Life Story On The Road in conversation with Ak Dans, Don Andre & Timothy Nyanzi
Sunday morning, Kampala, while the brave rave on in the furious Ugandan Afro-beat dance-halls, sprawled across downtown, AK Dans slumps onto the couch, in his house in the leafy suburb of Munyonyo on the shores of Lake Victoria. He smiles widely with that irascible grin of his, rubs his eyes, “how are you fam?” he asks. Ak has been out on the road for the past few months riding the whirlwind, hustling gigs in Joburg, scribbling his work, seeking validation. He apologies for running late, tells me that the rest of his crew will be here by the by. That’s okay, things move pretty slowly around here on a Sunday.
After the huge success of the last piece that I wrote about AK’s rising career in comedy, we have decided to do another piece on him. And this time around we’re including his crew – Don Andre, Timothy Nyanzi and Hilary Okello, in anticipation of their upcoming show, Who Let The Jokes Out?, which drops in mid-November. The house is busy, people drift about like actors in search of a play, it’s a carefree time, watching the dawn after a night out, all young, hungry and energetic in a buzzing, coming of age city. The others drift in sans Hillary Okello, who bizarrely cannot attend the recording, because he is in surgery, as the doctor not the patient. Noticing my surprise, they shrug, “That’s Kampala bro.” Stately Don Andre, and Timothy Nyanzi possessing an intellectual manner, flop down on the couch on either side of AK. They are in high spirits, fist-pumping, ribbing one another, life is good. I ask them to tell me about Kampala and they are off, chatting at a million miles a minute, you can tell this crew are used to marathon all night discussions soaking up the world.
Kampala is changing, three quarters of Kampalans are under 30. Akin to New York or London in the Seventies, the youth in Kampala want to be, want to seek direct experience, seek the heart of the city, wherever that may be. There is an embryonic artistic culture that needs nourishing, that is hungry for direction. The role of these comedians is to point murky mirrors to Kampalans, be Virgilian guides to the nuances of the city.
As detailed in my last piece on Ak Dans, Street Walking Cheetah In A Cross Fire Hurricane, Ak came from nothing, dragging himself up by his bootstraps, it wasn’t always sipping Eritrean coffees in upmarket Munyonyo. Possessing a dowser’s instinct, he knows the streets, knows what’s going down in his city. “From the ghettos, they come, the comedians,” he explains, “it’s not for those that have a path, the educated, the connected, the silver spooned.”
But in a city of almost two million people, how do you know where to start? Don Andre laughs, “You are funny, or at least you think you are funny, you go for auditions, but you don’t get them, so you think about joining The Man, fortunately I found Timothy.” Don Andre is talking about the man sitting to his left, Timothy Nyanzi, savior of comics, cornerstone of alternative Kampalan comedy. Timothy has ran a weekly workshop for budding comedians for years. Up to forty comedians cram into a crowded space to be mentored by him and the dude doesn’t charge a cent.
Timothy understands too well their frustrations, he went through the same cycle of rejection, repeatedly being told, “come back later, come back later,” so he started his own platform – The Punchliners, mentoring a new generation of comedians, blooding the best of them at his weekly show at the Waikiki Lounge. He teaches what they don’t know, shows them the wider world. He looks to the ceiling, seeking the words, spits them out in that rapid fire delivery method of his, “the majority of Ugandan comedians are unfortunately influenced by Ugandan comics”.
Ak agrees, “Most comedians are from poor backgrounds, they are desperate, they just want to work it out, but mentoring under Timothy, they tend to discover themselves, change their mindsets, you are not just confined to the Ugandan way. You figure out who you want to be.” Don Andre, seconds that, “your comedy depends on the people that you hang out with, they push you to do more, be more.”
So, are they influenced by American comedians? Timothy deadpans, “the money to see Dave Chappelle for one hour would take a child through four grades of school,” but he does see parallels with black American comedians, “poor and from the ghettos.” “Whereas”, Ak says, “Jerry Seinfeld would not pull a crowd if he came to Uganda, he has a totally different type of humor. We don’t do Tinder. You mock McDonalds for people shoveling junk into their mouths, getting fat, being cheap. but that’s where we bring our girlfriends on dates.”
These guys are screaming to get out, outside of Kampala, outside of Uganda, out into the world, out into the great wide open. They love Kampala, it is their patch but there are not many opportunities to do comedy. There are only a few comedy clubs. There is no comedy on TV, no late night shows, no satirical sitcoms. One is reminded of the oft trotted out dictum, that prophets are never realized in their hometown. Don Andre booms, “Chappelle would not work here, people do not want to think, they just want you to be funny.” Timothy elaborates, “You do not criticize the audience in Kampala, we are not exposed, we are confined to our households, our schools, our work and the TV shows that are broadcast, like Indian soaps. You grow up in a village, then you come to Kampala, they have not been exposed enough to life, you need to think about this when you’re doing your act.”
Of course, Ugandan youths are following pursuits other than comedy, primarily comedians are competing with musicians, sometimes being crushed between musical acts, like a variety show, which is far from ideal. Don Andre says, “Young people are more into the music, they only come to comedy when their ideals have being crushed, when they hit rock bottom, they need us.”
It’s a long and winding road, I ask them, are they in it for the long run? Timothy shoots back, “If comedy is the casino, then all the chips are in. Me personally, I have a day job, but I give my comedy priority, I have killed uncles and aunties to get days off work to do shows. We intend to do comedy to the very end.” Don Andre agrees, “There is no getting out,” he says. Ak concludes “We all have made sacrifices to get here, had disagreements with our families, refused to take regular paying jobs, failed college, taking shows rather than sitting exams. Keep going, that’s the main thing” He stands up and walks out onto his balcony looking out over romantic, tropical and blissfully chaotic Kampala, amid the smell of jacarandas.
With men like Ak Dans, Don Andre and Timothy Nyanzi there is hope for this generation of Kampalan comedians, rowing against the current with optimism and ambition, under the mango trees of Munyonyo alongside the great white father of the rolling waters of Lake Victoria.