No Laughing Matter – by Judy Kibinge

Focus: Kenya view. 

Once upon a time … three university pals in their early twenties formed a comedic trio at the height of President Daniel arap Moi’s dictatorial reign. Moi ruled supreme to the extent that to imagine his death was declared a crime punishable by death. Political enemies disappeared, or were arrested in the middle of the night and taken to torture chambers. No one voiced their real feelings in public. You never knew who might be listening. Phones were bugged and conspicuous informants sat in on university lectures, trying to blend in. And even after the first democratic elections in 1997, Moi still ruled supreme over a cowed nation.

It is therefore remarkable that against this backdrop of fear Redykyulass was formed. Watching these three campus kids – Walter Mongare, John Kiarie aka KJ and Tony Njuguna – staging skits publicly that ridiculed the dictator and his sycophantic government was a new form of freedom in itself. A scary kind of comedy: a real-life David giving a real-life Goliath a raspberry. Their rib splitting act operating under the name Redykyulass may have had audiences doubled up in tears of laughter but behind the laughter grew reverence: cutting edge as their humor was, these boys were either brave or suicidal.

Their best-loved skit depicted President Daniel arap Moi, a rather sternly conservative old man (played by Walter) arriving through the cheering audience (transformed into exultant crowds at a typically African political rally) carried shoulder high by sweating aides. The 74-year-old ‘President’ would then break into an almost lewd hip-thrusting dance routine joined by an unlikely dance partner – his aide de camp. The routine floored the crowd every time. This wasn’t just fresh: It was political satire at its funniest, most fearless and most ridiculous. The fame of Redykyulass spread through the land. Bars would come to a standstill after the news when their show came on, parodying the news we had just watched.

And as we laughed, less and less fearfully, their comedy become more and more sophisticated and satirical… His Excellency the President Daniel arap Moi philosophizing and contemplating life by a lake. Playing piano between his crowd pulling dance trysts. In love with the greatest defender in his cabinet, Kamotho: running in slow motion towards each other. A duet, as President and sycophant sing: “The greatest love of all, is happening to me…” Oprah Winfrey played by KJ in a scandalously short skirt interviewing them on their greatest love. Redykyulass had unwittingly shown that the Emperor had no clothes and in a powerful way contributed to the psyche of a nation hungry for change.

But come true democracy, where was Redykyulass to go next?

2002 found Kenya struggling with transition. Mwai Kibaki had ridden into power on the shoulders of an alliance of oppositionists, the Rainbow Alliance coalition. Kenya, which had stood united by the euphoria of throwing Old Man Moi out, had fallen apart and with that fracturing of goodwill, all semblances of trust flew out the window. Over the first five year term, the country’s economy had gotten stronger, but in a way that was comforting to Kenya’s growing middle class, and as costs for basic commodities rose, the poor felt more disenfranchised, corruption and grand theft seemed more insidious, and leaders more selfish. MP’s continually passed bills to award themselves greater increments and were soon the highest paid Members of Parliament on the continent. Traffic soon clogged the capital’s center as extra money was converted into cars. Shopping Malls expanded triumphantly.

As stomachs across the nation either protruded or rumbled with hunger, the divide between the rich and poor, the establishment, ever the wolf in a new sheepskin, grew greater and greater, and the hiss of “they” began to rise from the dust.

“They” are the problem, said an ever discontented youth as they realized that voting Moi out did not mean that his cronies had left the building. Indeed, Kibaki himself had once been Moi’s Minister of Finance and John Michuki, his closet cabinet aide had been part of the colonial government. Poor and struggling Kenyans realized that changing the government had not been a leap into the new and the incumbent President’s rallying cry of kazi iendelee (let work continue) was twisted and mocked by the opposition cry of “kazi ianze” (let work begin).

Redykyulass, still youthful with it’s youngest member KJ just 27 years old, were by now all highly politicized beings who recognized that although the Youth were the country’s outstanding majority, disillusionment in their own power left them too lackluster to give politics a backwards glance. Much like many apathetic youth around the world, their futures look bleak. Sitting on the crest of the wave on entertainment that appealed to the youth, Redykyulass recognized that with liberalization and democratization had come the authority of the entertainment industry. Walter, who had once played Moi, now had an alter ego, Nyambane, Kenya’s most loved comedian, co-hosting the country’s most popular breakfast show. Besides that, he managed the trios musical band. Tony was now an advertising Creative churning out successful advertising campaigns for the country’s largest advertising agency, and KJ, a cartoonist, was also perfecting his political stance as a much sought after MC for numerous company functions. On top of this, the trio were booked solid as Redykyulass on any given week in the year. Their weekly show Red Korner was one of the highest rated TV shows in the land. Their comedy remained bold and irreverent and as always there were no sacred cows. The President’s highly strung, controversial first lady, played by KJ, was a favorite, and they famously recreated her nighttime storming of the Nations newspapers where she slapped a reporter and screamed at cameras for hours, waving the offending newspaper article in their faces. The offending article had been headlined by the Nations’ rival paper The Standard, something the First Lady failed to understand. Soon after, the trios manager received a call from the then Minister of Security Chris Murungaro asking them to lay off. They didn’t. Their popularity soared. In the midst of their backbreaking schedule and steady appeal, they hatched an ambitious plan to transform Kenya’s political landscape.

