Akau Jambo can find humor anywhere.
In a joke about getting picked up by the police at a protest in South Sudan, he quips, "I was saying all sorts of crazy things, like I don't care, you can arrest me. Then when they finally arrested me I was like, 'Oh, you guys are serious?'" he says. "You people don't joke!"
The 25-year-old South Sudanese comedian has spurred laughter across Africa, performing in clubs in Botswana, Kenya, Rwanda, South Africa, Tanzania and Uganda.
He also aims to bring levity to South Sudan despite lingering ethnic tensions and armed clashes that have persisted after the country's civil war, which officially ended in 2018.
And even though the comedy scene — especially the English-language comedy scene — is small in Juba, the capital of 440,000, he has big dreams.
Last weekend, he hosted the country's first-ever international comedy festival.
Comics flew in from across the continent to perform – hopefully the first of many to come, Jambo says. He spoke to NPR by phone from his car on Tuesday while running errands before taking two comedians from Uganda who had missed an earlier flight to the airport.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
How did you decide to start doing stand-up?
I started comedy in 2016, from Uganda, where I was in school [at the Makerere University]. While I was there, I used to watch a lot of comedy, I used to watch a lot of South African comedians. And one day I told my mentor [Ugandan comedy mentor Timothy Nyanzi, who hosts free writing workshops in Kampala] I want to be a touring comedian. And he told me 'You need to start writing like a touring comedian.' So my mind was just right there – how can I get out of this bubble? Because I was born in a refugee camp [in Kenya] as well. I was like, how can I get out of this bubble, this life that I grew up in. I need to tour, I need to move, I need to see other people's stories.
My first trip to South Africa in 2018, I was in Johannesburg doing a few comedy clubs, and I met a few comedians. I saw the comedy culture there – so many people coming to do comedy, and others to watch comedy. And I met this comedian who asked me where I was from, and I said I was from South Sudan – and he was like 'Dang, I never knew people were laughing in South Sudan.' And I felt like the world doesn't really know what we really do out here – people just think we're out here dropping bombs. They don't know what we really do, they don't know we have humor, that we have fun and all that.
I was like, I think I want to do something that opens South Sudan to the rest of the world. I want people to travel to South Sudan to watch comedy, to come to South Sudan to perform. I want South Sudanese to have a full weekend of laughter – and we do it again and again, and I want bigger things than just a comedy festival.
How did the festival go?
Really well. It was the first international comedy festival in the country, which means there's so much pressure because we have to set a standard. But it also means that it was easier for us to pass through with no standards – because no one knew what the right standard was.
The U.N. has referred to continued "suffering" in South Sudan. Yet you show that laughter is possible even under such circumstances.
Exactly. Life doesn't stop. Life doesn't stop – we keep living.
How important is to you to offer a different narrative about South Sudan?
I don't want to lie, it's not something that I'd say I'm doing for other people only. It's very important to me because I'm also doing it for myself. It's also very important for my mental health.
I want Africa to look at South Sudan as a source of entertainment, as a cultural scene as well. It's very important for me to keep on pushing, because it won't stop with me. There will be other [South Sudanese] comedians who will be touring and trying to change the narrative, and trying to put out a better image of our country.
How did your family react when you started doing stand-up?
I lost my parents when I was very young. I kept my decision to do comedy away from my relatives, just to make sure it was the right thing – the thing that I wanted to do. Sometimes we kill our own ideas by putting them out there when we're not yet sure if they're ready for public review, for comments and all that.
A lot of my family members saw me when I broke through – my breakthrough was in 2018.
What happened that year?
I was featured in the Laugh Festival. It's a big show in Nairobi, produced by a comic legend called Churchill. It was my first big show, about 5,000 people or something. The show was amazing, the video went up. After that I just blew up, I started getting gigs in different places.
So then your family knew what your were doing!
My family members would call me like, "Is this you?" And I'm like, "Yeah, it's me." And like, "Wait, we didn't know you do this." I'm like "Yeah, well now you know!"
Do you make enough money from comedy to support yourself?
I'm a full-time comedian. There's not much money down here, I tour most of the time. So while I'm trying to create a proper scene here, I'm doing tours [in other African countries] where I get proper money to help me out.
Is there an established comedy scene in Juba?
There is a comedy scene that has been running for more than seven years. It's an Arabic scene, they have a [weekly] comedy show. When it comes to the English scene, we have nothing. We only have [the chance] to do a few shows every now and then.
Our plan, as part of the festival, is to do a mentorship program and try to bring in new comedians, and channel them in the direction of taking on stand-up comedy as a career.
You bring serious matter into your routines. A friend of yours was hit by a car, and died afterward while in the hospital. You and others ended up protesting against the poor care she received in the hospital – which ended with you all getting arrested. You have a stand-up bit titled 'My first time in jail in South Sudan' – how do you find humor in those kinds of serious situations?
She got hit by a car – she got hit around 4 p.m. and she was taken to the national hospital. I showed up at the hospital [to donate blood], our public hospital is a mess. I was only able to donate at 7-something [p.m.]. And the minute the blood was taken to her, she just died.
We don't even know who suggested a protest. All we know is that the following morning we just woke up and just went to where she got [in] the accident. And right there we just started, like, a lot of people just crying, a lot of people just protesting and asking for reforms in the health system, asking for answers.
We spent the whole day, [being taken] from police station to police station, out getting beat up. They say humor comes from trauma. The most traumatic places is where jokes come from. People tell jokes about their abusive marriages, people tell jokes about their poverty growing up, and all that. All these experiences are not really good experiences, but when you come to terms with what happened you find light in them. I was doing jokes while in jail. People were like, "How are you doing this?" I'm like, "My guy, we are in – there's no way you are going to get out. Either you hang out in jail and be happy or we just be miserable inside all day."
Are there limits to what you can say as a South Sudanese comedian, either with the audience or with the authorities?
When the country is 11 years old, there are a lot of things that are being defined for the first time. So I should say limits are being defined right now. Unfortunately we are the comics who don't know the limits when we are crashing them, and now the limits are being defined on us. It entirely depends on how you say it. Let's say we're making a "Comedy Constitution," you're up on stage, say something – the audience thinks it's not good, that's it, never say it again. So maybe 10 years from now I'll have a better answer.
There's no specific topic that it'll be like, "Don't talk about it." People say "Don't talk about politics," but I don't know anywhere [in the world] that people don't talk about politics. It's just – you talk about politics. Our whole life is politics. It's not only a South Sudan thing.
You've performed all over Africa, any chance you come to the U.S. anytime soon?
Yeah, I'll be in the States in June. The shows are not quite defined yet, but I'm going for the Mandela Washington Fellowship. And maybe I'll have a few shows [while I'm there] but I haven't reached out to try to see what I want to do yet.
Nick Roll is a freelance journalist based in Dakar.