Tag Archives: colonialism

Black-white-not-quite-Pakistani-but-Zimbabwean-Scots comedian Sean Reid

The monthly Africa Comedy Show last night

Last night’s monthly African Comedy Show

Last night I went to the monthly African Comedy Night at the Golders Green Hippodrome in London. Well, it used to be the Hippodrome. Now it is the El Shaddai International Christian Centre.

I have the dimmest of memories of being bussed there as a schoolboy to see some Boy Scout ‘Gang Show’ (I was not a Boy Scout). Between then and the evangelical church, it was home to the BBC Concert Orchestra. I presume it is the evangelical church who have painted the wildly ornate interior blue and white. It is slightly odd.

The African Comedy Night has been running monthly for the last five years (though only two months in Golders Green). It gets an audience of around 400-500.

On the bill last night was Zimbabwean Glaswegian Sean Reid.

His father is from Glasgow; his mother is from Zimbabwe; he was born in Zimbabwe but left when he was six; then they moved to Mauritius, Nigeria and then to Glasgow when he was aged 12. His dad is a contractor for BP.

Sean is 32 now. I talked to him when he came offstage last night.

“Zimbabwe-Mauritius-Nigeria,” I said. “You were brought up as a British ex-pat.”

“Me and my friend have a term for it,” said Sean. “We call ourselves Afro-pean. But I think as long as you have enough time to get part of the culture, it’ll never leave you as such. I can still understand Shona though I understand more than I can speak, because I don’t get to speak it that often.

“I spent just as much time in Zimbabwe as I did in Nigeria and I feel just as influenced by Nigeria as Zimbabwe, if not a little bit more, because I was more aware.”

“And in Scotland?” I asked. Sean has a pure Scots accent.

“People think I’m Pakistani,” he told me. “because we’re not that culturally aware in Scotland.”

“Is there an African scene in Glasgow?” I asked.

Sean Reid performs at last night’s London show

Sean Reid on stage at yesterday’s comedy show in London

“There is a minor one,” said Sean. “It happens every now-and-again. The turn-out is quite good because there’s a lot more black people up there now.

“This year I’m putting on a gig for Black History Month in October, just to bring things a bit together, because black comedians aren’t really coming up to Scotland and it’s a shame because there IS a market for it but no-one’s really capitalising on it.”

“Is that market just in Glasgow though?” I asked.

“No,” replied Sean.

“There is an unexplained outbreak of Russians in rural Perthshire,” I said.

“It’s weird for us,” said Sean. “because there’s a lot of Poles and Ukranians about – Where the hell are all these white people coming from?”

“Edinburgh is unsettlingly white,” I said.

“Edinburgh is English,” said Sean. “they don’t speak anything that sounds like Scottish at all. If you go to Africa, everyone’s elocution is 20 times better than anyone here in the UK. I was in Zimbabwe last year. All ex-British Colonial places still have the grammar systems in place from when the Colonials left… so when they come here and hear the way people speak here now, they go: This is not English!”

“You were in Zimbabwe last year?” I asked. “Many comedy clubs in Zimbabwe?”

“It’s growing.,” said Sean, surprising me. “I missed it when I was there. I discovered (South African comedian) Trevor Noah this year and I’ve been speaking to some Zimbabwean comics and in September, when I’ve got two weeks off, I’m thinking of maybe going and doing a couple of things down there, just to see what the difference is. It’s just a buzz.

“Trevor Noah,” I pointed out, “is a Malcolm Hardee Comedy Award winner.”

“He’s found the universal funny,” said Sean. “Trevor Noah: he’s my dude. Richard Pryor, Bernie Mac, Trevor Noah.”

Sean Reid, ex-rapper, relaxing in Glasgow

Sean Reid, ex-rapper, more into singing, relaxing in Glasgow

“You used to rap,” I said.

“I’ve stopped rapping and do more singing now,” explained Sean. “It’s got more universal appeal.”

“What’s the difference between music and comedy?” I asked.

“Comedy gives a different buzz. Music is like cocaine and comedy is like ketamine: they give you such different buzzes. I’m not saying I’ve ever done either. I’m just saying music and comedy are both fruit, but they are like different sorts of fruit.

“There’s something very empowering about telling a joke and people understanding where you’re coming from. There’s something totally different about singing a song and someone understanding where the lyric is coming from and having that story behind that line taking you all these different places.”

“You write your own songs?”

“Yes. I was a spoken word artist before everything. I like to play with words. I like to mess around with words.”

