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In Kenya, Political Puppets Give Voice To Satire

In this screengrab, three puppets debate one another on <em>The XYZ Show</em>'s presidential debate, which aired in February.
The XYZ Show
In this screengrab, three puppets debate one another on The XYZ Show's presidential debate, which aired in February.

Kenyans go to the polls Monday to pick a new president. The last election, in 2007, was followed by weeks of tribal violence, in some cases orchestrated by politicians themselves. This time around, one of the presidential candidates is accused of war crimes and many are accused of land grabbing and corruption.

The XYZ Show, Kenya's version of The Daily Show, is making it all a laughing matter. The TV show uses puppets to poke relentless fun of Kenyan politicians. While fueled by the public's frustration, the show is also an example of the free speech the citizens have not always had.

In the mock XYZ Show presidential debate in February, which aired the night before the real presidential debate in Kenya, the puppet moderator asked pointed factual questions. The moderator prods the character of presidential candidate Raila Odinga about the doubling of interest rates during his time as prime minister.

But the puppet politicians never answer the questions asked. They just give speeches.

"I think you should not ask what Raila has done as prime minister of this country," the Odinga puppet replies. "But rather ask yourself what you will do for Raila when he becomes the president of this republic!"

Jon Stewart once described the writers' room at The Daily Show as "a gathering of curmudgeons expressing frustration and upset."

In the writers' room of The XYZ Show, there is a lot more frustration than humor. The week of the presidential debate, staff writer and music producer Julian Macharia spent a few minutes ripping the real event.

"The questions from the public, for pete's sake, 'What will you do for our teachers?' I felt like saying, what? How about ask, 'What happened to the last three promises?' " he says.

Head writer Lily Wanjiku says the greed is "out of control."

"The news makes me angry," she says.

Macharia says The XYZ Show isn't just trying to make fun of political leaders. It's trying to cut them down to size in a country where politicians are so exalted that corruption can be seen as an entitlement of office.

"For me, I think we need to reduce the aura of politicians," he says. "People need to appreciate they're actually working for you. They're at the level of any other civil servant."

That means he's not above having politicians dance "Gangnam Style" in celebration of their luxury lifestyle or making the president rap in a Lil Wayne parody about the nearly $12 million exit package he awarded himself. The show also aired an "If Kenya Was Perfect" episode, where all the major political candidates and leaders are thrown in The Hague, seat of the International Criminal Court.

If there is one thing Macharia does give his president credit for, it's for not tossing him in jail for all these jokes.

"The one thing definitely [President Mwai Kibaki] has created is freedom of the press," he says. "To get to seven seasons — not one of us has ever been arrested or called in for questioning."

XYZ's sister show in South Africa was banned from the air. In many countries, satirists wouldn't dare try.

"I mean, the things I'm able to do with the politicians! I would say it's a true verbal democracy," he says. "You really can say whatever you want. People don't fear anymore, not like before."

They may not be afraid of speaking out, but there is still a lot of fear around Monday's presidential election.

One of the candidates, Uhuru Kenyatta, is not only leading in the polls, he's also facing charges of war crimes at the International Criminal Court. Kenyatta is accused of organizing a campaign of violence in 2008, including murder and rape, against supporters of rival Odinga.

Now, he and Odinga are neck-and-neck in Monday's contest.

"From my perspective, The XYZ Show has always been trying to show the politicians for who they are," Macharia says.

He says if someone were given money by a stranger and told to fight for their community, they would see it as a crime.

"But if it's a politician, I don't know why, they see it suddenly as self-defense," he says. "You know, attack before you are attacked."

Macharia won't be voting in the election; he's abstaining out of contempt. But he says he hopes The XYZ Show helps Kenyans take their leaders a little less seriously.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Gregory Warner is the host of NPR's Rough Translation , a podcast about how things we're talking about in the United States are being talked about in some other part of the world. Whether interviewing a Ukrainian debunker of Russian fake news, a Japanese apology broker navigating different cultural meanings of the word "sorry," or a German dating coach helping a Syrian refugee find love, Warner's storytelling approach takes us out of our echo chambers and leads us to question the way we talk about the world. Rough Translation has received the Lowell Thomas Award from the Overseas Press Club and a Scripps Howard Award.
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