Cartoonist steps ahead of time with satirical puppets

Some of the images that Kenyan television viewers are treated to every week by the XYZ crew. Photo | XYZSHOW.COM 

Only last week, the American ambassador to Kenya Michael Ranneberger had a rare encounter with himself. At the Nairobi-based GoDown Arts Centre from where a team of local puppeteers work, one of the hosts at hand to receive the 'omnipresent' ambassador was a puppet that mimics his moves and utterances.

It appeared lifeless, harmless--even clueless, but the ambassador knew only too well that artistic appearances can be deceiving. When the life size thing hits the screens with annoying honesty and biting satire, the other side of it comes beaming with life.

This is what the XYZ show, a pioneering Kenyan puppetry programme that has been widely talked about since it hit television screens last year. In the case of Mr Ranneberger, humour laced criticisms aside, the television show must have also aroused his curiosity.

For over two decades, Godfrey "Gado" Mwampembwa has been entertaining and provoking his readers on Kenya's Daily Nation as an editorial cartoonist. He still does but to reach out to more people, the Tanzanian-born artist found his way onto the screens. With XYZ, the award winning cartoonist has found a new way through which to express himself at a time when media trends indicate shifting fortunes, especially for the traditional newspaper.

Apart from television, Gado is eying a slice of online audience that opens up territories he has hitherto been a stranger. For $2.99, viewers from any point of the world can stream one episode of the show. In future, XYZ that has attracted over 66,000 Facebook fans, plans to be on DVD and even mobile phone formats.

Power of satire

In some sense, the show screening on a popular Kenyan television station is a matter of passionate storytelling and a wicked sense of humour. It easily gets the audiences cracked up. "...and that is the power of satire," says Gado who is the show's creator and producer.

One moment you are with the country's Prime Minister playing his political cards in an unwieldy coalition government put together after the 2007/08 political turmoil, the other minute is a response from the golf loving President. Most of these XYZ instances invariably leave the viewers pondering over the issues raised.

Now on season three, the weekly spoof newscast is a dramatisation of diverse headline issues, often in a light but annoyingly honest manner. When international issues relating to Kenyans arise, the creative team behind the production does not shy away from weaving a piece or two.

To crooked Kenyan politicians and other prominent personalities in the country- whether diplomats, religious leaders, journalists or businessmen- XYZ show may not be their cup of tea. It keeps them on their toes because they have no clue when their turn to take the heat will come.

When it premiered last year, there was an instant uproar from the ruling elite. It is in bad taste, some politician remarked; it portrays Kenyan leaders in bad light others commented. But most ordinary Kenyan viewers were watching keenly, not just for laughs but insights too. Interestingly, no major threats have been issued to the producers--an indication of growing freedoms and tolerance ?

In South Africa, the famous Mail&Guardian editorial cartoonist Jonathan Zapiro offers similar doses of satire, in smaller online packages titled Zanews.

But how was the XYZ idea born ? When Gado tasted the French Les Guignols ( News Puppets) in a 2003 visit to France, a Kenyan version of the puppetry show started running through his imagination. This was not the first time this kind of thing was happening. As the best known cartoonist in Eastern Africa, the Nairobi-based artist had always had big dreams. Another show that inspired Gado was the the British puppetry show Spitting Images which ran on the ITV television network from 1984 to 1996.

Winding path

Actualising the dream took a long and winding path but things finally morphed into shape after he met Marie Lora, a French television journalist who believed in the idea, and managed to sell it around. So far, it is supported by the Ford Foundation, Dutch Embassy in Nairobi, the French embassy and Open Society among others.

It takes a team of over 60-- scriptwriters, researchers, soundmen, puppeteers etc--several working hours plus an average of $18,621 to actualise one episode.

"It is a very sophisticated process," says Gado who lists the process of building and fixing the eye mechanism as one of the most delicate and complicated.

As word goes around, other African artistes and broadcasters are getting interested in it. Senegalese singer and media owner Yossou N'Dour has already hosted the XYZ crew in Dakar to push the experiment to West Africa.

According to a post on xyzshow.com, "Gado is in Cape Town meeting with some South African colleagues: a team led by cartoonist Zapiro has been trying to produce “Z News”, a cousin to the XYZ Show, for years. South African TV stations have so far refused to air the programme because “the South African public is not ready” (they say). And yet in Kenya the XYZ Show is being aired freely. How do you explain that?" wonders XYZ crew.

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