“That was why you were a rapper?”

“Yeah. Well, not such a good one, so that’s why I started singing. I was rapping and doing the comedy at the same time. It all kinda evolved at the same time. I’ve done (big Scottish rock festival) T In the Park on the T Break Stage – 3,000 applied and I was one of 16 who made it through in 2009.”

“Your music is online?”

“Yes, on Soundcloud. The best think to do, though, is find me on YouTube. Just hashtag Glitterballs. I’m a bit of a Richard Branson type. I’ve got dreams too. I’m going to be a multi-billionaire. I’ve got a couple of products. I’m going to tap into the Ann Summers market first: I’ve got Glitterballs and SmegFresh.”

“Smeg Fresh?” I asked.

“It’s like FemFresh but it’s for guys. I think a lot of ladies will buy it for the guys – ‘for the cheesiness of the penis’…”

There is an Infomercial on YouTube

“And then there’s GlitterBalls,” said Sean. “They’re just glittery balls. If you hashtag Glitterballs and see what happened when I went around Glasgow… some very interesting results.”

“Which were?”

“I dunno what you guys call ‘em. We call ‘em Jakies – a person who maybe likes too much booze, takes a bit o’ drugs. This one came and whacked his balls out – twice – on cue – because we missed it the first time – and showed us his arse. He’d just shaved his balls the night before.”

“You come down to London much?” I asked.

“This is my first time in two years, but I’m looking to do a lot more stuff because, now I’m single, I’ve got a lot more free time. I’m spending much of my time masturbating, but it chafes after a while so I’m looking for new advances in my enjoyment.

“For me, I just wanna get better at my craft and I want to get that universal laugh. Without that, you’ll crutch on things you know you’re comfortable with.”

“You can’t be seen as being a black comedian,” I said, “because then you’re too ghettoised and typecast.”

“Well, then I’ll be a Pakistani comedian,” laughed Sean.

Sean Reid in the Hippodrome last night

Sean Reid last night – everything except a one-legged lesbian

“You could be a black-white-Pakistani-Scots comedian,” I suggested. “If you could be a one-legged lesbian too, you would have the full set.”

“I’m only a lesbian when I have pussy in my mouth,” said Sean. “…No but I… Yeah, no… I’m sorry; you totally threw me with the lesbian comment… Eh…”

“Do people in England have any trouble understanding your Scottish accent?” I asked. “It seems totally clear to me.”

“No problem. But it’s really weird. A lot of people don’t seem to know there’s black people in Scotland and they’re really shocked when they hear a Scottish accent come out of my mouth. I don’t know people expect from me – which is an added bonus.

“I suppose it’s great for me in that I’m mixed-race and because I look in so many different ways, I can really take the piss out of anybody and people will allow me that little pleasure, especially if it’s something they can relate to… If it’s just straight racist, then a lynching might occur.”

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Filed under Africa, Comedy, Racism, Scotland, Zimbabwe

How to write a comedy show about a serious subject – the British in Africa

Njambi McGrath in Soho last week

Njambi in Soho prepares for Leicester Square show tomorrow

“I suppose a lot of new comics don’t realise you can talk about serious subjects,” Kenyan-born comedian Njambi McGrath told me last week.

When I blogged about her in February, Njambi told me she wanted to write a book about the British colonial period in Kenya – with her parents’ lives as a narrative thread – and, to encourage herself to do the hard work involved in researching it, she would write an Edinburgh Fringe comedy show – Bongolicious – on the same (decidedly non-comedic) subject.

“How is the book coming along?” I asked her last week.

“Hard work,” she told me. “And emotional. I’ve been phoning my mother, who’s back in Kenya, but she speaks with great difficulty because she’s got Parkinson’s Disease and she needs someone to translate to me what she’s saying.

“The British used to come to a village and collect people, make them dig their own graves and then shoot them.

“My grandmother was born at the time a lot of the Settlers moved in. I was reading about the traditions in the time when my grandmother was circumcised and the etiquette and the dances they had to do two or three months beforehand.

“The missionaries all came to East Africa to ‘save’ us. They all had spheres of influence. The ones local to my grandmother were Scottish. Presbyterians.

“She turned to the church because she was looking for solace but, in order for her to be accepted, she had to abandon all cultural practices, because the church people found some cultural practices to be morally repugnant – and these were people from Glasgow!”

“What cultural practices were repugnant?” I asked.

“They way they dressed; their dancing; the way they used to cut their ears.”

