The funny thing about Africa: Where comedy and politics collide

In the Gambia, a flourishing comedy scene is used to convey serious messages

The four members of Bright Stars Entertainment. Photograph: Sally Hayden

A new Irish Times series, Young Africans Rising, begins today with this report by Sally Hayden.

When he was still in control of the Gambia, Africa's smallest mainland country, Yahya Jammeh presided over a macabre kind of graduation. The eccentric dictator, who claimed he had discovered the cure for Aids, would bring infected people for treatment at his state house, smearing green paste on them, forcing them to drink herbal mixtures and banning them from taking their usual anti-retroviral drugs, before releasing them in televised ceremonies as he declared them cured.

Sometimes, there was a foursome of young performers in attendance. Their job was to praise a man who they knew could have them, and everyone they knew, disappeared or killed.

“He gave us money,” says Assan Jobe, now 26. “We were very young. We were not thinking about criticising him at that point.”


Jammeh was ousted in 2016 after 22 years in power. He has not faced justice and lives in exile in Equatorial Guinea. Many of the Gambia's banknotes still bear his face.

We have so much police brutality. We came out and said the police should be respectful to everyone and we all deserve democracy and justice

This sliver of land in West Africa is known as the "smiling coast" because of its shape and positioning on maps. You can get an idea how small the Gambia is from the telephone numbers, which are just seven digits long. It has a population of roughly 2.4 million people, almost three-quarters of whom are under the age of 35. Over the past five years, they have adjusted to their newfound democracy and freedom of speech with the involvement of one key group of influencers: comedians.

Bright Stars Entertainment is made up of four members, now in their mid- to late 20s. The young men, who met while they were volunteering with the Red Cross, say they no longer want to reflect on the past or what it was like growing up in a dictatorship.

Speaking days before the Gambia’s December 4th election – the first since Jammeh left power – they say their focus is on whoever will be the new president, and they would be front and centre, protesting, before the country turned towards authoritarianism again.

Assan says comedy is a useful tool in a dictatorship because “you can address issues without insulting [the leadership]”. But when Jammeh was in power, they had to “censor the content very well”.

No-go zones included “the government itself; the work of the government. Ridiculing them. Some of the things they were not doing.” Now, he says, “we believe we have the right to say anything” while making sure their jokes are based on “facts” and “respect”.

Policemen block the road in Banjul, Gambia on Tuesday during a protest against the presidential election results. Photograph: Sally Hayden/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

“We don’t want to talk about Jammeh now, he has no influence over the country, we don’t even think about him . . . It was like we were sleeping. Never again,” says 27-year-old Pa Modou Yaffa. “Do you believe in oxygen? It’s so sweet. We enjoy breathing the oxygen of democracy.”

One of the issues they have spoken out about is police brutality. “We have so much police brutality. We came out and said the police should be respectful to everyone and we all deserve democracy and justice,” says Assan. They create songs, using them to talk about corruption. “In one of the songs, we said follow the Covid-19 money. We want to know where the [donations] are going,” he says.


In another, they make fun of the sporadic electricity supply citizens were dealing with, which served less than half of the population. "It went viral," says Yaffa. Shortly afterwards, a government deal with Turkish company Karpower was announced.

Still, they feel they walk a difficult line between challenging power and encouraging stability. “We are not enemies. We work with the government; just sometimes we pinpoint issues that are affecting the society. We are neutral, we are not into any [politician]. All we want is national development,” says Assan.

Bright Stars Entertainment have more than 17,000 followers on Facebook, 15,700 on Instagram and more than 14,500 subscribers on YouTube. On TikTok they have racked up more than half a million views.

We meet in Assan’s family home. Music videos play on a large TV in the sittingroom. Outside, his family sit together sharing a large bowl of food.

The comedians complain that local TV stations regularly run their videos on air, but don’t pay them. “There are no royalties,” says Assan. “You will post it and in 10 seconds or one minute you will see it circulated,” says Yaffa.

Instead, they make an income producing content for UN agencies, as well as earning performance fees for galas or weddings, writing theme songs for commercials and getting a small bit of money from YouTube. As we speak, another member, Buba A Jallow (stage name: Pa Furmose), gets a call asking them to perform at a bank’s staff party in January (he agrees to it). When they come together, they create sketches quickly, says Assan. “It’s four good heads, not four empty heads.”

The only time they ever left the country was on a Red Cross-related trip to neighbouring Senegal. "We have content but we are left behind when it comes to the opportunities," says Yaffa. "The plan for the future is to perform all over the world, bring the culture of Africa to America, to Europe, to Asia, to build a legacy."

Around 51 per cent of Gambians now have access to the internet, up from 15 per cent in 2014, according to the World Bank. This presents a big opportunity. Over the past few years, Assan says, the advent of TikTok in particular has encouraged a lot more young Gambians to become involved in comedy. "Social media is everything," says Assan. "Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram, TikTok; it's where you sell yourself."

Gambian comedian Tida Jobe, 26, has 4.5 million likes on TikTok. Photograph: Sally Hayden


For Tida Jobe, that is certainly true. Two years ago, the then-24-year-old was a housewife. Scrolling on her phone at home, she discovered TikTok – first laughing at Senegalese comedians and "white people . . . content from America". Now, she says she is Gambia's most-followed comedian, with nearly 142,000 fans and 4.5 million likes. On Instagram, she has 80,300 followers.

She makes her living from “advertisements and contracts”, which take time to negotiate, but the videos come naturally, she says. “I will place my camera, think of something crazy and do it.” Sometimes, she posts up to six videos a day.

