The early afternoon sun reaches through the windows of Flip Project’s home base in the dry and dusty suburbs of Lusaka. Light glints off a few beer bottles, warms a homemade cake, and spreads a minor glare across the computer monitor. On the screen, a randy pastor gawks at a member of his congregation, her cleavage between them as she seeks answers through private prayer. Channelling the divine, the holy man’s hands find their way from her waist to her breasts, the levels of tension absurd as he leads her through some babbling incantation, her arms open to God, his eyes on her chest.
“We went a little bit too far on this one”, says the grinning and bespectacled Kiss Brian Abraham, architect of Zambia’s start-up hub for all things satire.
Launched two years ago, Flip Project is a multi-media, interdisciplinary endeavour involving illustrators, writers, puppeteers, and broadcasters. It comprises a magazine, a newspaper, a website, video clips, and an upcoming spot on MuviTV featuring a papier-mâché puppet called The Critic. There have been many hurdles, from a reluctant distributor to hesitant contributors, and from sparse funding to the government’s occasional bursts of intolerance. “We will receive very little support because of the nature of the content”, says Abraham. “I don’t know what we’re doing. I think it is suicide.”
But at the same time, Abraham has long-term strategy in mind to align Zambia’s culture of satire with the genre’s regional epicentre in South Africa.
On board too is Roy Clarke, well-known around the country for his Kalaki’s Korner column, which was a regular feature in The Post until a falling out with the newspaper three years ago. Effusive, dry-witted and magnetic when he enters the room, 71-year-old Clarke is synonymous with satire in Zambia, at least in part because of the internationally publicised clash he had in 2004 with the late Movement for Multiparty Democracy (MMD) president Levy Mwanawasa.
In one of his columns, Clarke recalls, he likened the president to “a silly, self-regarding elephant” tasked with overlooking a game park. “And so”, he says, “this Mwanawasa apparently read this piece and out of some dreadful leap of his imagination, for which he’d never been known before, saw himself as the elephant”.
The rest is well-documented, but in a nutshell, the government launched a deportation action against Clarke, a citizen of the UK, and for the next five months he skulked between a few secret locations, waiting and writing while The Post’s legal representation won over an apparently outspoken judge.
“I explained about safe houses”, he says, remembering the freelance pieces he wrote during the ordeal. “I said a safe house is rather like a condom. You use it once and throw it away.”
Throughout much of Clarke’s tenure with The Post, Abraham illustrated his columns. When Clarke locked horns with editor Fred M’membe about a piece lampooning Zambia’s judiciary, he quit the paper and Abraham joined him on the way out the door. Flip Project sprung from there.
“I was happy to leave,” Abraham recalls, “but what to do next? After you work for The Post, which is the only [independent] publication, where do you go next?”
Africa has a rich tradition of satire with abundant roots in the pre-colonial era, which William D. Piersen fleshes out in an essay called ‘Puttin’ Down Ole Massa’, published in a 1976 edition of Research in African Literatures. Singers were the original satirists, according to Piersen, and they combed the markets or shorelines lampooning authority figures and spreading gossip. Unlike today, when some governments loom to crush that kind of dissent, authority was wary and respectful of people who attracted public attention.
“As the press is feared and courted in America”, writes Pearson, “so too were the improvisational singers of Africa, who served as the organs of public opinion in traditional non-literate society”.
When whites began rowing ashore, satirists swept them up in their verses, most of which were riffs on caricature or reputation. African languages, impenetrable to many long-ago traders, offered devious shelter from which to mock newcomers straight to their faces. That idea spread with the slave trade, travelling to the sugar plantations of the Caribbean and the cotton fields of America.
“I think satire is a Zambian cultural phenomenon”, says Abraham. “If you want to insult a king, at least in Bemba tradition, you just praise him. You say, ‘Your highness, you are like a toilet’. Before he gets mad, you tell him, ‘Because a toilet accepts everyone.’”
But in Zambia, at least, it seems that kind of irreverence has largely faded away. It is not like in South Africa, where Mail and Guardian cartoonist Zapiro relentlessly batters President Jacob Zuma, typically drawn with a showerhead growing out his face because of a comment he made about having a shower after having sex with a woman he knew was HIV-positive.
Loyiso Gola is another favourite, described as the country’s answer to the US television satirist John Stewart, with a recent segment pondering a future in which the country’s proposed insult law smothers Zuma-themed knock-knock jokes. A sample gag featuring the president on the other side of the door ends in the punch line: “But that’s impossible. This is a school.”
Even in repressive Zimbabwe, the Zambezi News, a send-up of the country’s state broadcaster, was launched just before the election earlier this month. In an online in-house ad, a barrage of over-the-top self-endorsements promises that when there’s no news to report, they’ll just make it up.
Abraham, by contrast, remembers his early years trotting from newsroom to newsroom with his portfolio, trying to score freelance gigs but inevitably getting tossed out the door. Even when he did land agreements, a subtle kind of censorship would leak out of the dynamic between editor, publisher, and advertiser, with the latter companies often answering to government shareholders.
Clarke chalks Zambia’s relatively staid composure up to the colonial experience, which, unlike those of South Africa and Zimbabwe, didn’t end in bloody fits of rebellion. He’s been in Zambia for decades now and can only rattle off a handful of early satirists, people like the late Brian Ford, more commonly known as Trevor Ford, but most commonly known as YUSS. He also remembers columnists with satirical bents, such as the late Lucy Sichone and the late Jowie Mwiinga, both of whom were forced into hiding in the course of their careers.
For Abraham, it is a question of maturity. The country is barely 50 years old, and Kenneth Kaunda’s one-party state only ended in 1991. “The history of media is that we’ve only had one outlet, and its function has been to praise the government”, he says.
It is hard to say for sure, but unfamiliarity with satire may lend it some allowances. Successive governments have tended to focus on mainstream media when it comes to arrests, beatings and lawsuits, and Clarke and Abraham wonder if that is maybe because no self-dignified leader wants to admit that he bears any likeness to some bloated and drunk caricature, smoke fuming from his cigar as he towers like a tyrant. On the other hand, they caution, it could be because those select few cases involving the likes of Clarke, Sichone and Mwiinga were all it took to smother the movement.
Either way, it has been hard for Abraham to muster resources and support. The magazine and newspaper components of the Flip Project – two issues a piece – were extremely hard to distribute. They ran off 3,500 copies of the magazine, but could only get Akine, their distributor, to accept 400, the last half of which were brought to market only begrudgingly. Meanwhile, they’re also having trouble with their printer.
“If the printer doesn’t want to print”, says Clarke, “you can be bloody sure the advertisers don’t want to advertise.”
So the way forwards is mostly online. The New Zambian is Flip’s web persona. At the moment, it is a news aggregator, placing headlines from controversial sources such as Zambian Watchdog alongside government-friendly outlets like The Post (which, the thinking goes, lost the aforementioned independent streak once the Patriotic Front took power in 2011). At the same time, NGOs like Transparency International, ActionAid, and Media Institute for Southern Africa Zambia are coming onboard to assist in development and production, which could make triumphs like the upcoming MuviTV arrangement more common.
“Everything is in development”, says Abraham, reclined on a couch in his office, his Che Guevara screensaver shuffling across the computer monitor. “None of this has been done before.”
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For further reading around the subject see:
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