The Elephant in the Comedy Club
KIGALI, Rwanda – The comedians trickle into a rehearsal space in Kimihurura, a quiet, upper-class neighborhood, brimming with restless energy. Known as the Comedy Knights, the young performers slouch on wooden school chairs and warm up for their Valentine’s Day show by dissing one another. “His face looks like a cross between Mobutu and Jacob Zuma!”
In the seven years since they first came together, the group developed Kigali’s first regular stand-up show. With weekly live sets staged in hotel backrooms that are later broadcast on television, the Comedy Knights are part of a creative awakening in Rwanda’s capital that’s attracting young people to Kigali from across borders and accelerating the city’s staid nightlife. The comedians themselves – all falling somewhere between 18 and 33 years old – represent a cross-section of diaspora Rwandans now returning to the country’s stability and the opportunities it provides after generations of strife. Michael is half-Burundian, Babu is half-Kenyan, George is half-Ugandan. Their jokes shift fluidly among Kinyarwanda, English, French, and Swahili.
“I believe comedy is everywhere. Anything can be a joke,” Babu says. But sometimes here in Kigali the young comics face tough crowds. “Here it’s very conservative very … keep it inside.”
Michael, 28, nods in agreement. Dressed in an unwrinkled pink button-down, sunglasses perched on his head, he cuts a confident figure. He grew up in Burundi and came to Rwanda to study law, but then gave it up to pursue comedy. When he and his friends rattle off their favorite foreign comedians, names like Eddie Murphy, Jamel Debbouze, and Steve Harvey surface. South African-born Trevor Noah, host of the American TV hit The Daily Show, is a particular inspiration. But where Noah revels in skewering politicians, the Comedy Knights give government matters a wide berth. Cultural norms, religion, and even sex are on the table. “We just don’t do politics,” Michael explains. “The rest is cool.”
When asked why, the comedians put their wrists together to mimic handcuffs. The gesture is a joke, but it hints at the government’s heavy hand when it comes to dissent. Free speech is tolerated up to a point in Rwanda, but it must never take aim at President Paul Kagame’s administration. The comedians are wary of having their words twisted by opposition figures. Since 2002, Kagame has implemented broadly defined laws that prohibit both “divisionism” and “genocide ideology.”
While the government’s carefully constructed image as a model of efficiency and progress in Africa often finds a sympathetic audience in powerful international circles – at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, and think tanks like the Atlantic Council – it is just as often castigated by Western diplomats and U.N. officials for Kagame’s crackdown on journalists and opposition parties. The latest U.S. State Department report on Rwanda’s human rights record describes a dictatorship willing to carry out politically motivated disappearances of media and opposition figures, torture of political prisoners, as well as harassment of NGOs, particularly those that report on human rights and media freedoms.
A few years ago, the comedy troupe accidentally strayed into risky territory. A performer they introduced as “His Excellency Junior” regularly appeared in black-rimmed glasses just like the president’s and imitated his familiar mumbled whisper. One night he made a joke about what Kagame used to eat during his time as a military commander. A few opposition media outlets abroad picked up the videos, showing them in a context that was critical of the president. It’s not what the comic had intended. In an earlier 2014 article published in Rwanda’s main English newspaper, the New Times, the comedian had called his routine a tribute to the president. “Just to shake hands with him and say thank you would be enough for me,” he said.
“They didn’t really get the joke … and that’s when we were told not to do anything about politics,” George says, shrugging, referring to the requests of family members. Many of them worked in the government and were shocked by their comedic recklessness. Afraid he had touched a nerve, the impersonator left the country for a time and quit performing. “In Rwanda, if you talk about something in comedy, it is like you are making fun of it,” George says. He downplays the dust-up, but the group got the message. “We decided, ‘How about we just let it go?'”
Sitting in one of Kigali’s many coffee shops, Michael describes his view of Rwandan culture: “[We] don’t address elephants in the room,” he says. “We prefer to address the forest and talk about the trees and the flowers that bloom there and … at some point there was a flower that was not able to blossom because it seems that there might be an elephant that stepped on it, but we don’t talk about the elephant straight up. We say: ‘You see this flower? It has a little problem. There was an accident, you know…. I think the flower slid underneath the elephant and just died somehow.'”
Yet he bristles at any suggestion that Rwandans live in fear and believes Kagame “turned things around” for the country. “I’ve seen the progress,” he says. “In less than 25 years, from a genocide to this, I think some good is being done.”
Like many young Rwandans wrestling with the country’s legacy, Michael is acutely aware of Kigali’s improbable recovery. On the surface, Rwanda seems to be racing ahead of its dark past, positioning itself as a self-proclaimed “Singapore of Africa” – modern, efficient, inclusive, and a hub for investment. For the comedians, reports of government abuse are faint, and limits on free speech seem like the trade-off for “never again.”
“As a Rwandan, I have a voice,” Michael says. But as a performer, it’s more complicated. “We do not have space for expression in that sense. Maybe because there’s the possibility when you are an artist to have a certain power over the population.”
Like many Rwandans, he has not forgotten that radio broadcasts inciting Hutus to butcher Tutsis played a notorious role in the country’s 1994 genocide.
“It was people who were good with crowds…. People would chant their names, cheer them up, clap for them, and follow what they say. They were entertainers, and people followed.”
This article originally appeared in the July/August 2017 issue of FP magazine.
Photo credit: NIB Studios