while we are not talking about any particular church, some of the supporters ask us why we are making fun of their prophets,” Comrade Fatso said.
The fact that Zambezi News is funded by western donor agencies fuels the disdain of those who view it as part of the west’s “regime change agenda” and a creation to mock Zimbabwe and its government. But Comrade Fatso says creative freedom is one of the conditions for accepting donor money: “When we apply for donor funding we make it clear from the get go that the donor has zero influence on the content of our work.”
Michael K, in the meantime, has been approached by “guys in suits” who ask him what he is doing working with a white comedian. But he and his comrades in humour shrug off the threats and continue to do what they do best: make people laugh
“They say because of the color of his [Comrade Fatso’s] skin, I am selling out, making fun of and insulting my own country for money,” he said. “One time two guys pulled out some IDs that identified them as Parliament of Zimbabwe officers. They said, ‘you do not listen, you need to stop what you are doing or else your life won’t be good for you. Is it about money that you are selling your soul and your country?’”
Now, thanks to social media, they are reaching a wider audience beyond the reach of their DVDs. Their work is on YouTube and they also disseminate video clips via Facebook and WhatsApp. And for making people laugh, despite threats from thin-skinned officials and some intolerant members of the public, the Zambezi News crew has been named as one of the 100 long-listed finalists for the Index on Censorship’s 2016 Freedom of Expression Awards. Their fingers are crossed that they will make the final shortlist of 16 candidates when those are announced in early February 2016.
Practicing Comedy with Care
Some comics, however, steer clear of politics or are more “politically lite” when they address issues deemed to be political. One such comedian is Nqobizitha Dube, aka Q the Boss, who chooses to focus on blue comedy, which goes down well with audiences in the country.
“After a performance at the very beginning of my career, Edgar Langeveldt pulled me aside and said I was funny but I should steer clear of politics,” he said. “I joke about things that happen between men and women, which makes a lot of Zimbabweans uncomfortable. People pretend that nobody is having sex, which is far from the truth. I also address issues to do with safe sex, which is my contribution to the fight against AIDS. If I can have one guy use a condom as a result of what he heard at one of my shows then I have achieved something.”
Q says there is a world of difference between insulting and joking about someone, but it does seem that the line is wafer-thin for some authorities and ordinary Zimbabweans. Q’s career as a comic started in South Africa when he asked for a slot at a show that featured the now legendary Trevor Noah, Loyiso Gola and others.
“I have an uncle who is an actor in South Africa and I pestered him about using his connections to get me a gig. He obliged and asked the management of a club where we were part of an audience and they agreed to let me perform,” he says. His first performance went well until he made fun of Bafana Bafana, the South African football team: “It was during the 2010 World Cup and after that joke it did not go very well,” he said with a laugh.
But from then he never looked back. He was recently in the United States where he was able to get gigs by cold-calling comedy clubs and asking if he could perform.
“It went very well, and my measure of success was to get invited back – 70 per cent of the clubs at which I appeared, in places like New York City did ask me back,” said the comic, who is now eyeing an international career.
Though Q has not been approached or reprimanded by any authority he blames the harassment of his colleagues on over-zealous officials. “It’s never the people being made fun of who react negatively but those around them, the gate keepers who take it upon themselves to “protect” their bosses.”
Spreading the Word
Victor Mpofu, aka Doc Vikela, is another comic who believes that there is a huge future for Zimbabwean comedy: “If I didn’t, I would not have become a fulltime comedian in 2013 after two years of honing my skills,” he explained.
Doc has no sacred cows: “I believe my comedic license means that I can talk about and make fun of everything – politics, the economy, religion, the lot!” He does admit, however, to weighing the subject matter of his jokes. His bottom line though is that what he is joking about has to be based on true events.
Doc, along with fellow comic Simbarashe Kakora, aka Simba the Comic King, set up Simuka – the word for “standup” in the Shona language – which is an organization that offers opportunities to aspiring comics by staging comedy shows. The two felt that comedy was not being taken seriously as an art form, so they decided to do something to raise it to another level.
“It is because of this lack of respect for what we do that, even after all the work done by pioneers like Langeveldt and Michael K, there is no comedy promoter in Zimbabwe,” Doc lamented. Doc and Simba’s desire to make comedy an economically viable art form, and to get it to spread all over the country, has led them to holding workshops for aspiring comics from all over the country to teach them standup and other aspects of comedy.
While standup started in Harare, it is spreading all over the country. In the second city of Bulawayo, Ntandoyenkosi Moyo, popularly known as Ntando, founded the Umahlekisa Comedy Club in 2013 – Umahlekisa means “one who makes people laugh” in the siNdebele language.
“I have been involved in grooming new talent as well as creating spaces and platforms for existing comedians to showcase their work,” Ntando said. Like their Harare counterparts, the Bulawayo comics also go out of the city to perform in smaller urban and rural centres. “They get excited when we go out to smaller towns because it is a relatively new thing for them,” he said.
Also like most of his Harare counterparts, Ntando tackles all kinds of topics, but like others, he also needs to proceed with caution. He recalled in 2012 that he was attending a voter education gathering at the Bulawayo National Gallery when he made a joke about the peccadilloes of a certain local politician and had to be “escorted” out of the gallery because some were “baying for my blood”. Some people, he also said, will ask why we joke about some of the issues we talk about, while others say they are too scared to laugh.”
By all accounts it seems most Zimbabweans have embraced standup comedy, but comedians still have work to do in convincing some in positions of authority that they are just entertainers, out to relieve people of the stress of everyday life. While the comics are free to say whatever they want, they never know whether it will provoke a rebuke rather than the intended laugh.
As Michael K says: “People say we have freedom of speech, and I agree we do have freedom of speech, but it is freedom after speech that is the problem.”
This story was written by Freemuse stringer Ish Mafundikwa
For more information on the arts scene in Zimbabwe follow the links below:
» Artsfreedom.org– 3 November 2015:
Muzzled in Zimbabwe: One artist’s struggle to exhibit
» Artsfreedom.org – 27 October 2015:
Zimbabwe: Censorship board should be abolished, says workshop group
» Artsfreedom.org — 5 May 2014:
Zimbabwe: South African band deported