Mzee gave us the opportunity to be young – ‘Nyambane’ of Redykyulass

The comedians were never scolded [Photo: File/ Courtesy]

In 1998, a few months after the terror attack on the US embassy in Nairobi that left a cloud of gloom in the country, a group of young men was desperately looking for ways to cheer up the nation.

Walter Mong’are and John Kiare were budding actors at Kenyatta University and they would take any opportunity to stage shows in the school halls. One evening, while rehearsing for their next show, they thought it would be a good idea to try something different. They wanted to stage a show on political satire, but they were worried about one thing.

“President Moi rendered himself. He had the power, vigour and phrases that would make good comedy. His way of talking was also distinct and we knew everyone would recognise it. We had not seen anyone do it before, so we were a little scared,” says Mr Mong’are.

One night, during the cultural week, an annual event held at the university, they decided to stage their standup comedy on political satire. The moment Mong’are, alias Nyambane, stepped on stage, donned in suit as was typical of Moi, complete with his signature rungu, the crowd went wild. Even before he could utter a word, the thunderous applause solidified what they had suspected. The people wanted that type of comedy.

“The reception was more than we imagined. A few weeks later, students were lining up ready to pay to watch our shows. It is not easy to get university students to sacrifice their money to watch their peers perform,” says Mong’are.

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Within a few months, they had become popular in the country. Tony Njuguna who was an administrative assistant at the Performing and Cultural centre at the university says when they staged the Malibu Star search, a talent show for the university students, Mong’are and his group stood out.

“It is from their shows that we decided to grow the talent that birthed the Redykyulass group,” says Njuguna.

Walter Mong’are [Photo: Courtesy]

In no time, they started getting invites to perform. Mong’are says they would panic at the thought of what would happen to them if the President found out they were making money from satirising him.

“We were imitating and making fun out of the character of a man who everyone feared. Even during our shows, we could sense that people were casting glances aside in the midst of laughter, perhaps wondering what would happen to us,” Mong’are says, and bursts out laughing.

He says even though they toyed with the idea of featuring on television for a while, most of the TV producers would not want to touch their products the moment they mentioned that they would be satirising Moi and other leaders.

“Everyone thought he would get angry the moment he watches young people imitating him. Nobody wanted to be associated with that,” says Mong’are.

When they made debut on Nation TV, Njuguna says they feared they would get a call warning to stop the show. The call never came.

“After we staged our third television show, we were told that Moi had requested for the tapes to watch. We were later told that he laughed, and he especially loved the part where Mong’are was dancing, and he would ask for it again and again, and he would laugh so loud,” says Njuguna, adding that they were then told to continue.

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Screengrab of Walter Mong’are in action

In retrospect, he says their satire on Moi, and how he took it in his stride encouraged them to continue, and it led to the growth of standup comedy in Kenya. He says if he had thwarted their talents and forced them to stop, it would have sent a message to young creatives not to dare explore their talent. Most of them honed their skills in the Reddykyulass act and grew to become better in the careers they pursued.

“Mzee gave us the opportunity to be young and become better in what we were passionate about,” says Mong’are.

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Later, when Mong’are’s career in performing art grew and he became radio co-host and master of ceremonies in events that Moi attended, he says their encounters were pleasant. “He never showed that he was offended by the satire pieces I did on him. It takes a lot of grace for a man as great as he was to allow us do the things we did,” says Mong’are.

Njuguna and Mong’are describe Moi as a man whose love for art was unmatched.

From when they would perform to him at State House as high school students during drama festivals where Moi would host the winners, to later in life when they satirised him, all they got was laughter and his silent support.