In the early 80’s there were no Kenyan youth icons. A Youth survey done for the advertising agency McCann Erickson in 1994 reveals that the only youth icons were Jesus Christ, Mum and occasionally internationally celebrated Africans like Kenya’s most famous runner Kipchpoge Keino and Nelson Mandela. Back then, local artists were despised by the youth who considered them Old School. But by the late 1990’s, thanks to the liberalization of the airwaves and the birth of Kenyan Hip Hop produced by upcoming Producers like Tedd Josiah, the power of the Kenyan Celebrity had stealthily grown.

Redykyulass had indeed grasped an important insight – that the only thing that seemed to truly move and motivate the youth were musicians. On the radio, songs of revolution and disenfranchisement blared. Sisi wa maghetto…. They of the ghetto were speaking out loud to a growing constituency. Music was an escape from despair, from joblessness, uniting them and all their fans into a bubbling hip hop nation unrecognized by a bloated, aged, dismissive authority. And in the midst of this and the run up to the 2007 elections, Redkyulass in conjunction with the IED (Institute of Education & Democracy) and Tru Blak Entertainment’s Kevin Ombajo, better known as Big Kev, kicked off a campaign to get the youth to vote rallying around the slogan: Vijana Tugutuke, ni masaa yetu: Youth, Arise, it’s our time.

First they had to persuade the celebrities to join their cause. Their reasoning was persuasive. If, they reasoned with the artists, a younger government was in place, then youth issues like music piracy, joblessness and support for the arts would be prioritized. It was a compelling strategy. The artists listened and jumped on board and the countrywide concerts began. The mechanics were simple. Come to the concert grounds with an ID, get a voters card on the spot, and once in, be entertained by a dazzling array of stars all telling them that their voters cards were the first step. They needed to choose their leaders wisely based on their youth agendas. Star after star reinforced the message that they needed to vote, that the concert was only the first step.

For over a year, Redykyulass, in conjunction with the ECK and the Institute for Education and Democracy systematically toured the country staging concerts. Moving trucks of equipment, stages and speakers, huge technical crews as well as artists was no mean feat but something that Big Kev and his extremely young team, many in their early twenties, made look easy. So organized were they that many sections of the media refused to believe that they were not receiving massive financial backing from the Old Guard. As a result, little news of the concerts trickled into the mainstream press. Despite that, crowds in far flung areas who previously could not have dreamed of seeing their heroes and heroines up close, read the leaflets and listened to the vans with loudspeakers circling their markets and towns reading out a dazzling list of performers and turned up in tens of thousands. In Meru, a field of fans sung along to Amani and her girls, Mighty King Kong. Kenya’s most nationally loved artist swung his crippled legs this way and that, a meter above the ground as he hopped to the music on his long, long pole. Kinyana, muscle-bound and furious in tight white T-shirts, making all the girls scream, pounded their hardcore ghetto lyrics lambasting the government. Jua Kali with his seductively raspy voice rapped about the frustrations of being a youth, and Mike Rua, Kenya’s most famous one-man-guitar, had audiences cracking up with his cheeky lyrics. In Isiolo, the Imams furious that music was being played so close to prayer time encouraged youth to stone them. But on they pressed… Nakuru, Lamu, Kisumu… and everywhere, the response and attendance was overwhelming. And with every town and with every concert, Redykyulass and Big Kevv pounded their message out: Vijana, Gutuka! Youth Arise! Your time has come! Vote!

Everywhere Tony told this story to a wide-eyed awakening youth:

“I’m here cos im confused. I was told am future leader of tomorrow. I studied, was given school fees. And told again that I was the future leader, one with strength.  I went on and studied more…got to University. And there, they told me I am a bright future leader of tomorrow.  I went on, I married, got a wife. Then had a child.  I was still told I am a bright young future leader of…? They said I was the future leader of tomorrow. Should we accept this story or leave it?  Shall we abandon this story? (Crowd roars)

What we are saying is leaders are youth! (Crowd roars louder)

More fire!”