“Sounds like a Saturday disco night in Glasgow,” I said.

“How strong is religion in Scotland?” Njambi asked me.

“Don’t even ask,” I said. “If you’re Catholic or Protestant in Glasgow, you’re in a lot of trouble, but being black gives you a Get Out of Jail card… So some of the stuff you’ve been researching for the book will be in the Edinburgh show?”

Njambi McGrath - Bongolicious

Njambi will be Bongolicious in Edinburgh

“I can’t put everything in, of course,” said Njambi, “and there are some things I am omitting because they are rather gruesome. For example, I won’t talk about shooting into the graves, because it’s already clear what’s happening.”

“And,” I said, if you have 55 minutes of brutality, it loses impact. You don’t want to cheapen the material with laughs, but it helps to pace the show.”

“It’s difficult,” said Njambi. “There are some areas where people can laugh – like about the Settlers, who were ridiculous. The stuff that is very deep I can’t joke about. Like the soldiers who used to come in at night and ask the women if they wanted their children to be raped or killed… I’m working like crazy to find a few more punchlines.”

“Sometimes people laugh from relief,” I said.

Njambi is performing a preview of Bongolicious at the Leicester Square Theatre tomorrow night and then at other venues. She tests parts of it every week at her comedy club – Heavenly Comedy – in Shepherd’s Bush.

“I want to test the reaction on real audiences,” she tells me. “I want it to end up like a rollercoaster.”

“What about the end?” I asked. “You sort-of need to have an ‘Up’ at the end, which is difficult to pull off without cheapening what’s gone before.“

“The end of the story is much more positive,” explained Njambi, “because it is about my parents and that’s a positive thing – two young people who get together and save enough money to buy a farm – They survived, despite all odds, when many people didn’t survive. Maybe around 300,000 people were killed. Some are in mass graves. Some are in a museum… In a museum!”

“Your mother must be very proud,” I said.

“She is just happy to be heard,” Njambi told me. “My mother is 67; she struggles massively to talk. All these things happened and there was no acknowledgement. Life moved on as if nothing had happened. The reason it has made me so emotional is I grew up without knowing anything about it. My parents, either consciously or unconsciously, didn’t mention any of it.

“My mother has only just told me how the children were called to go and see public hangings. There was an incident where Mau Maus had been blown up with hand grenades and the children were taken out of school to go and see the mutilated bodies.”

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Atrocities in Kenya – a good starting point for Edinburgh Fringe comedy

Njambi McGrath in Shepherd’s Bush last night

Njambi McGrath in Shepherd’s Bush last night

Comedian Njambi McGrath (pronounced Jambi McGrah) is thinking about writing a non-humorous book. Given that most of the UK publishing industry is currently running scared of anything not written by or about a famous TV name, I suggested she might make her idea into a comedy show at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe because that would encourage her to do the necessary additional research for the book and also potentially give the idea some publicity which might impress publishers.

As any regular reader of this blog knows, I have a particular bee in my bonnet about the fact that the best comedies are often about tragic situations.

“It was finding out about your parents which got you interested, wasn’t it?” I asked Njambi yesterday, while she was preparing for her weekly Heavenly Comedy Club in London’s Shepherd’s Bush. “You thought they were boring and had never done anything very interesting.”

“Yes,” said Njambi. “I always wondered why my parents were so poor as children. I was not brought up poor in Kenya, but my parents had been poor to a degree I could not understand. And I didn’t understand why my parents never talked about their childhood.

“Then I found out my mum was 8 years old when they moved her to this camp in the mid-1950s. Her sisters were 13 and 14 and were considered grown-ups, so they were included in all the women who were going to dig the trenches.

“They would wake up at six o’clock in the morning and spend all day digging trenches. They were given no money and no food. So basically they relied on handouts. They were given flour by the Red Cross and made porridge.

“What the British would do was turn up at a village and burn it down and then the villagers would be herded onto lorries and taken to a patch of ground and they would sleep under the sky until they built their own houses and then they lived in these ‘special’ villages which had trenches round them to ‘protect’ them from the Mau Mau.

“They would start by building one person’s house and all sleep there and then they would build another house and do the same until they had built the whole village.

“The people in these ‘special’ villages were mostly women, because the men were taken to detention camps. The British assumed all the Kikuyu men were Mau Mau. The women had to dig trenches to surround the new villages and surround them with barbed wire and, when they finished that, they would work all day clearing the forests so the Mau Mau couldn’t hide there.”

“And the Mau Mau were…?” I asked.

