Magazine article Foreign Policy

The Elephant in the Comedy Club: A Troupe of Popular Young Comics Avoids Mixing Humor and Politics in Rwanda

Magazine article Foreign Policy

The Elephant in the Comedy Club: A Troupe of Popular Young Comics Avoids Mixing Humor and Politics in Rwanda

Article excerpt

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 notorious 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. …

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