Page last updated at 13:16 GMT, Friday, 10 July 2009 14:16 UK

Using puppets to battle Kenya corruption

Puppets and their handlers during the filming of the XYZ Show
The XYZ Show in Kenya uses rubber puppets to tackle serious political situations

By Will Ross
BBC News, Nairobi

At a recent prayer breakfast in Kenya, religious matters were pushed aside and instead gluttony was the order of the day.

President Mwai Kibaki struggled to eat a whole chapatti in one go, Prime Minister Raila Odinga spilt tea down his suit and Vice-President Kalonzo Musyoka struggled after getting a sausage stuck in his mouth.

Luckily, these were just puppets being filmed in the cramped dining room of a Nairobi home for the latest of 13 episodes of the XYZ show.

A puppet and its handlers
Every Kenyan should contribute to expose what is happening and to expose corruption
Gado, Kenyan cartoonist

The satirical puppet show, which was influenced by the British 1980s show Spitting Image and France's Les Guignols, is a chance for a group of scriptwriters and puppeteers to delve into the murky world of Kenyan politics.

The man behind it is East Africa's best known cartoonist, Gado, who has been taking a pop at Kenya's elite for years and encourages people to question events in Kenya.

"I think it's everybody's duty," he said.

"You can't put that responsibility on one individual, as every Kenyan should contribute to expose what is happening and to expose corruption."

Kenya has its fair share of political scandals and people have a fairly low view of their politicians, several of whom were accused of stoking the ethnic violence which flared after the disputed election in December 2007.

Now members of the coalition government, formed to prevent the country descending further into anarchy, have another reason to watch their steps - unless they want to see an embarrassing action replay in latex.

"We bring out the character... especially when it comes to the fact that the politicians never stand for anything, the double-standards and the hypocrisy," said director James Kanja, who says he is not expecting any threatening phone calls in response to the show.

"We feel secure knowing that we are working with puppets so we could argue at the end of the day that this is a puppet not a real person."

Working with muppets

The XYZ team has set up its main studio in a warehouse across town.

As the cameras roll, the production team is glued to TV monitors to check the mannerisms are just right.

A Mwai Kibaki puppet
Senior figures like President Mwai Kibaki are not exempt from attention

In the Kiswahili language, the puppet bearing a close resemblance to the prime minister is reassuring the nation that all is well in the coalition government because everyone is eating a healthy slice of the national cake.

A clear reference to recent high level corruption scandals.

Each character has two puppeteers - one controlling the eyes, the other the body.

After working with muppets and marionettes for more than 10 years, Daniel Otieno now gets maximum job satisfaction working closely with a scarily life-like latex President Kibaki.

"It's awesome to be in control of the president. After all, he gets his salary from us," says Mr Otieno, after helping the presidential puppet deliver a speech about safe sex.

Delayed at customs

The fact that the show is on air is a sign of press freedom here.

If you tried to produce a show like this in several other countries, you would end up behind bars before you could say: "Camera, Lights, Action."

Another puppet
The puppets and the puppeteers tend to do some very interesting things when given a free rein
James Kanja

In South Africa, a similar satirical show has been produced but so far has not aired.

This has left people wondering whether the politicians and broadcasters are ready to witness the sight of a Jacob Zuma-like puppet fleeing from the National Prosecuting Authority or a latex version of Thabo Mbeki in drag, singing the Gloria Gaynor hit I Will Survive.

Kenya's XYZ Show has been in the pipeline since 2002 but was recently given a financial leg-up when several embassies and the Ford Foundation came forward to support it.

Projects that might help keep the politicians under scrutiny and promote democracy and accountability are seen by donors as worth sponsoring.

USAid has been helping distribute Michela Wrong's latest book, It's Our Turn To Eat, which shines a bright light on political corruption.

Kenyan bookstores had been extremely reluctant to stock it, fearing they might make enemies in high places.

Without the funding, the show was unlikely to make it onto TV.

I was told the puppets cost $2-3,000 each, with the latex imported from France.

The creators have had some unusual explaining to do at customs.

There was a production delay in the puppet workshop recently as Kenyan customs officials raised a few eyebrows over a small package which apparently contained the the eyes of the First Lady, Lucy Kibaki.


There is a history of political satire in Kenya, with the popular comedy trio Redykyulass having caused years of belly aches and Nation TV's Bull's Eye sending up the politicians each week.

The feedback for the XYZ show itself has been lukewarm so far, with critics suggesting it is too serious and lacks pace.

Puppets and their handlers during the filming of the XYZ Show
Two people are needed to operate one puppet

But the team is confident it will improve and by veering off script it could produce more laughs.

"Whenever we are not shooting the serious stuff on the scripts the puppets and the puppeteers tend to do some very interesting things when given a free rein," said Mr Kanja.

The big question is how far the scriptwriters can push out the boat without upsetting the powers that be.

"Our goal is not to avoid any character or subject," said Gado.

He was being watched from the sidelines by Kenya's famous son Barack Obama, who has been given ears the size of satellite dishes.

"We are going to push it as far as we can and if we get into trouble that's part and parcel of the show and the industry."

So far it hasn't been possible to get any reaction from the real Kenyan politicians.

But I did hear a whisper that one had complained, "Why have they made my mouth so big?"

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