Early tomorrow morning Kate Copstick, doyenne of British comedy critics, flies to Africa for three weeks.
Yesterday in London, at her Mama Biashara shop in Shepherd’s Bush, I was talking to her about possibilities for the increasingly prestigious Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards Show at next year’s Edinburgh Fringe.
Every year, 100% of any money collected at the Awards show goes to Copstick’s Mama Biashara charity, which helps poor people in Kenya – mostly women – start up their own small businesses.
I organise the Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards but take no money of any kind for it and cover none of my expenses because, that way, comedians and others know there can be nothing financially dubious about it (always a possibility with anything connected to the late Malcolm).
100% of any money collected at the end of each Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards Show is given (with no deductions) to Copstick’s Mama Biashara charity which, similarly, deducts no money for its running costs.
Copstick takes no money of any kind in any way from Mama Biashara and covers none of her expenses. She pays for her flights to Kenya and any other expenses she incurs in running the charity she pays for herself.
“A little goes a long way,” she told me yesterday, “as long as you don’t start paying out expenses.”
“Because it’s a short and slippery slope?” I said.
“Yes,” said Copstick, “because, once you start, you may say Well, maybe we’ll take a few pennies just for a coffee or Well, the charity could pay for lunch with a possible donor… Next thing it’s OK, we’ll cover justifiable travel expenses. Then it’s I was a bit late so I had to get a taxi. And then, because it’s about Mindset, once you think it’s OK to take a little, it’s only a question of degree before you take bigger amounts. I think taking anything is wrong.
“Luckily enough for me, I own my flat, I had some money saved up and my vices were only alcohol, Class A drugs, very young men and older women… and I’d given up most of them. People can guess which ones I’ve not given up.
“So my outgoings – if you’ll pardon the expression – are minimal. As for the charity, we don’t have any big donors and there are no deductions. If someone spends £5 in this shop, that’s £5 going into the pot and it only takes five £5 and I’ve started a woman in a business in Kenya. That’s her life and her family’s life changed. They’re not rich, they’re never going to be rich, but they’re independent and there’s the psychological thing of self-respect.”
“What happens to the shop when you’re in Kenya?” I asked.
“It’s a bit of a nightmare,” replied Copstick. “Despite all the ‘friends’ who say I’ll do anything to help and Oh! It’s a lovely shop! they all disappear like snow off the proverbial dyke – the dry stone variety, not the kd laing variety – when I say I’m going to Kenya for three weeks. Would you do a couple of hours in the shop? They’re all bastards. You’re all cunts.
“So my sister comes in a bit and we’ve a couple of other volunteers but sometimes I have to put a big notice up on the door saying Terribly sorry. Opening hours will be incredibly irregular while I’m away spending vast amounts on prostitutes and rent boys.
“AND jailbirds,” Copstick added. “That was a new one, last time. I was persuaded slightly against my better judgment – but it’s all worked out well. There was a group of young men in their twenties who had recently been released from prison and, bad as the prison system is here, in Kenya it’s even worse.
“It’s pretty-well fucked-up here in Britain but, in Kenya, one rogue policeman can arrest you, put you in prison and then just ‘lose’ the paperwork so nobody even knows you’re there. And we’re not exactly talking the Kray Twins of Nairobi. One guy had been arrested for smoking dope. One guy had been arresting for attempting – but not succeeding in – pickpocketing.”
“So,” I asked, “people are getting thrown in prison for Dickensian crimes like stealing cheese off a wheelbarrow?”
“Absolutely,” said Copstick. “But these boys had been eventually released from prison and there were four groups of ex-cons that Mama Biashara funded. I’m quite excited. All the businesses are going well and I’ll be checking up on them when I go this time.
“With one of them – it’s really quite exciting, this – Mama Biashara has gone into drug dealing. I realise that the clean-cut readers of your blog won’t know what I’m talking about, but there is a herb called khat, well-known to Somalis. Anyone who has ever had a Somali taxi driver will have noticed the constantly-moving jaw and greenish teeth.”
“Have you ‘had’ many Somali taxi-drivers?” I asked.
“Many, many, many,” replied Copstick. “It’s a mild stimulant.”
“The herb?” I asked.
“Yes,” said Copstick. “It’s known as mira in Kenya and it’s entirely legal there and here in the UK. Over here, we get little stumpy stems which, by the time you’ve chewed them, you’re exhausted, so it doesn’t matter what stimulant effect the herb has. In Kenya, you get the fresh leaves and there’s a massive Somali population. They love it and the profit margin is astronomical. It’s a Friday evening thing. On the way home, the guys pick up a bottle of booze and a bunch of mira…”
“…and get half-khat,” I suggested.