“The Kikuyu tribe,” explained Njambi, “were basically farmers and we lived in the most fertile land in Kenya with bright red soils, so the British moved us away from there and put us into special reserves and taxed us – hut tax and poll tax – but we had no money. The Kikuyu used to make money from their land but they no longer had that, so they were forced to work for the white settlers, the majority of whom had come from South Africa and were very right wing.

“The conditions imposed on the Africans were that they had to pay these taxes and wear a big ID hanging round the neck – basically like a bull. They used to call it a ‘bull bell’.

Jomo Kenyatta, first President of Kenya

Jomo Kenyatta, first President of Kenya

“People were very disgruntled and the Mau Mau were men like Jomo Kenyatta (later President of Kenya) who went to the British and said We’re not happy with our rights. We want land rights. They weren’t taken seriously, so a branch of them decided it was going to have to be armed resistance rather than talking.

“They were based in the forests and their tactics were to go and either kill a settler or to kill a sympathiser of the settlers, because the British had chiefs who were Africans and they were as cruel if not worse. So the Mau Mau would kill people and caused a lot of terror because nobody knew where they were. They were all Kikuyu men or the vast majority were.”

“Why were they called Mau Mau?” I asked.

“No-one knows for sure,” said Njambi. “They think it’s because ‘mzungu’ means ‘white man’ and it’s an abbreviation of that and ‘go home’.”

(One theory is that Mzungu Aende Ulaya, Mwafrika Apate Uhuru roughly means If the foreigner goes back to Europe, the African may get freedom)

“The women were put into villages separate from the men,” explained Njambi, “so they could give information about the men. Some of them, like my grandmother, were single mothers. She had no man, but they didn’t believe her. A single Kikuyu woman in Kenya was seen as a suspicious woman. People like that were tortured so they would give information about their husbands… but they had no husbands.

“The Mau Mau would come at night and harass the women in the special villages to give them food. But they had none. They were given flour by the British Red Cross. My mother ate flour from the age of 8 to 14. When they wanted to make it exciting, they put salt in the flour. Many of my mother’s friends died because they were mal-nourished. It was a double whammy for the women. They were harassed by the Mau Mau and by the British.

“If women did not co-operate or they were too weak to dig – if they were ill or injured from all the digging – they were assaulted to co-operate and coerced to work.

Idi Amin addressing the United Nations General Assembly in New York in 1975

Idi Amin addresses UN General Assembly in New York, 1975

“The people persuading the women to co-operate were people like Idi Amin (later President of Uganda, but then in the British Army). His job was to coerce people into giving information about the rebels. He was promoted year on year on year because he brought in results. He found ways of making women talk. He found new ways of breaking women. The British re-defined rape, using bottles, broken glass, hot boiled eggs and barbed wire. It didn’t matter if you were 13 or 14. You were considered a woman.

“My mother stayed in the village from the age of 8 to 14. When I found that out, I knew why she was so poor as a child and why she didn’t want to talk about her childhood.

“My father was a different story. His mother was killed in one of the raids.”

“By the British or by the Mau Mau?” I asked.

“Nobody really knows,” said Njambi. “She was found dead with her baby son – my father – suckling on her breast. My father had an older sister who was 5 years old and they moved into the streets of Nairobi and she looked after him. She used to beg and my father lived in the streets until he met my mother.

“Because of all the years he lived in the streets, my father became very ingenious. He used to beg, get money, go buy sweets and sell them at the bus stop. Slowly, slowly, he made enough money to buy more stock and more stock. Eventually he met my mother in a train. She was 14 and she was going to look for a job. My father proposed on the train. They started working as  team. Every day selling sweets. He was living in a hut. He was no longer living on the streets. They worked hard and they earned enough money to buy a farm and they had children and they put us in good schools. I was put in a boarding school. Education was very important for my father. He was all about bettering himself. He bettered himself. He taught himself karate, became a black belt and represented the country. He spoke five languages. And, one day, I came home and told him: Mum, Dad, I’m in love with a British boy.

“I fell in love with a British boy. What can you do?”

“And you want to turn this story into a book,” I said.

“Yes.”

“And a comedy show,” I said.

“I’m challenged by how I’m going to make it funny,” said Njambi.

As I said at the start, I believe that the best comedies are often about tragic situations – and you can do that without diminishing the horror of the situations. The most important thing is a meaningful story and people the audience cares about.

Njambi has a good starting point here.

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Filed under Africa, colonialism, Comedy, Kenya