Before Facebook, before Twitter, before YouTube, before Instagram, the only source of entertainment for Kenyans came from local television, radio, and newspapers.
First, there was the era before Kibaki where we were stuck with KBC, with its turgid programs that Kenyans had genuinely outgrown. Then after Kibaki, with the proliferation of the FM radio and two additional mainstream television networks, foreign music and foreign programs became the epitome of Cool. For a period between 2002-2005, there were hardly any local programs. Each station had a token local program, often given the shortest shrift of time, (once a week at most). And since Kenyans are a pretentious lot, many, especially in the middle class were stuck with ‘high-brow’ KTN programs, mostly American programs like Friends and old Hollywood hit movies.
For talented Kenyans, unless you were a comedian, you were condemned to rot in our few theatres such as Phoenix (now defunct), Kenyan National Theatre, and Alliance Francaise (if you could belong there, know what I mean).
Most producers at the two main TV local stations, NTV and KTN, could never give Kenyan programs a chance. Their respective newspapers at the time, only advertised American movies, American series, and the Mexican soap operas. There was an unwritten rule that you could only be taken serious by advertisers depending on which American shows you beamed into people’s living rooms. And television producers were quite stuck up.
Then, in came Samuel K. Macharia with his Royal Media. After Moi had crushed his media mogul ambitions for decades, would finally emerge under Kibaki with a strategy that will alter our media landscape, for good and for better. Besides starting several vernacular stations that became wildly popular and still are, his flagship TV station, Citizen, started airing local content. Initially, the reception was poor, if condescending, typical of our self-hate. A story goes that one day, the ad-selling team of Citizen TV went to one of the Telcos to sell them advertising space. The lady in charge of marketing of the Telcos, a pompous, snobbish woman chased the guys out her office, saying that ‘her’ brand could not be associated with such a lowly TV. She only dealt with NTV and KTN. But Citizen were onto something. And three years later, the Telco, had to beg for advertising space at Citizen. Don’t quote me on this.
Enter Charles Bukeko, a.k.a. Papa Shirandula. In the eponymous show (his alias, that is), Papa Shirandula plays the role of a security guard who lies to his wife about where he works. He gets up early puts on a suit like someone who works in an office, gets to his place of work, changes to his signature maroon uniform, and in the evening he puts back his suit and goes back home. The program, starring some of the most accomplished thespians, among them Jacquiline Nyaminde (Wilbroda), Jalang’o and Otoyo (who appeared in the earlier seasons, before the programs propelled their career to join corporate radio, scooping many endorsements along the way and MCeeing jobs and stand up routines); then there was Njoro, my favourite. And of course, Juma Anderson, the snobbish boss, younger than Shirandula, but who ordered him around, totally against African traditions. The characters were so natural, represented everything Kenya is all about making the program was extremely relatable. The scriptwriters and the skits were so on point that every Thursday evening, you were guaranteed hilarity. Even when Jalang’o and Otoyo left, the program retained its flair and a huge following across many households.
Papa Shirandula, the TV show was about our idiosyncrasies as Kenya. It was about life in the poor-income households, that make up two-thirds of those who live in Nairobi. It was about stereotypes that define us. Each character lived to their ethnic stereotype and in no way offensive unless we start getting overly academic. Everyone knew the shame that comes with the pressure for a man to provide in a family. Everyone knows the workplace politics, the class system in Kenya and how it works. And I loved the method acting of characters such as Shirandula himself, Anderson, Njoro, and Wilbroda.
Shirandula had a sense of humour that was natural and unmatched. A true comic if we had one. As Mukurima Muriuki said on Facebook, “He created a standard that we use today to distinguish talent from wannabes.” His monologues shone with brilliance. And then he had a comical side. Balancing his weight on a bicycle, his dancing to Lingala music, and the twists and turns of the plot, and the childishness in the show, made the show all the more endearing.
Shirandula’s biggest contribution to the creative sector was to open the door a crack to many thespians who finally found lucrative careers on TV, radio, and the internet. Directly and indirectly, he democratized our arts and cultural spaces. By making a program that was accessible to the masses, by allowing us to laugh at ourselves, in a sense, he became a pioneer of this century. Along with the creators and actors of Tahidi High (a high-octane high school drama that gripped us in the late 2000s), Mother-in-Law and Machachari, Inspector Mwala, among other intervening programs; we thank Citizen that for each weekday, they put Kenya first.
Ironically, when Citizen became the number 1 TV station in Kenya, the other TV stations that were feeding us, trashy American TV show, picked cue and started their own local shows, some good, and some copy cuts and some flat out horrible. But Citizen had set the trend.
We will always remember the Brr Coca Cola ad. And the many memories he equipped us. We will also remember him as one of the celebrities that Covid-19 snatched from us, even though he died under questionable circumstances at the Karen Hospital.
He is the second Kenyan, from Luhyaland, no less, to die because of official neglect. The other was Ken Walibora, one of the most distinguished Swahili novelists/author who died in our largest public hospital, following an accident on Landhies Road. And Bukeko died being mishandled in a private hospital, probably one of the most exclusive. Goes to show that we have a long way to as a country.
But Charles Bukeko has left a decent mark in our history. His death and burial inside 48 hours robs us a moment to mourn him properly and even the family to find closure. But we live in the comfort that his 58 years on earth were well spent.
May he find eternal rest, and may the family find the fortitude to deal with the loss.