The funny yet serious world of black comedian Daliso Chaponda
Malawian comic Daliso Chaponda says his way of coping with the world is through humour. He does so with much irreverence while getting laughs out of sensitive and complex issues. Chaponda is convinced laughter has a better chance of shifting views.
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On an average day two to three strangers will come up to Daliso Chaponda asking for a selfie, that modern translation of autograph.
For the time being he finds it delightful, as not that many people recognise him as the comedian and Britain’s Got Talent contestant. But this is surely about to change: he keeps adding more dates to his UK tour while still finding time to perform in Africa.
Chaponda says he is part of “this new nomadic nation” of “international children” who grew up in different countries.
He was born in Zambia of Malawian parents. As his father was working for the United Nations, he lived in Somalia, Kenya, Zambia, Switzerland, Malawi, to name but a few. As an adult he spent some time in Canada and, since 2006, has been living in the United Kingdom.
This exposure to different cultures makes him feel that he is part of both Western and African culture but at the same time, he says, he is a citizen of nowhere.
“I realise how much I don’t fit in, in both places," he comments. "In England it is obvious: I am African, I have to keep reapplying for visas, I’ve got some African values.
"But when I go home to Malawi, I feel even more of an outsider because I do not speak the vernacular language, I believe in equal rights for homosexuals, I am not as religious as some of the people there. So, I can’t say that I fit in that culture as well."
Colonialism, old and new
Chaponda’s humour touches on a wide range of topics but he has a talent for getting laughs out of sensitive issues such as colonialism or slavery.
He talks about the troubled relations between the UK and Africa much the same way Francophone Africa talks about “La Françafrique”, a term used to describe the murky, incestuous relationship France entertains with its former African colonies. That is to say, after decolonisation, the colonial powers did not really leave.
“Government can leave but money never leaves,” explains Chaponda. “If you own a mine, you are never leaving because that mine provides millions if not billions of potential earnings.”
In his show Chaponda jokes about a current UK/Malawi deal, dating back to 1955, which allows British companies to send tax-free revenues back to the UK. He also cites a report on 101 companies listed on the London Stock Exchange which control resources in Africa worth one trillion US dollars.
“Even when things are renegotiated, it is in small increments and it is rarely ever beneficial," he says. "Then you have people like [former Zimbabwean president Robert] Mugabe taking this absurd view to chase them out and repossess everything. And that doesn’t help because it creates its own brand of chaos.”
Chaponda doesn’t lay the blame on one side only, he believes the Africans are also responsible for “this horrible situation because of the mismanagement and corruption happening in African governments”.
The comedian has a way of making people laugh at more subtle and complex issues.
One of his routines raises this notion that “white is better”. To illustrate this Chaponda tells the true story of his mother, who used to work as doctor in a hospital in Malawi, and how she was cast aside when a foreign white male doctor came to work at the same hospital.
“All of the patients, who were predominantly black, queued for this white doctor because they perceived he was better, even though he didn’t have the experience in tropical diseases that my mother has because she grew up there and done her education there," he remembes. "Often the white doctor would then, ironically, ask my mother for a consult. It is a pervasive sense of self-loathing.”
An attitude that permeates all aspects of life. Chaponda recalls how in Malawi black waiters in restaurants would automatically give the bill to his white friend and not to him, even though he was the one paying.
“They just automatically defer to the white person. The word for white person… [is] 'Bwana' which means boss! So even down to the wording that people use there is this culture of subservience, the feeling that we are not good enough.”
He has been personally affected by this attitude, as he only earned respect at home as a comedian after performing in the UK.
“They only found me valid because they said ‘Oh, you made the white people laugh, you must be funny,',” he says.
This mentality is very slow to change even though decolonisation happened some 50 years ago. According to Chaponda, it has a lot to do with the education system in former colonies.
“We study Shakespeare, British history," he says. "If you do not see anything of your culture in what you are learning when you are a child, if all the intelligent role models you have are Albert Einstein, Florence Nightingale … it’s a natural thing to think they are the best [and you] want to be like them.”
Black humour vs white humour
The comedian has been performing standup for the past 17 years but winning third place on Britain’s Got Talent last year gave a tremendous boost to his career. Suddenly his shows start attracting bout 1,000 people, when prior to the contest they gathered 80-100 spectators.
Daliso Chaponda relishes the “wonderful immediacy” of performing live, saying it feels like a conversation with the audience. Something his work as a fiction writer doesn’t provide.
He also performs in Africa - recently in Rwanda and South Africa. He is preparing an African tour while slowly working on a show about next year’s presidential elections in Malawi. He says he spends at least six months researching the candidates before “mocking it all”. That posed a problem when his father was in the government and didn’t understand why his own son had to make fun of him.
“I kept telling him that I only have integrity in the eyes of the audience if I insult [him] harder than I insult [his] opponents,” explains Chaponda.
Chaponda found out the hard way that politics and religion are topics of controversy in Africa. In Zimbabwe he received an avalanche of insults on social media after he made fun of a self-proclaimed prophet. But, in his experience, Kenya, South Africa and Nigeria allow considerable freedom of speech.
“Every place in the world has something you are not meant to talk about," he comments. "The difference is [that] in a lot of African cultures, they let you say whatever you want about groups but there are certain individuals they do not want you to talk about. While in some Western countries you can say anything you want about individuals but when you talk about groups, especially minority groups, people get nervous. You have to think about the words before you say them and you have to think about the repercussions.”
Chaponda's success on Britain’s Got Talent encouraged Malawian theatres to search for the next homegrown comedy star with weekly shows. He is confident that in two to three years, he will “have lots of competition”.
Follow Daliso Chaponda on Twitter @dalisochaponda
Follow Zeenat Hansrod on Twitter @zxnt