10 November 2017

Rwanda: Meet the Stars Behind the Thriving Comedy Industry

opinion

If it were a human being, comedy in Rwanda has grown from a baby that could hardly stand on their own to a young and vibrant youth ready to conquer the world. Comedy has become a profitable career option for many and indeed Rwandan comedians have become a household name in the entertainment industry. Donah Mbabazi brings you some of the faces behind the thriving comedy sector in the country.

Arthur Nkusi

From theatre to radio as a comic, Nkusi is arguably one of the best comedians in Rwanda. It was in 2010 that he set out to do comedy as a profession, and he says being himself and not trying to be someone else is what has made his style unique.

"Though it was a hard choice to make between my career and the Bachelor's degree I was pursuing at the time, I don't regret the path i took," Nkusi says.

The artiste, however, says that though it was tough setting out in the beginning, he believed in himself and this is what has kept him going. His love for pioneering new things and not doing things that other people have done pushed him even more.

"I don't walk through other people's footsteps I create my own; I was determined and this has always kept me moving," he says.

Nkusi believes that as an artiste, money shouldn't be the first motivation; it should mostly lie in whether people love what you do.

Asked if he gets scared while on stage, his response is 'everyday.'

"When you're on stage, you get nervous wondering if people are going to love your jokes, it's pretty much a very tough job."

Nkusi's best moment was when he did his first one-man show in 2013.

"It was for two hours and it was amazing, the venue, Kigali Serena Hotel was filled to capacity. My worst moment, however, was when I did a show and invested over Rwf10 million but at the end of it, I only made Rwf3 million; it put me in a very deep financial crisis," he recalls.

Putting a smile on people's faces regardless of what they go through makes him feel like it's what he lives for. "I get a lot of feedback from people on how I impact their lives; I feel like this is what I live for," Nkusi says.

Nkusi was born in Uganda; he later came to Rwanda in 1997 and attended La Colombiere for primary level and Lycee de Kigali for secondary before enrolling at University of Rwanda for an advanced diploma in Agriculture.

Emmanuel Mugisha

Better known by his stage name 'Clapton Kibonke', Mugisha has been in the comedy industry for quite some time now. It was his childhood friends who encouraged him to join comedy. Three years down the road, the comedian has managed to set pace for his career. Apart from appearing in a number of comedy shows, Mugisha does his own clips and does gospel music with comedy in it.

He takes pride in the fact that he was nominated in the 'Best Male Actor' category at the Rwanda Movie Awards2017 and vows to aim for better regardless of the challenges in the industry.

He considers the day he signed a contract to join a television series Seburikoko as one of the best moments of his career.

"Through this platform I have been able to meet different comedians, but the worst moment is the day I had to say goodbye to my partner and workmate Ramjaane when he was heading to America," he recalls. The 27-year-old was born in Uganda; he attended primary school at Nyakayaga Primary School, did his O level at Kagarama Secondary School, A Level at Nyamata High School, and is also graduate of the University of Kigali.

Herve Rutaremara Kimenyi

Ten years ago, Kimenyi embarked on a career as a comedian, his dream to pursue something different made him choose this path. "I joined comedy for no particular reason, I just wanted to do something different, I never thought it would take me this far and every time we have a good show, the feeling is incredible," he says.

He says that aside from the juicy pack that comes with the career, at times, it gets tough. "When I'm not in shape for stage it sucks a lot of energy and I'm not always on top of my game," Kimenyi says.

Apart from comedy, he also does emceeing at events; he does translations, acting and directing for theatre and movies.

His biggest achievement in comedy so far was being the first African to perform at the finals of the Montreux Comedy FEST a few years ago, and recently being part of the very first Comedy Festival in Rwanda.

Some of the obstacles he has faced include the perception people have of comedians.

"Also financial issues are a challenge and another is difficulty in putting events together, there are no venues to perform from," he argues.

Kimenyi, however, notes that the comedy industry has a bright future ahead of it and that it can only get better if people really see it for what it is - "a billion dollar industry, a therapy for millions of people, a career choice, and a job creating entertainment platform" - you want comedy to grow? Take it seriously," Kimenyi notes.

His future plans involve going back to movies, having an annual festival, casting more youth and more females on stage and giving opportunities to young talents who have no one to look up to because they are not being heard or understood, he says.

Kimenyi was born in Bujumbura Burundi; he attended school at Ape Rugunga, La Colombiere, Saint Andre and the former National University of Rwanda, now University of Rwanda.

Michael Sengazi

Sengazi is another fine comedian on the scene. As a performer he has graced many festivals in Africa and Europe, and this, he says, has helped nurture his skills and exposed him to how things are done in other countries.

