Kenya’s Eric Omondi on why stand-up comedy is an African pastime

Finding a universal punchline within a country is hard enough, but doing so across a continent is something else.

This has been a winning feature of Eric Omondi, the pioneering comedian selling out shows across Africa for 16 years.

Reportedly the first Kenyan performing on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon in 2017, he was also named Best Comedian at the annual African Entertainment Awards USA, for three consecutive times from 2018.

The Kenyan funny man returns to the UAE to headline DxB Comedy Knights on Saturday, an international comedy showcase featuring South Africa’s Pius Xulu, Lebanon’s John Achkar and Imah Dumagay from the Philippines.

No stranger to Dubai, Omondi expects another raucous audience, including a sizeable number encompassing the UAE’s varied African communities.

“This is really one of the great things about coming back because, really, when you return Africa comes to you,” he tells The National.

“There are people from Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa, Ethiopia and so many others that it feels like I am home. They all love the idea of gathering together and having a laugh about things they can all relate to.”

Despite the various languages, cultures and traditions, Omondi states there are certain aspects universal to Africa.

“I talk a lot about our mothers during the show,” he says.

“No matter where you come from, everybody has or knows that typical African mum. The one that is strong and resilient. The one that loves you but shows no emotion and runs the household like a military camp.”

Another topic resonating beyond borders is the tried and tested comedic premise of getting married.

“But it’s not in the way that you think” Omondi laughs.

“I talk about how that subject exposes a generational divide and how, before, in many parts of Africa, polygamy was accepted as a normal thing. Now the new generation is asking, how did the elders do it because who wants all that headache.”

Telling stories

Good-natured jokes aside, comedy is becoming a serious business in Africa.

With the exception of the lull caused by the pandemic, Omondi says comedy clubs are springing up from Nigeria and Uganda to South Africa.

A key reason driving the growth is the art form resembles a professionalised form of an everyday social and cultural practice indigenous to the continent.

“It is storytelling and that is such an African thing,” he says. “Every African has grown up, or even now, sit together with friends and family listening to their funny stories.

“Now, some of them may be a little exaggerated but you didn’t mind because the whole point is to make you laugh and smile.”

But making it professionally is no laughing matter.

Getting his first big break with an appearance on Kenyan television variety programme Churchill Show in 2008, Omondi says it took a while for elements of society to accept his profession.

“There was still that idea of ‘you should get a proper job,'” he recalls.

“This is why I look at myself and colleagues, who are part of the first generation of Kenyan stand-up comedians, as creative freedom fighters, because we had to fight for our space to perform and be accepted.”

Fighting for the next generation

Turning the tides of the battle was the same technological force propelling the rise of African music genres such as Nigeria’s Afro-pop and South Africa’s Amapiano to becoming worldwide sensations.

“Social media really revolutionised the comedy scene in Africa from around 2009 to 2011 because we didn’t have to totally rely on a comedy club to perform or travel,” he says.

“With social media, I can post something on Instagram or YouTube and I can reach people with my content from Ghana to South Africa within a second.

“It made the continent into a global village.”

Ironically, those porous cultural borders caused by the internet pushed the self-dubbed “president of comedy in Africa” to embark on a new campaign.

In February, Omondi made local headlines by locking himself in a transparent box outside Kenya’s Parliament in protest against a lack of regulation, compelling local broadcasters to play music by Kenyan musicians.

“This is a wider problem in Africa but in Kenya, it’s a big issue because only around 15 per cent of content played on our national stations is by Kenyans,” he says.

“We need to fight to create a space for these artists, because that will inspire the next generation to enter the arts and create a better industry. We have a lot of great talent in Kenya that we need to care for and provide real opportunities.

DxB Comedy Knights featuring Eric Omondi takes place at The Theatre at the Mall of the Emirates, Dubai, on July 23. Show times are 5pm and 8pm. Tickets are Dh100 from ae.bookmyshow.com

Updated: July 20, 2022, 8:58 AM

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