The campaign gained momentum and the voters registration count swelled for months after each concert. In Nakuru, 30,000 attended the concert, and voters registration clocked an all time high months after. Here and elsewhere, The Electoral Commission attributed the surges in registration directly to the Vijana Concerts

It’s not surprising that the boys from Redykyulass and their partners were soon receiving offers running into small fortunes to allow partisan MP’s and politicians to jump on their bandwagon – or rather up onto their traveling stage. Somehow, they held firm. They had one rule for any politician no matter how big or influential who tried to barge onto stage to address the thousands of much sought after youth votes gathered around the stage: If you get on this stage, you don’t talk, we’re tired of your talk. You dance.”

The official leader of the opposition and government spokesman found that soon to be true when they attempted to address the crowd. The crowd jeers forced them to dance. Finally. Powerful men dancing to the tune of the young.

In the day of the last concert, a mammoth concert attended by 100,000 was held at Uhuru Park in the center of Nairobi. Everywhere that the Vijana Tugutuke voters registration campaign had been, numbers of registered young voters surged for months after, a fire in their spirits lit. Youth who attended the concerts would go away and convince their friends, relatives, and classmates to get registered… For the first time, they had begun to understand that by the sheer power of numbers, they had a real shot of changing their own destinies.

Samuel Kivuitu, the eccentric and often outrageously rude white haired chairman of the electoral commission known for his irreverently rude statements soon referred to as Kivuituisms, was there, and I heard him declare to the crowd that for the first time in the history of Kenya, over 50% of all registered voters were under 35. He asked them never again to claim that they had no real power. It was now in their hands. The government, panicking, reactionary, began a garbled series of campaign messages targeted at the 18-30 year olds. Stanley Githunguri, a white haired old Kikuyu man of over 70, erected a huge billboard in his Kiambaa constituency and on it in a see-through attempt to engage with his younger potential constituency changed his name to the hip street version of Stanley, “STANO”. Kamlesh Patni, the Hindu fraudster turned Christian Pastor best known for masterminding the biggest economic swindle in the history of Kenya in 1992, had thrown himself into the race with yet another huge billboard, with the youngish phrase, “mimi ni moja wenu.” I’m one of you. But the youth weren’t having any of it. They had been listening to a different tune – a danceable tune, even! The government of old men trying to talk young must have sounded strangled to their ears.

By the week of elections, 70% of all registered voters were the youth, reflecting the true demographics of Kenya for the very first time. To fully understand what a revolution this was, it’s important to know that in the 2002 general election, of a total of 17M eligible voters, only 11.2 M registered. And of those, only 6 voted. Of these, just 7% were the youth. A predictable race against a government that had transformed Kenya’s dull economy into a bright and hopeful one was now suddenly too close to call.

And the country was highly charged. All polls had predicted a very close race, but Raila – choice of a previously disenfranchised youth population – was always in the lead.        

The trio of comedians were no longer a laughing matter. To separate their comedy from their political messages, they stopped all comedy and began to preach a message of awakening. No longer were Redykyulass to be seen jesting or satirizing politics. They had become the force behind a much-underestimated wind of change, setting the scene for the greatest paradigm shift ever experienced in Kenya’s political scene since independence in 1963.

KJ, one of the trio of comedians, declared a stand to run against an older but much respected old matriarch, Beth Mugo, in a hotly contested Nairobi seat. His election race typified what was happening around the country. Younger, politically inexperienced citizens were running against older, more established, richer ones. And threatening to win. And in many, many instances, doing just that.

On December 30th, 2007, the election results were announced. KJ was not amongst the winners. But he and all youth like him had created a change in perception. Getting my hair braided in a Luo owned hairdressing salon, I witnessed the excitement as his lead increased over Beth’s. Hesitant in English, the young Luo braiders, in rapid-fire sheng told me how excited they were that he was, for that brief moment, ahead in the polls. His ethnicity did not come into question.

“You know,” they said, “when KJ gets in, he will be the youngest member of parliament.”

And all at once the excitement died as Pun’s leader Mwai Kibaki was declared winner. The Establishment had won, amidst cries of foul play and allegations – backed by reports of fiddled and inflated tallies from observers, the opposition and EU observers alike.

And the country began to burn.

By all accounts, most instigators of the post election violence were youth, furious, feeling dangerously swindled and transformed from the hopeful leaders of today they were certain they were going to be into a mass ripe for revolt. Churches burnt. Women and children were massacred in a cyclone of violence that was not so much a statement of ethnic hatred but more a revolt against betrayal that quickly morphed into ethnic hatred. The Kikuyu, the ethic tribe from which Kibaki is from, paid the heaviest price, shouldering much of the backlash from every corner of the country. The civilian revolt against betrayal left virtually all of Kenya smoking and scarred.

