AK Dans, the up and coming crushing comedian is strutting down Acacia Avenue, Kampala, a street walking cheetah in a cross fire hurricane –
‘Mind if we walk and talk?’ he asks, ‘I have a super hectic day ahead man.’
Kampala is home to AK Dans, originally of South Sudan, by way of Kakuma refugee camp, Kenya. He struts the streets, Massive Attack style, chatting, stopping for handshakes and bro hugs, noshing down a rolex while he talks to me down the phone about Kampala, comedy and grand plans for his hilarious one man show, The Woke Refugee.
I can hear street hawkers calling out in Luganda, the pop pop of Boda Bodas, music blaring out of shop fronts and someone singing Hallelujah under the jacarandas of Kampala.
AK is back in his hometown, in between performing his one man show to a sold out crowd at Notos Lounge Bar & Grill in Juba, South Sudan and an eleven date tour of South Africa. Life is good. The future is looking rosy. His past is a crazy roller-coaster ride since his entry into the comedy world three years ago.
‘How did you get into comedy?’ I ask him.
‘A fortunate series of mad events,’ he laughs.
In November 2015, he bought a copy of Trevor Noah’s Lost in Translation and watched it on a loop. Maybe the hamster in AK’s head got to whirling about comedy, but he says, at that time he never considered it. AK, likes to cook for his guests, when he does, they sit and watch him cook and he chats, and riffs, telling them a bunch of stories and it always gets them laughing. One guest in the summer of 2016, suggested to AK that he should try stand-up comedy. And he decided he would. The only place he knew in Kampala was the now defunct Comedy Files, so he went there and presented himself to the stage Manager, Manager Mozey. AK was so green, he thought he would go on that day, of course, he didn’t, but Mozey liked the cut of his jib and recommended him to attend a weekly workshop dedicated to budding comedians.
That workshop was run by the remarkable Timothy Nyanzi, one of the best writers in Kampala, who mentored up to forty comedians every Tuesday for free. Some of the great comedians of Kampala, Okello Okello among them, had worked that room. AK went there every Tuesday for four months and found himself falling in love with comedy.
That August he clambered onto stage for the first time at Makerere University, with his fellow workshop compadre and friend, Don Andre. It went well, the crowd really liked him but he realized that they were ‘a super nice crowd’, he knew that he was not that good yet. He continued to attend the workshop, week in, week out, working his material over and over, taking on feedback from the other comedians and the mentoring of Timothy Nyanzi.
All the time he was searching for slots, for open mics, it wasn’t easy. Even with all the comedy clubs in Kampala, slots are not easy to come by, there are hordes of comedians and the clubs need to make money, so they want only the best. So the bosses, gatekeepers and all the head buck cats told AK to come back when he got good . But how do you get good without getting the slots? You need the slots.
So, in 2017, he and a few of the troupe from Timothy’s started to run an open mic show at Anne Kansiime’s bar, Obis. For two years, AK didn’t get paid, not a single coin all that time. ‘Well,’ he says, ‘it’s an open mic, they don’t pay.’ All passion. He had no job. Just hustling. There was a bunch of them that had no jobs, they did whatever anyone wanted, as long has it came their way, they got it done. It was just the open street, wherever they could get cash, they just went for it. Sometimes his brother would help him out and his aunties threw him a few dollars now and again.
‘They believed in you?’ I ask.
‘I wouldn’t say they believed in me,’ he laughs ‘because I never told them about it. My brother heard about me through the grapevine, but I wanted to make sure I was good at it, before I let them see me.’
‘Did being South Sudanese and growing up in Kakuma refugee camp mean his comedy was different?’
‘No,’ he replies, ‘I was not mentored to be a South Sudanese comedian – more international, therefore appealing to all. Anyone who gets the chance to cross the border tells sad and weird stories so they can get sympathy, so I’m going to tell the good things and if it is bad, I can find the funny part, because there is always a funny side. Even Kakuma man, we had fun, we used to sing, we used to dance, we were happy, I want to help refugees accept that their past lives matter.’
Late that summer of 2017, AK eventually got his first paid show. He was doing an open mic, and closed his set with his Embassy joke, which killed the audience every time, it is a killer joke, it never let him down. One guy in the audience invited him to do a show at his bar. AK went, the set went well. He was paid 10,000 Ugandan Shillings (around 3 USD), the price of the bus home. Still, it was a paid gig. It was a start.
Okello Okello was performing his one man show for two nights in September 2017. He gave AK and Don Andre a slot each night to open for him. It was the first time that his family and friends were in the audience. The ten minute slot went well and Okello offered them another gig in Soroti.
They traveled to Soroti in a van, but this was no ordinary van, it contained big hitters, Akite Agnes, Cotildah and Daniel Omara were in that van. AK had being obsessed with Daniel Omara, binge watching him on TV. Now here he was sitting in the same van as Daniel Omara and about to share the same stage as him.
AK tells me about Daniel Omara –
‘We got chatting backstage. He’s a super nice guy, tells a lot of stories. Then I went on stage. “Go have fun,” he said. I did eight minutes, it was a super nice show, Daniel Omara was surprised. He had never seen me before. Then Don Andre went on and he killed it too, again Daniel was surprised. Daniel closed the show, he really crushed it. That night we exchanged contacts with him.’
They all returned to Kampala, but things had changed for AK, Daniel Omara was in his contact book. He continues,
‘Daniel Omara was booked for the Kigali International Comedy Festival. I saw the posters. I texted him to wish him well and he invited us to travel with him and that he would put us up in an apartment. Myself, Don Andre, Okello Okello, Timothy Nyanzi, Optional Allan and a few others, there were six or seven of us. We took a bus from Kampala to Kigali. All in this apartment. Man, it was a great time.’
Daniel managed to get them two slots at the festival. That was a big deal, there were comedians from all around the world performing. But there were six or seven in AK’s posse. One slot was given to AK, because he was South Sudanese and they wanted diversity and the others let Timothy Nyanzi take the remaining spot. AK got six minutes, he crushed it. A promoter approached him after the show and offered him a slot at the prestigious Laugh Festival in Nairobi the following month.
“I took the bus, I had only fifty bucks left in my pocket. I slept at a friend’s house. I met up with some of the comedians like Cotildah. There were about five thousand people in the audience. I was fourth on stage, I did ten minutes that changed my life. I stepped off that stage as a comedian and doors opened for me – bookings, inspirational messages, an offer for a show in Australia – I was super freaked out. It pushed me to it more. I was recognized as a South Sudanese comedian. It opened up my mind, my writing.’
AK started getting bookings and getting paid. He has gigged in Uganda, Kenya, Rwanda, Botswana and South Africa and most recently in South Sudan.
I ask him is he the only South Sudanese comedian?
‘No, no, no, I wouldn’t say I am the only one, a lot of people say I am the only one, but there is a lot of them out there, doing their thing, like I was when I was super down there, going around the cities, where nobody knew me.’ There are other South Sudanese comedians. There is Emo who is based in Australia and Manelson who just moved back to South Sudan. I haven’t got to see them in the flesh but they are doing their thing.’
That recent return to Juba, South Sudan was seismic with AK performing his one man show The Woke Refugee for the first time. He has being writing it and trying out the material since 2016. Performing it for the first time at a hometown gig was very special and it went well, very well. It will be the first performance of many as AK is keen to tour the world with it, starting in the refugee camps of Rhino and Bidi Bidi. As his fellow comedian and good friend Long John says, ‘If it not big, it is not a plan.’