Uganda: Kampala comic genius is in the thigh of the beholder

Comedy at Kampala's National Theatre, Uganda, is, unsurprisngly, quite theatrica

Comedy at Kampala's National Theatre, Uganda, is, unsurprisingly, quite theatrical


“And that was for the purposes of the white people in the house,” the lively warm-up guys says, his eyes focusing on my face, which is transforming from one of two white faces in the audience to the only scarlet red one.  

Sitting in the third row of Kampala’s National Theatre for its weekly Wednesday comedy night was a premeditated strategy. I knew it would be unfeasible to hide the glory of my lily-white, freckly complexion in an all black audience so I thought I’d let the comedians get it out of their systems; the white man jokes – go on, let me have it. 

It’s the modus operandi of many a stand-up hack: find out who is in the audience, why  they are different and, if your material falls flat on its arse, strike.

But the bait was left on my rather evident hook: they didn’t really strike; except for the above throw-away line (that actually didn’t refer to anything he said, he was just sort of acknowledging me) and when the final act mentioned that he “actually quite likes white people” soon after changing his tack to talk about black girl’s ears and vaginas.

I was a tad disenchanted that I survived the evening relatively unscathed; not what I expected at all. But, then again, the remainder of the evening wasn’t what I envisioned Ugandan comedy to be either.

The event’s flyer listed 10 acts for the evening. With names such as Waa Waa and the Trouble with Haaji, perhaps I should have clicked that I was not in for an evening of regular stand-up; in fact, there were only two true stand-ups (first and last) on the bill.

The remaining eight acts were thoroughly scripted, theatrical-style comedy; part vaudeville, part classic slapstick, part pantomime – like a royal command performance in an African food processor.

Initially the subject matter was tame, conservative in its approach, with a black hole where the biting political comedy should have been – perhaps understandable in one of many African countries where belittling authority isn’t always a safe spectator sport.

Thankfully, from under this unadventurous blanket a seam of comic filth began gradually to poke up its head.

Non-political taboos were fare game: bum and genital jokes galore provoked ongoing chuckles (with a rape joke thrown in) while race also tickled the audience thoroughly, particularly the clap-along ditty entitled ‘What Do Bitches Want from My Nigger’.

My audience neighbours were as interested in my reactions to the show as they were in the show itself, laughing more when I didn’t laugh, as if compensating for the joke not quite hitting the mark, willing me to ‘get’ the next lark.

Unfortunately, despite mostly being performed in English, a substantial chunk of the laughs on offer did not dock in my skull or indeed in my funny bone. The local accent had a lot to do with it; the heavy tones of Ugandan English, particularly when delivered at a frantic comic pace, did not sit easily in my ears. Also a substantial chunk of the cultural references and nuances passed this Uganda newcomer right on by.

So, in terms of coming to a conclusion on the quality, I’ll have to throw it out to the audience on this occasion: and they were whooping up a storm, even genuinely slapping their thighs at some moments of Kampalan comedy genius.

I though ‘thigh-slapping good laughs’ was just a cliché. Apparently not in Uganda.

Steve Madgwick