NAIROBI // Watched by a laughing audience on prime-time television, Kenya's president and prime minister, two long-time rival politicians, visited a marriage counsellor to work out their differences. Kofi Annan, who mediated an election dispute between Mwai Kibaki, the president, and Raila Odinga, the prime minister, played the role of counsellor and listened as the two leaders bickered like an old married couple.
The characters were represented by latex puppets and voiced by actors, but the satirical jabs at the local politicians were real. This was the first episode of the second season of The XYZ Show, Kenya's groundbreaking political comedy programme. On a continent where opposition voices are often stifled and journalists are sometimes locked up for criticising the government, The XYZ Show routinely skewers politicians while pushing the boundaries of Kenya's relatively liberal press freedoms.
The show is the brainchild of Godfrey Mwampebwa, an award-winning political cartoonist for the local Daily Nation newspaper who has been lampooning politicians in print since 1992 under his pen name, Gado. Mr Mwampebwa, who is one of the show's producers, studied film and animation in Canada and Italy. "As an editorial cartoonist, I thought it would be great if I could translate what I do onto the screen," said Mwampebwa, 40. "Everyone thought you cannot do this in Kenya. But I thought it could work here. In Kenya, politics is like food. People can't get enough."
The show follows in the footsteps of Spitting Image, the British satirical puppet show and France's popular Les Guignols. Indeed, the French Embassy in Kenya contributed to the show's budget of US$350,000 (Dh1.3 million) . South Africa is the only other African nation to experiment with a similar politically charged show, but the production was too controversial for the local broadcaster and it is shown only on the internet and satellite television.
The XYZ Show employs a creative team of 50 writers, actors, producers and puppet makers. Each puppet takes two weeks to make by hand. The production team has a stable of 26 puppets and counting, including likenesses of Barack Obama and Luis Moreno-Ocampo, the International Criminal Court prosecutor who is investigating Kenya's post-election violence. There is even a team of graphic designers that renders the show's complicated computer-generated graphics using state-of-the-art software. "Our technology keeps improving," said Pete Mute, the visual effects director. "There are a lot of things we can do this season."
The show tackles corruption, tribalism and impunity, which are frustratingly rife in Kenyan politics. Although Mr Mwampebwa has not been threatened, politicians have been critical of the show. "When people complain, we know we are doing our job," he said. "We had the president and prime minister in jail for God's sake. Nothing is off-limits." Some Kenyan media critics, such as Bethsheba Achitsa, have found the show stale. "While it seems that politics inspires comedians in Kenya to create good cartoons out of the pathetic and often annoying political scene, they should not heavily rely on politics," she wrote in a blog post. "The XYZ Show should bring aboard fresh ways of entertaining the audience, otherwise the show is boring and annoying, if not irrelevant."
The show is produced each week at a studio in an industrial area of Nairobi. Puppeteers manipulate the life-sized puppets as a voiceover track is played back. The 20-minute show is delivered to the Citizen TV network each Saturday and airs on Sunday evenings. Producing a weekly show, "keeps things fresh", said Lillian Geturo, the production manager. "When there is something important that is in the news, you need to play off of that. You can't remind the Kenyan audience of something that happened a month ago."
Besides the French Embassy, the show's other donors include the Dutch government and the Ford Foundation in the United States. Citizen TV airs the show, but it does not make any money because advertisers are cautious about being associated with such a controversial show. "When you do any political content, advertisers run away," Mr Mwampebwa said. "But when you do satire, you have to step on people's toes."
Kenya generally tolerates freedom of expression more than most of its neighbours and Mr Mwampebwa thinks the country is ready for this kind of show. They even lampoon Kenya's former dictator, Daniel Arap Moi, which would have been unthinkable while he was in power during the 1980s and 1990s. The show has already gained a following and is scheduled to run for 26 episodes this season. Young educated Kenyans are starting to get the joke and have been tuning in. Jerop Maritim, 29, a sales representative, has been following the series this season. "I like it. They are telling the politicians what the people wish they could say," she said after watching a recent episode. "They are saying what the people are too afraid to say."