In Dire, Daily Life, What Do Zimbabweans Find Funny?

Dec 24, 2016
Originally published on December 25, 2016 7:34 am
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People in Zimbabwe are struggling economically and politically, but that has not dimmed their humor. Comedy is thriving in the southern African country despite the real danger of overstepping the mark and angering longtime leader Robert Mugabe. NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton reports.

OFEIBEA QUIST-ARCTON, BYLINE: Whatever the setting - live stand-up comedy, in the papers, on the radio, online, on social media, on television or waiting in long lines to try to withdraw hard-to-find cash from ATMs and banks - Zimbabweans are laughing at themselves, at life, at their mounting problems and at their leaders, especially their president.

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VICTOR TINASHE MPOFU: I watch politics. I love politics a lot. I watch political channels. And they always portray, like, black people in a certain way. They ask questions like...

QUIST-ARCTON: Zimbabwean stand-up comedian Victor Tinashe Mpofu, who goes by the stage name Doc Vikela. He's joking about how he says foreign political shows talk about Africans.

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MPOFU: The one that gets to me is when they say, how was Robert Mugabe as a - they can't even say Mugabe - how was Robert Mugabe as a baby? He was a baby. So what you're saying is that back in 1920 - hey, it's been long - '28...

QUIST-ARCTON: At 92, Robert Mugabe is the only leader Zimbabwe has known since the end of white minority rule and independence from Britain in 1980. Recently, Mugabe traveled at short notice, and his departure again spawned speculation the president was gravely ill. Doc Vikela mimicked Mugabe addressing persistent rumors he died.

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MPOFU: (Imitating Robert Mugabe) They always say that I've died, but I arose so many times than Jesus.

QUIST-ARCTON: Once back home in Zimbabwe, Mugabe joked, it's true that I was dead, and now I'm resurrected yet again.

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QUIST-ARCTON: Even though Mugabe seems to have a sense of humor, there's a perilously fine line between what is and is not acceptable, says Samm Monro, aka Comrade Fatso.

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SAMM MONRO: Welcome to "Zambezi News," where...

QUIST-ARCTON: He's co-creator of a popular satirical current affairs show, "Zambezi News."

MONRO: As soon as you touch politics here, and if there's a crowd in front of you, the government gets worried. We had police threatening to arrest us as comedians for performing political comedy. So a lot of artists will self-censor their content in order to make a living.

QUIST-ARCTON: But Comrade Fatso says threats of detention won't stop him and many other comedians in Zimbabwe even though a joke can literally be deemed a crime and land you in court or even in prison. Insulting the president can bring a one-year sentence, and boldly speaking out can lead to trouble and a brutal beating, as actor-activist Silvanos Mudzvova found to his cost.

SILVANOS MUDZVOVA: And I actually decided to put up a one-man performance. So I just titled the play "Missing Diamonds." It was all about demanding answers about the missing $15 billion.

QUIST-ARCTON: His was not comedy, but a serious skit based on President Mugabe telling Zimbabweans earlier this year that at least $15 billion had been stolen from the diamond-rich region by mining companies. Mudzvova was initially detained in April. He was then abducted late at night in September and his family threatened, he says. The actor was admitted to the hospital, and was still limping with burn marks and bruises on his legs and back, he said, when he spoke to NPR.

MUDZVOVA: They came back fully armed. They actually did break down the door at my house. Yeah, the family was inside. I've got three kids. They took me into a vehicle, put a sack on my face so that I couldn't realize where they were.

QUIST-ARCTON: A sack over your head?

MUDZVOVA: Yeah, a sack over my head. What I could see is the guns that they were pointing at me, about two. These are big guns. I would actually say they were AK-47s. They started applying electric shocks on me. And then when they started beating me with...

QUIST-ARCTON: Mudzvova says the brutal three-hour interrogation ended only when villagers who had been fishing in a nearby dam were returning home and happened upon his ordeal. His abductors fired shots and took off after, Mudzvova says, injecting him with an unknown substance. But the risks haven't deterred stand-up newcomer Samantha Kureya, aka Gonyeti.

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SAMANTHA KUREYA: (Speaking Shona).

QUIST-ARCTON: Gonyeti's skits are mostly in Zimbabwe's dominant local Shona language. Her stage name means truck because her fans affectionately say she's built like a large, curvaceous truck. Gonyeti says comedy's booming in Zimbabwe.

KUREYA: I think I'm the first female comedian, yeah, stand-up comedian. They are supporting - their support is coming from all angles. Yeah, they're supporting me. You know, you have to laugh cause laughter heals, you know? You...

QUIST-ARCTON: Laughter heals.

KUREYA: Yes, so you need to laugh. You know, they say we as comedians, we are stress syrups (laughter). We heal stress. So you have to laugh. The president also laughs (laughter). He does, I know (laughter).

QUIST-ARCTON: And what if President Mugabe doesn't care for your joke? Then who has the last laugh? Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, NPR News, Harare. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.