“I never dreamt of becoming a comedian. I didn’t even know what stand-up was,” Akau Jambo heartily reveals. The South Sudanese has come a long way and is now a successful comedian.
Aged 26, he is one of the minds behind Juba’s very first International Comedy Festival. The second edition of the event will take place on May 27th and 28th at Pyramid Hotel with comedians from South Africa (Ndumiso Lindi), Tanzania (Deo), Uganda (Dr Hilary Okello; Cotilda) and Zimbabwe (Q-Dube). Prior to the 2-day event he shared stories that made his journey and talked goals with Africanews.
How did you encounter stand-up. Was it a childhood dream ?
I had no idea what stand up was. I would say my first encounter with stand-up was like around 2010. I'm pretty young, like, I'm not one of those people who's going to tell you that I saw Eddie Murphy do stand-up. I didn't have that much access to VCRs [Editor’s note: Video Cassette Recording] and all of that to see Eddie Murphy.
The first time I watched stand-up was in 2010, there is a comedy show in Uganda that used to be called Mic Check; It had all these comedy legends. Stand-up in Uganda started around 2009 after ‘Stand-Up Uganda’ [Editor’s note: A comedy contest] that was conducted by South African comedian Joe Parker. Second time I encountered stand-up was in 2015 when I saw ‘Lost in Translation’ by Trevor Noah.
How did you get started in your career?
From around 2015 until about 2019, I used to live with a friend and we stayed in an apartment together with some other friends. We had a shared kitchen where everyone would just go and cook. There was an extra chair in the kitchen; so while someone was cooking, someone could come and sit and just hang out with the one who was cooking.
I was a very jumpy kid, I used to be a carpenter, a broker, sell furniture...; that's basically how I survived. One evening when I got back from the city I was telling my friend about my day in an exciting way. I came to realize this a few years later: weeks before that evening, I had watched ‘Lost in Translation’ by Trevor Noah, my favourite stand-up special ever. And I told myself, if I ever think of doing something like this, I would want to do it like this guy.
So, when I was telling my friend about my day, I was really nurturing my story in that format and he found it hilarious. He was like ‘Dude, you need to try out stand-up.’ And I thought to myself, ‘you know what, yeah, maybe I’ll look into it.’
When I go to my room, I watch the special again. And then after watching it for the second time, I look up a comedy show.
I found this theatre called Comedy Files that did stand-up in Uganda and they were doing a show the following week. It was on June the 6th of June 2016.
Walk us through that big day
On the 6th of June, I went to the theatre. I told them I wanted to perform, and they responded that I could not perform just yet because I was a very new comic. But they told me to stay, meet people and said they'd introduce me to people that would help me get on stage.
From then on, I sit backstage and wait for the show to start. Then somebody walks to me. I was seated in the dark corner and then that person looks at me in the dark corner, gives me a fist bump. Then I look at his face like and I'm like wait a minute, I know this face, I used to watch this guy on TV in 2010 when I was a kid. The guy was Daniel OMara.
He is a big stand-up comedian in Uganda! I admired his style, his wittiness, everything. I loved him so much. Him reaching out to me, giving me a fist bump: I felt so welcomed. It was as if the legends of the game were telling me 'come in, this is your place.' I think that's one of the things that really inspired me to come back to that place. I loved how welcoming it felt and how nice Daniel Omara was. He became one of my mentors. I also met Timothy Nyanzi, who's also a mentor in Uganda. He does a mentorship program every week for free there. I was part of the program, he mentored me and I was getting better at my stand-up. Then I started touring.
You were born in 1997. At the time, South Sudan didn't officially exist. You grew up in refugee camps first in Kenya and then in Uganda. Why did you choose the South Sudanese citizenship?
I'm going to be honest. When you are born in a refugee camp in another African country; choosing that citizenship is almost like choosing your own. Like, what difference would it make if I'm Ugandan or South Sudanese? They are facing the same issues that I'm facing. So it wasn't a hot topic for me.
Yet, I should admit that I was lost at some point. This is why stand-up played a big role in my life and that's why I really love it.
I grew up in Uganda. I speak Luganda fluently, I know every street in Uganda, I know how to survive in Uganda, I’ve worked so many jobs there. All my references were Ugandan and so living there, I felt like I was from there. Everything I did was all about Uganda. I loved it so much. I loved hanging out with people and I was far away from my country.
The more I was drawn closer to Uganda, the more I was getting away from my country because when my mom passed away -she died in Uganda- I stayed in Uganda.
How did you reconnect with your South Sudanese heritage?
Three days after the start of the first civil in South Sudan, I was at work. South Sudanese flocked to Uganda, running away from the war [Editor's note: A civil war broke out in S. Sudan on December, 15 2013].
I was working at the furniture store, there was so much demand for furniture, for beds... And we are selling, we making so much money as brokers. I remember one of the people that owned the furniture store going like: ‘Oh, this is good, South Sudanese should be fighting every day.’ I heard that statement and it hurt me.
I felt like: ‘What? Thousands of my people have died and you think this is good because you're making money?”
When that hit me, I really started thinking so much about the choices I made. I decided to go back to school and as I was withdrawing slowly, that's when I discovered stand-up. Plus, my mentor tasked me to find so much about myself, my culture, my people and where I come from and represent myself as a South Sudanese comedian.
So when that was happening, the more I dug within my history, my culture, the more I moved away from being the Ugandan kid. It pushed me towards making the decision of picking the South Sudanese citizenship.