The chaos that ensconced Nairobi and the country at large found many things going on. It found Raila, the fiery ODM oppositionist, with countrywide youth support and Mwai Kibaki, the hastily sworn in President of Kenya, unable to sit at a table and put the fire out. It found Kibera the largest slum in Africa smoldering; its shops, restaurants and roadside vegetable stalls charred, lifetimes of friendship bludgeoned, neighbors turned to lifetime foes. It found thousands of citizens of Kenya starving, in makeshift refugee camps of the kind we have become accustomed to from news footage taken in neighboring conflicted countries.

But in a suburb of Nairobi, off Ngong road, at the Tru Blak Entertainment offices, it also found the boys from Redykyulass and their partner Big Kevv acting as a pivot point for a group of young entertainers, activists, journalists, news anchors, television hosts and more. Barely had they taken a breather from the election frenzy before spinning around to respond to the outburst of violence that had turned thousands of Kenyans into refugees in less than 24 hours. Reactivating the Jaza Lorry (Fill the Truck) campaign, created by themselves in 2005 to cope with famine in Kenya, was, they ruled, the quickest way they could respond. Jaza Lorry back then succeeded in feeding 4000 people for an entire month easing what could have been a far worse humanitarian crisis in Northern Kenya. Indeed, the boys cite their experience in 2005 as the point at which they first became aware of the power they had to mobilize Kenyans into action.  Just a couple of days after the violence erupted, the compound was already fast filling with paper bags of food and clothing for the thousands of internally displaced people who just a few days before had spent hours queuing to vote and now were spending hours each day queuing for food aid. And their actions were largely going unnoticed by Kenya and the world. They were, and still are, working on faith and a zero budget. Without funding, the initiative will grind to a halt, but none of that has deterred their efforts so far. Artists streamed in on foot, by public transport, and in borrowed cars, to contribute the one thing they each had to give: their talent. The cameras were instead all trained on the Serena Hotel where peace talks were taking place underneath the cool whirl of electric air conditioners.

As we sat in the packed room in Tru Blak filled with Kenyan celebrities brainstorming to find a way to feed the hungry and settle the displaced, a German TV crew cornered a broody Big Kev and asked for his final word. What he said in short was this:

“In a two year civic education plan we told the youth that their vote would make a difference. What do we tell them now? This election has been the biggest blow to democratic elections, ever. But the struggle continues.”

Posted in Kenya. 6 Comments »

6 Responses to “No Laughing Matter – by Judy Kibinge”

  1. Rose Ochwada Says:

    That is the most inspiring piece of journalism I ever read. Very preicse and captures the facts and mood of the situation.

  2. judy kibinge Says:

    Rose thank you, thats a HUGE compliment. Especially as hardly consider self journalist! Thank you.

  3. Ken Johnson Says:

    Best Kenyan politics/cultural blend. Very informative. Journalism at its best. Atleast outside the main media there is still promise of quality marterial. Gracias.

  4. Dj antoz Says:

    Its da naked truth. It kips reveilin itself day by day. N by da way, do kenyan yut live in kenya? Lets learn n f*@! Dwn dem politikz. 2012, lets uze awa brainz n do sthin!!!!!!!!!!!

  5. James rogoi Says:

    Absolutely incredible piece,judy.reading this chronolises the events before,during n after “vijana tugutuke” in so vivid a style that i can remember exactly where i was on the days u describe.awesome.

  6. Mohamed Says:

    no doubt this is writing at its best. i am not ashamed to say that i probably belong to the group of oldies you are referring to. so you have made me surrender.

    but i am ashamed to say that your Redykyulass boyz never reached ME! and i am sad to note that this youth revolution is against everything to do with the past, especially those old people in power, except for their mothers and fathers, but also including people like me. but i don’t think i have done anything so wrong that entitles you to cast me out. i am not that kind of revolutionary but i have history.

    i hope you take the whole of that history, in which i have partaken in a minute way, into account, ye youth. otherwise perhaps there is something missing in that kind of revolution that sweeps away the past in toto?

    ok we have to dance to your tune because you are in the majority (i don’t mind that – i’ll bring my family along) but i hope you also listen to the generations of music enjoyed by me but ‘set aside’ by the corrupt people in power. not everything in the previous generation ought to be rejected as corrupt and degenerate. perhaps we should not lose our power to distinguish and discern between the good old and the bad old.

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