If you tune in and listen to the ‘Drive Show’ that airs on Radio Maisha every Monday to Friday from 4-7pm, then you are familiar with the voice of one Zulekha.
Zulekha is the show’s comedian. If you’ve ever wondered if a pretty girl can be funny, then you’ve not met Zulekha. I must say she is talented. Together with her co-host Tina Koroso, they have managed to keep thousands of listeners glued to their show every drive time.
When she is behind the mic, from time to time, she changes her tone of voice. From a deep Somali accented old woman to a young Meru lad, Zulekha has captured the attention of her listeners who are always left in stitches due to her jokes. But what is she like up close and candid?
Zulekha Akinyi Otieno is a striking woman, the kind that owns a room the minute she walks in. But there is also another side to her. She is down-to-earth. What many people may not know is that she is half Somali half Luo.
Born and brought up in Zimmerman in Nairobi, Zulekha had to endure a difficult childhood and the painful memories are still evident. “I come from a single parent family. My mother shouldered the responsibility of raising us. I have two brothers and I am the middle child,” says Zulekha.
“The painful part is that my father was a drunkard. He cared less if we had eaten, had clothes to wear and even books to use while in school. His life was centered on the ‘bottle’ and many are the times he left us to go on his numerous drinking sprees,” she says.
Not having the zeal and strength to take it anymore, Zulekha says her mother decided that they shift and move to another place to start life on their own away from their father.
“We had to flee. He didn’t even know that we had shifted to another place. At that time, I was in class two at Roysambu Primary School. My mum was open with us and gave us two options. If anyone wished to stay behind with dad then they could and if we wanted to go with her, she was not going to stop us. My brothers and I decided to go stay with mum, through thick and thin,” she bitterly recalls.
Her dad would later die of throat cancer in 2004. “Despite his bad lifestyle, he still made time to visit us when we shifted. I have never felt bitter towards my dad. Growing up, I told myself that there is no one who does not make mistakes in life.
He was still our dad and we still loved him,” she says. They started their new life in Zimmerman but problems seemed to trail their way. Her mum couldn’t raise the Sh2,500 needed for rent. To make ends meet, she started a small business of making and selling chips and bhajia.
When she came back from school, Zulekha would assist in selling the foodstuffs. As fate would have it, in 2009, Zulekha fell pregnant. “I realised I was pregnant at three months. I was devastated. I didn’t know how I was going to break the news to my mum.
Thoughts of having an abortion rang in my head but on a second thought, I decided I was going to keep my baby,” she says. Since it was hard for her to disclose the news to her mum, she decided to keep it to herself
.“My mum began to notice changes in me when I was about eight months pregnant. She requested one of my aunts to come and talk to me. I had to tell her the truth. I could not hide it anymore. My mum was so devastated by the news.
This opened new challenges to our already stressing lives. She didn’t even want to eat food I had cooked and most of the time she was crying that I also felt bad,” she says. In November 2009, Zulekha gave birth to her son, Abdul Malik Otieno. This opened a new chapter in her life. She had to look for a job. She ventured into the entertainment industry in the same year and joined a popular programme that airs on one of the local channels.
She also tried her luck as a stand-up comedian in one of the local comic shows. “In 2012, I joined Kenya Kona comedy which used to air on KTN,” she says. Her breakthrough came in August 2013 when she landed a job at Radio Maisha. She recounts that moment when that call came through.
“I was called by Radio Maisha head of radio Tom Japanni. He told me of how he had listened to me perform on the comedy shows and how I made people laugh at my jokes. He noticed my potential and requested me to visit the office which I did. Though I had never thought of joining radio, I decided to go for it,” she says.
Zulekha officially went on air in September 2013 and as she puts it, it has been an amazing experience. “My main role in the show is to bring out the light side and not make things too serious. At drive time, everyone has had a long day from work and they just want to listen to something relaxing as they go home. They want to sit and listen to Zulekha who has to make them laugh,” she says.
In the show, Zulekha acts as a fourty-something year old woman who doesn’t take life too serious and has her own way of dealing with issues. “It’s a character I love. As much as that woman is crazy, she fears God. I not only disturb my co-host but also the listeners,” she adds.
As a comedenne, and a female comic for that matter, Zulekha says she has had her fair share of challenges in the industry, from being undermined on first instances to cases of her original jokes being performed by another well-established comedian.
“All I can say is it has taken God’s grace for me to break the ceiling in the world of comedy. Sometimes I walk out of studio after the show and can’t believe I am the one who did that. My mum cries tears of joy when she listens to me. She is proud of my achievements,” says Zulekha.
As the sole breadwinner in her family, she says: “I have to work hard to remain vibrant, fresh and remain abreast with the daily happenings to ensure my jokes are educative and entertaining and make people laugh,” she says.
“It’s not easy to be spontaneous every day. In the comedy industry, it is wrong to repeat what another comedian has said. It is a crime. But I strive to do my best. I use the opportunity I have been given not only to make people laugh, but also make them learn and change their lives.”
Zulekha, however, regrets that many youth are wasting away in their homes yet they have talents that can earn them money. “Whatever you can do, do it today and give it your best because you are not guaranteed of tomorrow.
Keep fighting because nothing comes easy. I used to write a lot of jokes and keep them in the house not knowing what God planned for me. It is all about persistence,” says Zulekha.