You now represent your country and want to showcase the Africa you know
I belive the only way Africa can get out of this whole mess that we are in is if Africans start telling their own side of the story. Some of the things that come out of the media are right, some others, wrong. But are you going to go out there and make so much noise says “this is wrong is wrong? No.” You're probably going to go out and tell your side of the story, tell your narrative.
This, you will do during the second edition of the Juba Comedy festival. Tell us more about it.
For the second edition we will have a different lineup. We will have Ndumiso Lindi (South Africa), Deo (Tanzania), Dr Hilary Okello and Cotilda (Uganda) as well as Q-Dube (Zimbabwe). This edition will take place at Pyramid Hotel and is sponsored by GIZ, Dutch Embassy, Germany Embassy & IOM.
Would you say comedy has a special power?
Such as art and sports, comedy doesn’t have a tribe, a language. For basketball it doesn’t matter what languages players are speaking. The only language spoken there is winning and it’s the same for football.
If you follow South Sudan news, you saw people go to the airport to pick up a basketball team of 12 people. Adding other staff that's like 20 or 25 people. 25 people: that's who the whole country happily came together to go pick up. That’s something that many politicians have not put together in the last ten years in South Sudan. The last time South Sudanese were that excited to be together and do a whole parade and get happy was probably during the referendum when we were voting for separation.
There are things that we should invest in, guide the people that are in and give them space to grow and get better because these things give us a sense of unity.
Somebody who is from the south of South Sudan and someone from the north of South Sudan might not be united by their language, culture, their beliefs, political beliefs, anything like that. But they are united by the fact that they have a national team that is going to play the World Cup finals. That's all they care about.
Or they're united because they have a musician that is headlining a music festival in New York. When they see that musician doing that, they're like: ‘Oh, he’s South Sudanese, I’m South Sudanese, too.' You get how those things play a big role in the society and we need them. We need a lot of those things, to be honest.
Do you mean that it is important to celebrate such successes as a nation; as South Sudanese?
My friend, my cousin Emo Majok is a stand-up comedian. He is based in Australia. A few months ago, he was on Australia’s Got Talent [Editor’s note: an Australian reality television talent show] and he was among the first three finalists. The whole of Australian South Sudanese were so happy!
It was the same for South Sudanese back at home. They were so happy to see this person up there. It just meant so much, it's exciting. It opens the doors for so many people to think something different about us, and we always root for that. I'm behind him and any [South Sudanese] doing his thing. We can have a better society when everyone plays their part.
Then what's the role of stand-up?
In South Sudan and in Uganda back in the days, we rhymed to the Koffi Olomide, Awilo Longomba, Shakira and all sorts of people from all over the world. We didn't understand what they were saying. Music is a language on its own but it's the tune, the tone, the way it plays to your soul and your brain. That's all we needed.
Comedians can do the same thing! If I go up, telling a joke. It doesn't matter what tribe I am. It's the punchline that matters. If the public resonates with it. And that’s the weapon we have as creatives.
It's also important for artists to be very sure and very, very careful with the content they choose to put out there.
When we try to bring the society together we are always able to bring it. The society is always able to see us beyond our religious beliefs, our cultural beliefs and to see us for who we are and say: that’s an artist, a comedian. What's his goal? He just wants to make you happy. He wants to make you laugh. Those things play a big role.
As much as it is a strong and proper tool to unite the society it can do the reverse. It can be a weapon to divide. So if you take that direction, it's definitely going to do that job.
How have people reacted to you doing stand-up? Since you tour the world, you must be one the first South Sudanese comedians some of those attending your shows meet.
I do get a lot of beautiful messages from people all over the world. People saying: 'This is beautiful. Thank you for doing this.' Others go: 'I’ve never seen you, I just discovered you; you are amazing.'
You have also partnered with the UN in support for refugees. One of your goal was to perfom in a refugee camp, right?
I was going to perform in a refugee camp then the pandemic hit. But I did partner with the UNHCR in 2020. During COVID, we did a virtual show to raise money for refugees to go through the pandemic. It was an amazing virtual show with big African comedians: Basketmouth, Daliso Chaponda, the Goliath brothers from South Africa. 2 face from Nigeria as well attended.
The show was able to raise 150,000 USD. It was exciting to feel like something that you just started out of the blue, something that a friend advised you to do, actually brings so much value not only to you, but to people that have lived the life that you lived once. It was amazing.
What's something you are particularly proud of?
It might sound like a very simple thing for other people, but coming to Australia really hit different. [Editor's note: Akau Jambo was on tour in Australia in March 2023]. Giving you a little bit of history, growing up in the refugee camp with my mom and my brother we always wanted to move to Australia.
There were refugee programs for which you could apply to come to Australia or America... We always applied for that, but we always failed. For almost 20 years, we tried like four times, never made it. And just out of the blue, I just become a stand-up comedian and the next thing I realize, I'm in Australia, a country that my family tried to come through so many times. And I'm just here. I'm here and I can stay for a year, but I'm like: 'No, I'm going back after three months.'
When I told my brother this, he went: 'Wow! That's, that's, crazy.' Being here, has in a way, healed a wound within me or within my family. That feeling of rejection that we went through as kids. It, kind of like filled it up, meaning like, you can make whatever you want to do, you can achieve it. There are different ways of achieving things. There’s always one way we want to get thing done. Now I'm touring so many countries, headlining so many shows and performing with some of the comics I've seen on TV. Every time these things just happen, I'm just like: 'is this really is this real?' It's the God in believe in perhaps.
What would you like to achieve?
I hope [my work] inspires people around me. I hope it creates a path for others behind me. I'm sure maybe 20 or 30 years from now, other comics will be having a good time. So If you're [reading] this 20 years from now, I've worked for you. I’m making sure you have a good time.