“…and chomp away,” said Copstick. “I was amazed at the profit margin, so there’s a Mama Biashara group selling mira, a group selling chickens, a group selling goats.”
“There’s a bigger profit margin on cocaine,” I suggested.
“Well,” said Copstick, “there’s not much of it about it Kenya.”
“And they can’t afford heroin or cocaine,” I said.
“Exactly,” said Copstick. “In the slum areas – which is really all I know – glue is the thing. They have industrial strength glue which they sniff. I mean toxic. And, until very recently, they had something called chang’aa which is a home-brewed illicit alcohol fortified with ethyl alcohol. The main side-effects are blindness and death. When people there say I’ve got a blinding hangover, they literally mean a blinding hangover. It was recently outlawed, but…”
“So,” I interrupted, “you’ve been branching out from ladies to criminals. These young men – like the attempted pickpocket – What sentences had they served?”
“Most,” explained Copstick, “had been in prison for about 18 months without ever coming to court or without even being arraigned, because you just disappear into the system and, if you’re poor, you don’t have a lawyer and you can’t afford to bribe anybody. So that’s it. You’re scuppered. Unless you get picked up by some organisation who’re willing to help. It’s horrific there.”
“In my blog back in September,” I reminded her, “you were talking about building a Mama Biashara centre out in Kenya.”
“We had the chance,” said Copstick, “but, after meeting the ex-crims and a couple of experiences where we came up against some local bureaucrats and a couple of rogue policemen who were dealing with gay rent boys, it was kind of brought home to me that, the minute I raise Mama Biashara’s head above the parapet, the 100% of money that goes to Kenya will, in fact, be going into official pockets all over the place. They’re lying, cheating, stealing bastards. That’s from the government right down to the lowest-of-the-low of officialdom.
“The local chiefs are actually pretty good to deal with because they live there among their people and understand their people. But I realised, if I had a centre, officials would say Oh! You’ve painted it the wrong colour! You need to pay us this amount or Oh! You didn’t have this certificate or that certificate! and they’re like blackmailers. If you pay once, you never stop paying.”
“So there won’t be a Mama Biashara centre?” I asked.
“No,” confirmed Copstick. “That would be wonderful. But the cost in backhanders would never stop. And it’s tragic. Because, to have that base, to have the clinic, to have the little peanut butter making place would be fabulous. But it’s one of the things you just have to accept: the whole system is too corrupt and, if you’re going to do good, you have to be a guerilla.
“And, when people know a white female is involved… Once they know you’re there, once they know where to get you, once they know where to come to frighten you… That’s the other thing I’ve had to accept. As much good as Mama Biashara does – and it does truckloads of good – unless I’m quite careful…
“If officials see that people are getting money from Mama Biashara… It happened once… Someone Mama Biashara gave money to… The week after I left, her landlord came up to her and said Hey! You got a mzungu – a white friend – So your rent is doubled!
“I have to be careful how I help people: that I don’t damage them by helping them, because no-one is safe. It’s just a different way. Everyone has a massive amount of bastard potential in a different way from here. No-one is your friend.”
“What’s it like here in the UK?” I asked.
“I think most people are on the make a bit here,” said Copstick. “People really don’t care here. People are not nice. People really do not want to help. They’re happy to say they want to help, but it’s very much a What’s in it for me? society where everybody already has something.
“OK – mixed metaphor coming up here – the gatekeepers of the safety net are not the nicest of people, but the safety net is there. Nobody is going to die of starvation here. I’m not going to say nobody’s going to be homeless, but there is a safety net here, if you want to use it.
“But, in Britain, there is an attitude. Not just Britain, but the white Western world. Black Africa is different.
“If the stuff in this shop had been made in Italy, people would go Ooh! £20? That’s so cheap! If I say Africa, they say, Oh, that’s very expensive, isn’t it? Like everyone in Africa should be living on beads and a packet of nuts.
“When I say to people Well, they have no water, they say Well, they’re used to it. There is a very definite mindset that somehow the black African doesn’t feel pain, doesn’t feel hunger, doesn’t feel thirst, doesn’t feel anything in the same way white people do.”
“Or,” I suggested, “that they feel those things, but they’re used to it.”
“Yes,” said Copstick, “That’s what people think here and so they think that makes it OK.”