The satirist who pokes fun at everyday things in Africa

In real life, comedians can be surprisingly serious and sombre people, carrying the weight of the world on their shoulders and projecting an angst — a far cry from their on-stage or in front-of-the-camera persona. The Nigerian-British host of BBC’s satirical show What’s Up Africa, is no different. Only that he does not view himself as a comedian.

“I enjoy making people laugh and I think I’m okay at it, but I don’t do stand-up. I’m curious by nature and I share a lot of the journalistic values that journalists at the BBC have. I’m somewhere in between these two. Rather than ‘comedian’ or ‘journalist,’ I’d describe myself more as a satirist.”

Recently in Kenya to cover news stories suggested by What’s Up Africa fans, Ikenna filmed skits around corruption, censorship, police abuse and nefarious prophets, with the aim of skewering each with his trademark searing wit. But he also covered inspiring stories such as that of Joe Kioko, a male ballet dancer.

Ikenna started out as a corporate lawyer, but after four years, he felt he needed to do what was true to his talents and inclinations.

Even though his show is a mere three minutes a week (with additional clips on YouTube), you can tell that he is switched on about it and eager to do more.

Not only is he earnest about what he does, there is also a big need for it. There is a saying that if you can laugh at your worries, you have gained power over them.

What’s Up Africa delivers through satire how Africans talk about their problems, without handwringing and angst. This is a very empowering paradigm shift. That’s why he’s a person to watch out for as an influencer in the next few years.

The original angle

Having filmed in 12 countries on the continent thus far, What’s Up Africa has featured Uganda and Tanzania in the recent past. In Tanzania, Ikenna’s sketch took the African Development Bank to task for the ambiguity of its statistics, while in Uganda, he took on the government for selling off public school land to commercial developers.

So what does it take to make a good show? “There has to be an original angle to a story. Like an argument, a thesis that I am putting forward. And it has to be very funny. I want to entertain people, I want people to laugh out loud. But not always. Sometimes I just want people to go away thinking, ‘Yeah, I hadn’t thought about that in that way.’

The new programme season, starting on March 1, will also feature collaborations with Kenyan comedian Eric Omondi and the Redfourth Chorus.

Reading through the comments on Ikenna’s social media feed, he’s been compared to a younger Will Smith, Trevor Noah and Ray William Johnson, but he says the comedians he admires are Jon Stewart, John Oliver and Steven Colbert of the US. “I’m also inspired by people like Serena Williams, who work their backs off and are driven and successful.”

What’s Up Africa is breaking the mould, being the first satirical show on the BBC World news channel.

On his future plans and legacy, Ikenna says, “BBC has Focus on Africa, which is its flagship Africa show. It would be good if there could also be a 30-minute slot for satire and something that could be a platform not just for the kind of sketches that I do now, but for interviews, music, collaborations with producers and content creators from Africa. In terms of trajectory, I’m hoping it can be like Ali G, who started with small segments on a Friday night show, and then got his own show.”

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By Kingwa Kamencu