I published videos, told the people, 'now we have a new president, let's come together.' The president is the president, we cannot go against the president

In one of her videos, Tida imagines that she is set to be the third wife of a reluctant Adama Barrow, the incumbent president whose shock election win in 2016 was the reason Jammeh was forced to leave the country. She has also made videos about Gambian diaspora attempts to cook local food, marabouts (Muslim holy men) and an imagined conversation between Jammeh and presidential candidate Ousainou Darboe, whom supporters call Gambia’s “Mandela” because he was imprisoned during the dictatorship.

Tida also emphasises that she is neutral. “I just keep it respectful. I always say when Jammeh was around he would really appreciate me.”

Like many of the Gambia’s other comedians, Tida recorded a video before the election, calling on her followers to “choose peace at all times”. She says it was partially inspired by a meeting with a UN-backed organisation called Peace Hub in the lead-up to the vote, in which six Gambian “influencers” were encouraged to create this kind of content.

Tida will not say who she voted for, but after the results were announced she went to a huge victory rally held for the incumbent, Barrow, who won another term with 53 per cent of the vote, compared to Darboe’s 28 per cent. “I published videos from the celebration, told the people, ‘now we have a new president, let’s come together,’” she says. “The president is the president, we cannot go against the president.”


After Jammeh was ousted, a government monopoly on broadcast news was broken, and the Gambia’s media industry flourished. Dozens of private radio stations were set up, as well as at least five private TV stations.

One of the most popular new channels is QTV, which runs a weekly sketch comedy show by Muhammed Nyang, a Gambian comedian popularly known as Wagan. At 40, he is older than the others, and has been working for longer.

The first time I am supposed to interview him is the day after the 2021 election result. Several opposition candidates, including Darboe, have refused to concede, alleging that the voting had been rigged. I am getting out of a taxi when I unexpectedly get tear-gassed. First, opposition supporters come running by. Then I spot police lined up to my left, facing off with them. Two begin to shoot tear gas, and the protesters retreat.

Opposition supporters protest against the Gambia’s presidential election results in Banjul, Gambia. Photograph: Sally Hayden/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

My eyes run and I douse a surgical mask in drinking water, putting that across my mouth. Two women collapse on the ground ahead of me, with others pouring water on their faces. Some of the protesters throw stones and bottles. This is one of a smattering of demonstrations over a few days.

When I first visited the Gambia, in early 2018, Jammeh had been gone for a year. At that time, many Gambians were vocal about how excited they were that they could finally express their feelings. In particular, they wanted to explain how Jammeh had made them suffer.

Nearly four years later, the country remains one of the poorest in the world, ranking in the bottom 18 countries globally in last year's UN Human Development Report. The Covid-19 pandemic has further damaged an economy where tourism made up as much as 16 per cent of the GDP and supported more than 80,000 jobs directly or indirectly, according UN figures.

Many Gambians are worried about the future, blaming their country’s woes on the current administration. They are also concerned about the intentions of Barrow, who had promised to step down after three years of a transitional period, but reneged on this pledge and will now serve at least another five. “The price of cooking oil has doubled in a year,” worries one taxi driver. “Freedom of speech, we have it, but apart from that it’s not easy.”

Wagan and I reschedule the interview for the following afternoon, by which stage the protests have mostly stopped. He is polite, wearing a T-shirt and suit trousers, and sitting, hunched, in an office chair.

Muhammed Nyang, a Gambian comedian popularly known as Wagan, on the set of his weekly QTV show


He explains his backstory: he ran a shop selling clothes in one of the Gambia’s biggest markets before he got involved in comedy in 2009, when he was 28. First, Wagan had a radio programme focused on “skits, but nothing political”.

“Comedy back then wasn’t popular then, we had very few people who were into it,” he says. “The current generation is luckier than we are. There are so many TV stations now, so many radio stations.”

Today, he says, the point of his show is to hold powerful people to account. “I’m very impartial in my work, it doesn’t matter who it is, the president, opposition leaders or anybody . . . My programme has a huge following, [there is] no censorship. Even the politicians who were not very welcoming at the beginning, now they all love it. Even the president loves it.”

Yet he too is still cautious when it comes to the fragility of the Gambia’s new democracy. He says he would be hesitant to mention the main opposition party in his upcoming show amid a wait to see whether they will challenge the election results legally (“once it becomes a court matter I can’t comment on it”).

Charities and non-governmental organisations will hire comedians to help spread the word about different initiatives. That phenomenon does not exist in England

In the meantime, Wagan feels a responsibility to encourage citizens to trust in the process because “everybody knows Wagan”. He sees the power of comedians in the Gambia as on a par with journalists and musicians. “I think we all have an important role to play . . . and I think it should be a collective approach,” he says.

When I ask why comedians are so influential in this small country, QTV’s head of programming, Lassana Tunkara, chimes in. “Comedy [here] is often used to convey serious messages,” he says. “For example, charities and non-governmental organisations will hire comedians to help spread the word about different initiatives. That phenomenon does not exist in England, etc.”

Tunkara, who comes from London, adds that he's been trying to get Wagan to watch Laurel and Hardy and Charlie Chaplin – "all the masters". Wagan says he has never travelled outside the Gambia, but would like to perform abroad.

At the recording of the Wagan Show on Wednesday, Wagan, his partner Haddy Nyang, and a troupe of others swap in and out playing different characters on their small set, performing in front of a screen with Wagan's face on it. Wagan uses a brush to apply talcum powder to his eyebrows and becomes the chairman of the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC), poking fun at the man's sluggishness in announcing the election results; he becomes Adama Barrow, the incumbent president, celebrating another term flanked by his two wives; then he applies make-up to become the mayor of Banjul, an opposition supporter who had called on the president to concede.

There is dancing, drumming, and at least once the filming has to be restarted because the cast are laughing too much. At the beginning of the show, though, Wagan reiterates his calls for peace.