Yafesi: Uganda's biggest comedy export to Kenya

Saturday March 12 2016

comedian and script writer Yafesi Musoke. PHOTO | COURTESY

comedian and script writer Yafesi Musoke. PHOTO | COURTESY 

By JOSEPHINE MOSONGO
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Is there a story or meaning behind the name Yafesi Musoke?

I’m a ‘Kenyanised’ Ugandan, if there’s such a thing. My grandfather was called Yafesi Musoke as well. It’s as simple as that. 

How often do you go back to Uganda?

Not as often as I should. The last time I was there was a few months ago. 

What programmes have you scripted?

KTN’s Briefcase Inc., Groove Theory, Maisha Magic East’s One in a Million, and Village musicals; and I’ve been a staff writer for a few other productions here and there. A while back, I wrote for Tahidi High and Mheshimiwa. 

What is your process for writing for shows?

I usually come up with things on my own; I have stories in my head because all I do is observe people. Everyone has a story. When someone is just in front of you or on their way somewhere, there has to be a story behind it. But there are times when you are given a brief and told: ‘I need this kind of show.’ The ones I write on my own are either stories that have happened to me or to someone close to me. 

Do you own the copyright to your scripts?

It depends on which production I’m working on. When starting out, you do commissioned work and that’s hard to retain because you are trying to get your name out there. Sometimes you make mistakes and sell copyright when you don’t have to, or retain it when it would have been wiser to sell it. When you hear of writers’ shows that are famous, that’s not their first show. It could be the tenth, while the others flopped. It’s trial and error. But when you do get that one good one, if you’re wise enough and create enough networks, then you don’t end up selling what could be your birthright. 

Script writers are not usually recognised as much as actors. Apart from payment, do you think they need any more recognition than that?

You can get recognition if everything falls into place. You can write a good story with brilliant characters and the producers and the actors understand the script and they bring their A game. When that happens, you may win awards. Then there’s the other side, you write a brilliant story and people don’t understand it because they are used to a certain type of production. Maybe they are used to drama and you’ve written comedy and the final product is not what you pictured. 

Does that happen a lot?

A lot, it happens to so many television shows, and you just want to cry. When you write, you release a part of yourself and you have to trust other people with it, otherwise you will end up writing, producing and directing. When writers start out, everything is personal. You hold on to the work and, if someone suggests any changes, you feel like screaming.

There are many people who shelf their work because they are afraid it will be changed too much; but along the way you learn that there are people who are brilliant enough at turning a script into reality. 

How difficult, or easy, is it to sell a script to a television station?

If you’re just starting out, it might be a bit difficult to even set up the meeting. And if you do get it, you have to know what to bring to the table because these guys are busy; they won’t tell you to come back tomorrow.

So give them the picture that’s in your head and put it in there. You have to have a visual presentation (a few episodes) and let them see what the characters look like. People usually jump on board something that is already running. 

Do you watch productions that you have scripted and think you could have done better?

Almost every script I’ve ever done. My head works very fast in terms of images, I see things that most people don’t see and try to explain them as much as possible.

But the editor might not see that and sometimes I’m like, no, that’s not what was supposed to happen, or that’s not the intonation. But you’ve already let go, so you have to adjust the script so the actor doesn’t have to think too hard on the storyline or the director on the angle. 

Do script writers do the bulk of the work, as compared to actors?

They do that at the beginning of the story but once it is in the hands of the actors, they have work to do. They have to ask questions and know the character and deliver it. 

Your wife is also a script writer?

No, she is a producer and director, but her main forte is acting. She is an award winning actor, you know, Joyce Gachanja Musoke, that’s a shout-out by the way. She is the one who streamlined how I write. She sometimes reads the lines I’ve written and goes, ‘No one says this...’

You have also scripted for adverts

When I was at an ad agency, I did Bankika with KCB. We used to do a lot of stuff for Blue Triangle Cement, too; that’s where we came up with the character Matendechere.

I’ve also done Ketepa and Del Monte adverts. The adverts were usually targeted at the lower middle class, mwananchi stuff. That’s where I learnt how to write in Kiswahili and Sheng. 

You didn’t know Sheng?

Communicable Sheng. To make the character natural, you have to think like the character. Writing dialogue is one of my strengths; that’s what I’ve been told. 

And now you get to star in adverts

I did the Airtel Katwin. I’ve done a lot of voice ads, so this guy thought I should go for the audition. I got the call back and got it. And there’s the KCB advert. It was a nerve-wracking process. I don’t know any actor who likes auditions, even the ones in Hollywood. 

How big a deal is it to have your face on billboards?

You don’t even notice it 

Really

You get over it because you’ve been on stage and you’re used to performing. But it becomes a big deal when you see how people react; I can’t go two days without someone asking me for a phone, children in school buses call me Airtel Katwin. 

There are guys who ask for a job; many guys don’t understand how modelling for ads works. Some think you work there or own shares. But you can’t be rude to them. You crack a joke and move on. 

Does it pay well?

No, not what it should be paying. We don’t have a strong voice; if you did the same ad in South Africa; the pay would be almost five times more than it is here. We are not being paid horribly, but it’s not what it should be when you compare the value of the impact and brand.   

What does a long day look like for you?

I wake up at 5am or 4.30am, write, exercise, shower, wake the children up and get them ready for school. I write again; along the way I may have a recording or a radio ad, then I pick the children up. I go back to writing some more and maybe attend a meeting in the evening, go back home and write and, when I’m done, I re-write it again.

You write with your heart and edit with your head. That’s a quotable quote. (Laughs). 

What’s the longest you’ve ever gone without sleep?

Thirty-six hours. I spent 22 hours straight writing. I had to write an entire season within a week, I was the director and I still had other things to do. It’s not advisable because I later got the flu. 

What are you working on now?

I’m working on a Web series. My speciality is comedy, a couple of short shows and a movie but that will be later in the year.