As a young girl growing up in Kiambu County, Njambi McGrath dreamt of becoming a musician.
She joined her church choir where she sang with peerless effort. One day the choir master took her aside and pointedly told her that music might not be one of her strengths.
“I am a terrible singer and my music teacher asked me not to attend choir because I ruined the harmonies,” says Njambi.
That conversation put the kibosh on Njambi’s girlhood ambitions. Which is just as well. In retrospective, the decision by the choir master was a blessing.
Njambi, who was born in Kikuyu and later got married in England, has stormed the comedy scene in the UK to become one of the hottest female comedians.
Described by the BBC as “the Kenyan comic making Brits laugh at themselves”, Njambi has become a sensation since her starring role at the Edinburgh Fringe festival last year.
Her forte is making the British confront their prejudices about Africa in a humourous way — like a recent Black Comedy Awards function where she opened a raucous set by a description of where she was born.
“Kenya is a country just south of the axis of evil, to the east of the new corridor of terror, and right next door to jihadist cavemen.”
Pausing for a second, she added: “Of course, this is no way to introduce oneself to immigration officers.”
Njambi, who has made a name for herself in an industry where few black African women have cracked, said she is all about challenging people’s preconceptions.
Neither does she spare her family. “I am from Kenya and when I was 14 years old, my father took off on a marathon, he didn’t come back until I was 30; and I bet that was not his personal best,” she said during a recent stage appearance.
It was not a marathon in the literal sense of the word. Her father separated from her mother, leaving her with five children, to marry another woman, with whom he got five other children “because he believed in equality”.
She spoke those words in a hall full of white people and a few blacks.
She went on: “What is it about a diamond-rich continent that makes white people want to dig wells? Every other day, some white person will be on TV saying something like, ‘We are going to dig another well in Africa.’ Africans don’t want another damn well, make it free Wi-Fi, please.”
With such punchlines, one can tell that it is not by chance that she is where she is today.
After being the star performer at last year’s Edinburgh Fringe festival — often called the biggest festival in the world that has been staged at various cities for the past 25 years — UK’s Telegraph newspaper described her as having some of the funniest oneliners and punchlines.
“I am a political comedian and a story teller. I talk about everything from immigration, colonialism, FGM and sometimes I do one liners,” she told Lifestyle in response to the newspaper’s description.
Had Njambi been a conformist, she probably would not be cracking jokes on various international stages by now. She is trained in IT but ditched computer programming to become an educator and later a stand-up comedian. On the side, she is a writer.
“I can write and perform too. They both complement one another. I love writing and being creative, but while writing is a very solitary job, performing comedy allows one the necessary release. Also, travelling and talking about issues allows me to highlight and draw interested parties to the writing,” she said.
Njambi was born in Thogoto, Kikuyu, but her parents would later buy and move to a coffee farm in Kiambu.
“I spent part of my childhood, mainly during school holidays, picking coffee. My dad made us do it and it instilled a good work ethic which I have put into practice to this day,” said Njambi.
“My childhood was mixed between happiness and a lot of sadness especially when my parents separated because my father was a very violent man. (I have written a memoir on this which will be published in due course). And yes, we are 10 siblings,” she narrated.
She attended Musa Gitau Primary School and later Kiambu High School and Gathirimu Girls before she flew to New York State University where she studied information technology.
“I studied in the UK and the US and met my English husband whose work was in London. I come to Kenya almost every year and I visit other countries in Africa, especially South Africa where I perform regularly. My husband and I work in London and my children are in school, which means London works well for our family,” she said.
“I spent most of my childhood in Kenya and went to the UK in my late teens,” she added.
After her post-secondary studies, she secured a job as a computer programmer but soon realised she was not cut for it.
“I didn’t have a natural aptitude for it. I retrained to become an educator which was a brilliant job and a precursor to doing stand-up comedy,” she recalled.
But the plunge into comedy was not a walk in the park. In fact, she has previously described her first comedy gig as a “disaster”.
“My first gig was awful but when you start at the bottom, the only way is up,” she argued. “With a lot of hard work slowly and a good work ethic, I began to improve.”