He prides in a number of milestones, one of them being featuring in the first season of Parlement du rire, a show that brings together the best francophone comics in Africa. He was also a semi-finalist in the Montreux Comedy Festival.

"I got three specials as a comedian, two in French mixed with Kirundi (Le metis, sur l'avis de ma mere), and one in English (Excuse my brain). I also created a short TV show that was aired on TV10 in 2015 called I-express, and performed in the first Kigali International Comedy Festival," he says.

Sengazi notes that one of his biggest challenges so far is his family not being overly fond of the "life of an artiste."

"Stand-up comedy also being new to Rwanda is a challenge because of its perception, it is not considered as art. Another challenge that artistes face is the lack of theatre halls or appropriate places for performances or rehearsals, which results in comedians performing in hotels and it is quite expensive," he says.

Sengazi recounts his worst moment in comedy as the day he was told of his grandfather's passing right before going on stage. The fact that he was the first person to believe in what he was doing made it even harder for him to handle the news.

"That was supposed to be the last performance of my career as my parents wanted me to focus on studying law; it was one of the toughest moments ever," he recalls.

Since he thought it was his last performance, he shared his grandfather's passing with the audience in his piece, and what seemed like a worst moment for him, turned into the best in a whim.

"The audience enjoyed my jokes and thousands of people expressed their condolences to me on stage, it was incredible.

"Comedy can have a positive impact. At the end of it all it is not about who I was and where I was from, that was the turning point of my career. It's when I knew what I was meant to do," he says.

Born to a Rwandan mother and a Burundian father, the 29-year-old was born and raised in Burundi. After primary and secondary school at Michel Archange in Burundi, he enrolled at Kigali Independent University to pursue law; it was in his third year at university in 2010 that he embarked on a career in comedy.

Phrister Nakato Tumusabe

This 23-year-old defied odds by joining the male-dominated comedy industry. So far, the only female comedian, Tumusabe hopes to take her career to greater heights.

Her passion for comedy and immense admiration for Ann Kansiime (a renowned Ugandan comedian) pushed her into the industry.

"That passion led me to join Com Factory, the team I work with, and it is my family and every day they give me reasons to keep doing what I'm doing," she says.

The notion that comedy is a field for men tends to lower her morale at times, she says, but she nonetheless sets out to prove them wrong.

When she makes her fans laugh and gets compliments from her seniors, these serve as the best moments ever. "However, when my brain decides to play tricks on me and my thoughts go west, this is the worst moment for any stand-up comedian. When I am on stage and I forget a joke, nothing could be worse," she says.

She applauds the response from the public so far saying it's really been encouraging.

Tumusabe is also a tour and travel consultant a job she was doing before joining comedy this year. She attended Light Junior Kitoma Primary School; Groupe Scolaire ASPEKA Kayenzi and Mount Kenya University.

George Birungi

Birungi has always been an actor since his childhood but he joined comedy in 2010.

"I have always had a passion for comedy, but it all started at Christian Life Assembly. I guess Jesus spoke to me and since then, my inspiration has never set me back," he says.

The 24-year-old has travelled to many places and performed on some regional stages. "This is a step forward and I hope to get even further."

He describes the comedy industry as that which gives a platform for one to keep on learning. "Honestly speaking, there is no such thing as bad moments; it's more of learning moments. You learn from your mistakes and keep building yourself. I would say every time I am on stage serves as a best moment for me but of late, my best moments are every Thursday when the Com Factory happens because without it, I probably wouldn't be answering all these questions," Birungi says.

Birungi is glad the comedy industry is progressing at a fast rate though much is still required to move it to the next level.

"All we need is support from people, because we know we are good and it's just a matter of time before everyone finds out how great it can get and in that moment, the sky will be the limit," Birungi says.

*****

What industry players say about Rwanda's comedy industry

SINCE comedy set foot on the entertainment scene many years back, it has grown and Rwandans have undeniably fallen in love with comedy- thanks to the relentless players in the sector.

John Muyenzi, a comedian commonly known as Babu Joe, says that the comedy industry in Rwanda has considerably transformed compared to how it was in recent years.

"Personally, I think the industry is growing rapidly," he says. He also says that with more comedians entering the industry, more is surely to be achieved.

"If we continue with the pace we have right now, the comedy industry will be something else in a few years to come," Muyenzi says.

Nice Budandi, a managing associate at 'Arthurnation', an entertainment company says the comedy industry is very much growing.

"We just did our first ever comedy festival, that is something you can only do when you have developed. We the people leading the platforms of comedy events have to keep working and developing young comedians by giving them platforms and also nurturing them," Budandi explains.

Budandi believes that with strong collaboration among different partners, comedy will definitely continue to grow.

"The sponsors and the government should help us in all ways possible, like building theatre halls, sponsoring events and coming to the shows," he says.

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