Humour and hardship: The slum comedian winning hearts, grants

Standup Collective Comic Maina Munene poses for a photo at Alliance Francaise, Nairobi on May 7, 2024.

Photo credit: Pool

There are very few life situations that Maina Munene can't laugh about. He punctuates every sentence with cheeky humour. Even when the odds are stacked against him, Munene wears an exuberant demeanour that is infectious.

It was no different on this day (May 7, 2024) when he was invited to make a comment at Alliance Francaise, Nairobi, on a grant he had just won.

Ditching his seat and quickly walking to the front of the hall, Munene’s slightly oversized dark blazer forcefully whipped the wind causing a mild breeze.

“I didn’t expect to make a speech. I actually borrowed this suit just to look good at this event,” Munene remarked, rousing laughter.

Munene's sense of humour has in the last four years made him one of the most outstanding up-and-coming comedians.

As a member of the rapidly expanding Nairobi-based Standup Collective-comedy club, He has a growing fanbase in Nairobi's affluent neighbourhoods.

Before he stepped on the comedy stage, the hospitality industry was the big stage where his life revolved after leaving home in Laikipia due to banditry menace, hoping to find success.

“Then, in 2020 my job in the hospitality industry was declared redundant. Comedy has since been my escape from the harsh realities of life. Making people laugh has been a good distraction and the little money I have made from it has helped me survive,” says Munene.

His performances wow and awe his well-to-do audiences. “Most of the time, those are the places we are invited to perform,” he remarks, adding, “We normally charge Sh2,500 per minute so it depends on how long I am doing the stand-up. In most cases, it's always between 15 to 30 minutes.”

That means on a good night he earns Sh75,000. But if it is a corporate gig, the take home can go as high as Sh100,000.

Making what is more than a middle-class employee's monthly income on a single night, one would expect that Munene would move to a middle-class neighbourhood.

But the 29-year-old returns to Mukuru Kwa Njenga slums where he resides once the job is done.

Life in the slums

Unforgiving as life may be in the slum, with life being a relentless battle against poverty, crime and drugs, in the eyes of Munene, Mukuru Kwa Njenga is one of the places where happiness exists in its purest form.

“Life happens everywhere. But if there is one place you will find true happiness, then it’s in the slums.”

He poses, “What more could one possibly desire from you since you all belong in the same social, financial and cluster?”

Munene says he has at least found tranquillity in Mukuru Kwa Njenga since fleeing Laikipia.

“At least I don’t have to worry about getting attacked by bandits while I snore,” the man says with a giggle.

His experiences in Mukuru fuel his satirist artistry.

“When I perform, incorporating those humorous elements into the happenings of Mukuru, it resonates differently, particularly with audiences who are curious about what life in the ghetto is like,” Munene says giggling.

For the ‘Son of Mau Mau’, as his stage name goes, brewing comedy in the slums carries a deep meaning.

“That we can all excel regardless of our situations, staying positive is all that is important. I want to believe I have inspired one or two people,” he says.

With most of his performance invitations happening in the upscale neighbourhoods of the city, the gregarious funny man with a gift of the gab, notes that many people find it difficult to accept his truth.

“Because I don't appear like too many of their archetypal Mukuru 'guys', at first the audience doesn’t trust me. However, as I like to emphasize, comedy is a highly truth-oriented art form, and as such, it is becoming increasingly easy to discern whether or not I am telling the truth.”

In terms of his creativity, Munene, however, observes that he isn't taking advantage of the slum.

“When I share my experiences from the slums, I don’t do so to win people over or get pity. Although I am aware of how classicist Kenyan society is, this is just the way I see it,” he says.

He emphasises, “I'm telling everyone that this is who I am. I am still Munene whether I reside in Mukuru or Kileleshwa.”

But is Mukuru kwa Njenga all about sentimental tales? I quizzed.

“Beautiful stories can be found in Mukuru too. It's in areas like those that you will meet the purest individuals. These are people who engage with one another because they have a lot in common rather than because they are seeking some material gain. I can't describe the depth of sincerity and purity of the encounters there. You don’t expect to find classicism in such places. I find that beautiful.”

Standup Collective Comic Maina Munene.

Photo credit: Pool

The Standup Collective Comedy

Because the Standup Collective type of comedy largely relies on the use of crude satires delivered exclusively in English, Munene says that in itself has been a problem in their growth as Kenyans are not quick to embrace the new concept.

“Standup Collective is working to elevate Kenyan humour to a level where it can be enjoyed globally. However that hasn’t been easy,” he shares.

Munene says because of the Standup Collective kind of humour, he has received invites to perform in Zimbabwe and Tanzania.

“Receiving requests to perform abroad indicates that other markets are finding our gags funny and resonating. English is widely used if you would like to think of it that way, which makes it simpler for your material to be seen by large audiences outside of Kenya. Sadly, a lot of Kenyans link our humour to the wealthy or believe it to be primarily urban. We don't develop comedy for the ‘cool kids’ but rather for everyone,” says Munene.

“As long as the joke's structure is intact, I won't have any trouble performing if you land me a gig in New York today since the audience understands the language," he continues.

Sh17 million grant

Being among the 11 winners of the Hii Stage grant, which is administered by Heva Fund in collaboration with Alliance Francaise, Munene is optimistic that it marks a pivotal turning point in his personal and professional life.

“This appears to be a promising indication of many good things that are yet to come, I can only hope so,” he concludes.

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