There were times when she would be booed off the stage just after introducing herself. “Basically, a comedian has to keep the audience attention for five minutes; but you can be gonged off at any point. I once went on stage, said ‘hi, I am from Africa’ and I was gonged off,” she said.
It is for that reason that she calls stand-up comedy, a field where if someone does not enjoy what they are doing, they will not go far.
She said it is a hard skill to master, which is made all the more difficult by the fact that one receives instant feedback through laughter.
“If that doesn’t materialise it can really impact one’s self-esteem,” she observed.
Njambi said her husband has been offering a lot of support – both emotionally and helping at home when she is away.
And she has received a few nods in her budding comedy career.
She was a finalist at the International Delphic Comedy Awards held last October in Johannesburg. She was also a finalist in the 2015 edition of the Laughing Horse Competition and took the second place at the Piccadilly New Act Competition. At BBC’s Radio 2 New Comedy Awards in 2014, she was a quarter finalist.
Njambi was also voted one of five top female comedians by Fabulous magazine in 2012 and was later that year nominated as the Best Newcomer at the Black Comedy Awards.
“Being nominated for Best New Comer and voted one of five top female comedians by Fabulous magazine was a high point,” she said.
Her repertoire covers subjects including the touchy, nettling issue of racism and the legacy of British colonialism in Africa.
She says that challenging people’s preconceptions about Africa is all part of the act.
“The one thing that shocked me when I travelled to Western countries was how badly Africans are portrayed, how white people view Africans. Africans are portrayed as pathetic, poor people full of diseases, always hungry and [with] no hope” she said.
“From the moment a white child is born, they are told of their privilege and are constantly reminded to ‘finish all your food because there are starving Africans,’” she added.
One on one with Njambi McGrath, actor and mother
Who do you most look up to in comedy and why?
I love watching Robin Williams, Chris Rock, Joan Rivers. Robin does fast-paced political jokes, whilst Joan Rivers, although controversial, had an edge to her jokes. Chris Rock is a skilled social commentator.
There appears to be few Africans, particularly female artists, on the comedy circuit. Why do you think it is so?
Comedy only became a thing recently and it was never discussed as a career option at school. So, naturally, people never really considered it as a viable career. The practicalities of comedy also mean that it’s hard for women to do it because it involves a lot of late night travel and if people have children, it’s much harder.
Do you have a social media following in Kenya?
Yes, people are beginning to know who I am. I will be doing a show in Nairobi later on in the year so that my fans can finally get to see me live.
Why do you think it is that Brits still see Africa in such a negative way?
Because Britain, like all Europe, has always had a schizophrenic relationship with Africa. One minute we are slaves, next we are servants under colonialism and now they want to save us.
The childhood of your children will be very different from yours. Are there bits that bother you or those that you think will present a challenge to them?
Any parent bringing up a child in this era will tell you that social media is the bane of their lives. I worry about platforms like Instagram: Perfect lives and perfect body images presenting an unrealistic view of the world. Children have little ability to contextualise what is fake and it’s completely unrealistic. One worries about the impact it will have in the future.
Everyone has their definition of what good parenting should entail. Do you think being an artiste has made you a better mother to your children?
I guess in a way it has, because my job is not a conventional 9-5 job which means I am around when children go to school and when they get home. I am lucky I get to spend a lot of time with them.
Comedian Ellen DeGeneres and her partner were in Africa recently. She was in Kenya a few days before going to Rwanda. While in Rwanda she took a photo with ‘dirty’ Rwandan children and posted it online. What is your honest opinion about such portrayals of Africa?
What Ellen DeGeneres did is, sadly, not surprising. What she consciously or unconsciously did is what most Westerners do: Reinforce the view that Africa is a pathetic place devoid of any hope. This is nothing new. When the first Europeans arrived in Africa, they concluded that Africans “were lacking in each and every way” and if anyone should endeavour to study books on Africa, especially written in the 19th century, they will find the books to be horribly racist and derogatory.
There is this video of you on stage with Eric Omondi. How did you find his style of humour?
I had a great time watching Omondi who is a very funny comedian and a very nice human being. The function was in London.