TV puppet show to sting morose Kenya back to life


June 18, 2010 Updated May 15, 2009 at 1:11 PM EDT

Africa's first political puppet show is set to launch Sunday on Kenyan television, in a "Spitting Image" redux that could give a splitting headache to the country's freewheeling political class.

The buzz surrounding the premiere of "XYZ" is huge, with Kenyans' appetite for punchy satire fueled by deep disillusionment towards their leaders and whetted by slick teaser clips marking a quantum leap in production quality.

A debut featuring Martha Karua and William Ruto -- two of Kenya's most fiery and polarising politicians -- suggests that the show, aired by the popular Citizen TV network, will be pulling no punches.

The idea germinated in the mind of Kenya's top cartoonist Gado five years ago during a trip to France, where the equivalent show -- "Les Guignols" -- has long acquired cult following and the undisputed status of most influential political programme.

"Kenyans are definitely ready for this, more impertinence and thoughtful laughter. The politicians cannot hold the country hostage, so they had better be ready too," he jibed, between two takes of Sunday's show.

XYZ's hastily-installed studio in a Nairobi industrial warehouse affords but a feeble glimpse of the shockwave many expect the show to send across Kenya's rancid political debate.

Gado's crew and the show's already devoted future viewers expect it to be much more than mere comic relief from an incorrigible and self-indulgent leadership, and see it almost as a public health measure for a sick country.

"We'll be there in front of our televisions. The evening is booked," said Bernard, a Nairobi University student. "Look at the state this country's in, we need something to shake things up and nobody else is doing it."

A similar project was initiated in South Africa by cartoonist Zapiro but the networks got cold feet and the show was shelved.

"With this kind of show, we are the first in Africa. And for Kenya, I think the show will go down as a significant development for the media and freedom of speech," said XYZ production manager Lilian Geturo.

A dopey-looking President Mwai Kibaki, a slurred-speaking Prime Minister Raila Odinga: after years of efforts, Kenya's new latex heroes are ready to take the country by storm.

The years when the Kenyan press was muzzled and criticising government policies or picking on a politician's personal quirks were done behind closed doors are not so far behind.

But puppet-making master Gerald Olewe, likely the first man on the continent to master this rare and complicated craft, said that the country was ready for XYZ and predicted censorship would not be a factor.

He remembered breaking into a sweat at Nairobi airport in 2005 when he returned from his first training in France with a life-size Kibaki and an array of rare chemicals for moulding puppets in his suitcases.

"The customs officials stopped me and jerked back when they saw the president's head in my suitcase.'I hope you are not up to funny games with all this', they told me."

Patrick Gathara, a Kenyan cartoonist and blogger on whose caricatures the puppets were modelled, agreed the show could contribute to taking the country's political culture to a new level.

"It's a big leap forward... The great thing here is that the slapstick element is contained in the puppets themselves, so there can be more emphasis on policies," he said.

James Kanja, the show's director, also pointed out that Olewe and XYZ's entire 32-strong team were pioneering new techniques and skills that would open up new horizons for media and film-making in the region.

"With puppeteering, we've had to explore tricks and special effects that could start spreading in Kenyan film-making. We're stretching the boundaries of what can be done locally," he said.

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