DAN NDAMBUKI, or CHURCHILL as he is more popularly referred, is marking a decade in the world of drama and comedy. Many of the people he started with have fallen by the roadside, but Churchill gets better with each year, besides mentoring new acts. KIUNDU WAWERU caught up with him
Kenyans will remember Wahome Mutahi for his humour column, Whispers. But Mutahi also revolutionised theatre with hilarious Kikuyu plays. Among the people Mutahi inspired was a skinny young man that he nicknamed Churchill.
And the skinny man, born Dan Ndambuki, is now following in Wahome’s footsteps. In November, Churchill did a dare. He conceptualised a Kamba play, which he claims is the first in Kenyan theatre history. Ndukatavye Mundu opened to a modest audience at the Kenya National Theatre.
After the cast exited, Ken Waudo, who works with Churchill at The Laugh Industry, the entertainment company Churchill founded, invited him to address his fans. Churchill appeared from the backstage looking majestic in a white suit, the kind worn by Navy captains.
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“Hawayunii,” he called out in that familiar tone. Churchill then explained why he decided to produce the play, which his first, having lined up six others in different Kenyan languages to be showcased this year.
Recently, Churchill attended the Tony Award winning musical, Fela! in Broadway, New York, USA. The acclaimed musical tells the story of the life of Nigerian musician Fela Kuti, who pioneered the Afrobeat music and inspired many American hip-hop artistes. Fela! was produced by Jay-Z and Hollywood power couple, Will Smith and Jada Pinkett.
“The tickets were ridiculously expensive, the script was in a Nigerian language, and yet the theatre teamed up with wazungus (whites) who understood nothing,” Churchill told his Ndukatavye Mundu audience. “There is no reason why we should not tell our stories in our local languages,” he said, scanning the theatre.
Despite the poor turnout, Churchill is not discouraged and intends to still put together the other productions and to also release a musical on one of Kenya’s presidents.
“Kenyans are a funny lot,” he says, laughing in his signature indescribable manner, which has become a subject of jokes from his mentees. “When you start something new, they will stand sceptically aside. Ndukatavye Mundu may have not attracted a full house but The African Series is, for me, a dare, a risk.” he says.
Today, Churchill is a seasoned TV, radio and theatre comedian who seems to do things effortlessly. And his energy seems boundless because, even after rising everyday at 3am to prepare for his morning breakfast show with Maina Kageni, Churchill still finds the time to script plays that are largely produced by Heartstrings Kenya and The Laugh Industry. He is also one of the most sought after emcees.
How does he do it?
“I work hard and try as much as possible to remain relevant by being creative,” he says.
For instance, Churchill translated his love for children by conceptualising the now popular Kids Festival. When he launched it about three years ago, not many people bought into the idea. But his belief in the concept and the determination to still go on despite the hiccups saw the event grow in leaps and bounds; such that in December last year, about 37,000 children and adults turned up for the event held at the Nyayo National Stadium, Nairobi. In addition, blue chip corporates sponsor the event.
“Now everyone wants to be part of it,” Churchill says, beaming with pride.
What many people may not know is that the top comic’s Churchill Live show was inspired by US-based Jay Leno of the Tonight Show. As he finalises touches on the next season, Churchill reveals that he will focus more on peace.
“This is a sensitive time in Kenya and we plan to feature new jokes that will move away from the tribal line,” he says, adding, “Mashetani is the in thing now. Comedians should take it up and try to understand what would lead a deputy prime minister to claim that dark forces manipulated him to act the way he did. But looking closely at the Kenyan culture, you wouldn’t be surprised. We are fond of muttering; ‘Hii ni shetani gani imenitembelea leo!’ (which demon is attacking me now?).”
Sitting by the pool at a five-star hotel in Nairobi, where we are conducting this interview, Churchill gaily acknowledges greetings from guests and waiters. He is wearing a brightly checked shirt, untucked over a black trouser and black shoes. A promise of rich cologne wafts from his side while his Galaxy phone vibrates occasionally.
Though he began his voyage in the world of comedy in the late 1990s courtesy of the Redykyulass trio of Tony Njuguna, Walter Mong’are and John ‘KJ’ Kiarie, he is hard to unveil. He downplays his achievements and is self-effacing. He is also religious and credits his success to God.
“I pray before I get to the studio. Creativity is spiritual and you must connect with God to have a full grasp of it,” he asserts.
Interestingly, he thanks George Tyson for his detour into the world of acting after he assigned him a role in the Siku Njema set-book play by Ken Walibora in 1999.
“Had I not been in that play, my career would have been in the church,” he quips. As if to prove he is not joking, he adds that at that time, he was a student of Theology with Word of Life seeking to be a youth counsellor.
The year Ndambuki hit the stage, he met Ken Waudo and they have remained firm friends. Waudo describes him as an exceptional character. “He is very religious. When we have successful shows, he asks us to select churches, which he then goes ahead to tithe.”
Ironically, one would never equate Churchill with the church, despite the name, owing to the sassy topics he discusses on air as Mwalimu Kingangi with Kageni, for which the duo have repeatedly been blamed for promoting promiscuity, adultery, and family break-ups.
“Mwalimu Kingangi is just a character,” he says in protest. “He does not define me, but he caters for a particular audience who chooses to tune in. Nevertheless, the character might be dropped off soon.”
In his homeland Machakos, Churchill’s character is larger than life. Says Waudo: “The locals have been asking him to vie for a political office and be the governor. But politics is not his core.”
Churchill on his part enjoys the simple life. “I do not get attached to material things. Like cars and electronics,” he says. “I like to live a life I can manage. I am a kawaida person. I know this will one day end. When it does, I want to be able to sustain the life I have created, so I prefer to invest in things that are durable.”
He believes this new year will be his best yet as finalises on several projects.
When he retires, he wants to be satisfied with his life. “I will want to look back and say, ‘I did my bit.’”
Churchill has protected his family from public scrutiny. Save for one time when he unveiled his wife and son, who turns five this January, during a TV interview, the comedian prefers they remain in the shadows.
He thanks his mother for the person he has turned out to be. “In this industry, you are faced with many challenges. To manage, you need a strong foundation,” he says.