Why Kenya’s king of comedy won’t be filming the UK poor dying in winter

Thursday March 24 2011


Kenyan-based German national Andrea Bohnstedt, a columnist with a local newspaper, ran a piece last weekend under the headline “Kibera slum is now the face of Kenya abroad”.

To set the scene for this attempted demolition of Brand Kenya and in the process raise this country’s hard-won risk perception index among prospective investors and tourists, Bohnstedt felt it necessary to attack one of the nation brand’s foremost proponents, Dr Alfred Mutua.

Having set the scene so neatly, Bohnstedt then proceeds to celebrate the fact that a bunch of British celebrities recently spent a week living in the Kibera slums and made an entire TV episode of it.

Led by world-famous comedian Lenny Henry, a black Briton of Jamaican descent who is one of the leading lights behind the British Comic Relief charity organisation, the celebrities embarked on what Bohnstedt calls “socially responsible tourism” in Kibera.

The Kibera episode was fashioned along the lines of reality TV and was actually titled Slum Survivor (the celebrities stayed in Kibera and lived to tell the tale; they, and not the masses of Kibera, were the survivors). This is how comedian Henry played it:

“They were all given slum families to live with and were suitably horrified and appalled. Breaking the rules of the game, Henry — who did a lot of crying on the breast of the slum dweller he was shacked up with — spent £800 (about Sh110,000) of his own money buying the chap a new shack which didn’t have an open sewer running through the kids’ bedroom”.

If this Country Risk Analyst who lives among us and makes a living within our borders cares a whit about Kenya’s risk rating abroad, she should have questioned the entire deplorable stunt in the following terms.

First, she ought to have pointed out that any fool with a camera crew and a few actors, including a bunch of so-called celebrities, can pull off the same stunt in any country on the face of the earth.

The poor are everywhere. For instance, if I put my mind to it, I could commission Kenya’s king of televised comedy, Churchill and a KNA film crew to go to Britain during winter, look for a slum, and track down a few of the 30,000 elderly, isolated, lonely and poor who die of hypothermia every year.

Yes, 30,000 elderly British men and women died of hypothermia last winter. Another 30,000 may die this coming winter.

Let me illustrate the deadly cold of winter for those readers who have never experienced it first-hand. Temperatures in such countries as Britain drop so precipitously that lakes freeze into solid rock.

But there are two reasons I will not be sending Churchill to live for a week in a British slum so as to make a ridiculous reality TV show called “Snow Survivor”. The first is that I have no reason whatsoever to do any harm to Brand Britannia.

The second is that neither Churchill nor anyone at KNA holds an Equity card. You cannot perform in theatre, or the cinema in the UK, or shoot a film or other entertainment show without a membership card from the British Actors’ Equity, the trade union of professional performers there.

Even American actors and actresses with worldwide reputations have a hard time getting to work in Britain without the Equity card.

And yet Lenny Henry’s crew were able to enter Kenya, most likely on pretences, and make a production whose sole intention was to damage Brand Kenya.

As for Mr Henry, why doesn’t he take Comic Relief to the slums of his original homeland of Jamaica, an island nation that, like Britain, still has Elizabeth II as Head of State?

Son of Jamaica or not, he would still have to satisfy certain laws and regulations. Or he could just go in under the radar as he did in Kenya.

There are good and valid reasons (including taxation and protection of local skills and talent) why accreditation is demanded of foreigners who wish to work in countries other than their own for however brief a period.

Kenya, too, is fully loaded with these requirements. It is clearly high time they were enforced as vigilantly and as rigorously as Britain’s own.

Mr Mutua is the director of Information and Public Communications.