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Punch lines: comedian stands up for South Sudan

Through comedy, Akau Jambo tells the story of being born in a refugee camp and his family’s efforts to move abroad

Akau Jambo’s tweets are usually funny with a large ring of truth. “South Sudan will construct a church in six months but a hospital in five years,” he tweeted recently.

“I advise you to not take meetings at any UN agency office. By the time you are done with their security, you will be too pissed off to make any sense in the meeting, making you look unprofessional,” read another.

The 26-year-old is the organiser of the annual Juba International Comedy Festival, which had its second edition in May. He is also a successful stand-up comedian. Earlier this year, Jambo toured Australia with his show Looking for a Visa.

On the phone from Juba, South Sudan’s capital – where he has been based since 2020 – Jambo said he sees comedy as a way to bridge the gap between people abroad and his home country. “The narrative of our country, it’s our role ... to help change [it]. I wouldn’t say it has been undersold or anything like that. It is what it is. What has happened has happened and what is happening is happening. But we would like to also try to push a positive story,” he said. “We show this love, we show this culture ... We want to slowly contribute to the rest of the world.”


South Sudan – which has a population of roughly 12 million – gained its independence from Sudan in 2011. Just two years later, civil war broke out. By 2018, nearly 400,000 people were estimated to have died. The landlocked East African country is still recovering, with violence and insecurity continuing in some areas.

Jambo was born across a border, in Kakuma refugee camp, northwest Kenya. The camp was established in 1992 and is now one of the world’s largest: when combined with an adjoining settlement, it is home to nearly 200,000 refugees and asylum seekers from different African countries. He grew up between Kenya and Uganda, where he first became interested in stand-up comedy. Jambo did his first show in Kenyan capital, Nairobi, in 2017.

This year Jambo has been touring a show called Looking for a Visa, which tells the story of being born in a camp, and his family’s unsuccessful efforts to move to Australia or the US through refugee resettlement schemes. “Our life has always been temporary, in the hope that we’ll move to a different country,” he explains. “It’s a stand-up story of how this whole thing was in my head as a child ... And when I finally made it to Australia to do stand-up, I said this is it, this is the show I want to do here. I want to tell this story.”

Back in South Sudan, he found that “the craft of stand-up is a very new craft” – at least in English. He still faces a lot of confusion when he tells people comedy is his job. With South Sudanese audiences, “rather than starting from a place of making people laugh, you start from a point of proving to people that you can do this.” This is true particularly when doing shows in more rural areas. “It takes some time for everyone to adapt.”

The Arabic-language comedy scene in Juba has been running a bit longer – around a decade, Jambo said. In Arabic, “the inspiration, the writing, the structures would be different ... the references, the pauses.” Jambo – who speaks four languages – performs in English. He said he’s inspired by South African comedian Trevor Noah, and Americans Dave Chappelle, Kevin Hart and Chris Rock.

Some 10 comedians performed at this year’s Juba International Comedy Festival: five of them South Sudanese, and the rest from other African countries.

“It went really well,” Jambo says. “It was bigger, better. We learned a lot of lessons from the last one, it being the first edition of the first comedy festival in the country.” He estimates that 900 people attended over two days.

Setting the festival up initially was “quite complicated” in terms of “resources, manpower”.

“Generally it’s quite complicated doing a lot of things in South Sudan. It’s a very young country that’s really, really not easy to move around,” he said. “The idea of having a two-day event on comedy was a very foreign idea,” he added. “It needed a lot of convincing and picture painting for everyone to see the vision.”

Luckily, the Dutch embassy came on board, becoming the main sponsor for the first festival, he said. The second edition had more sponsors, along with a more ambitious programme and scope.

And its importance is being recognised, not least through Jambo’s success.

Last year, he travelled to the US as part of the Mandela Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders, which is run by the US state department and recognises young people showing leadership and making positive contributions to their communities.

As a comedian, he has also toured across Africa – from Egypt to South Africa.

When performing abroad, Jambo said he tries to arrive with enough time before the show to do some writing on the ground. That way, “I can create a connection between me and the audience,” he said. He is looking for a “bridge” between South Sudan and the place he has arrived in.

“I’ve always known that I want my writing to be universal, I want everyone to understand what I’m saying ... When I travel there are so many things I have to work on, from my accent to my speed, for me to be understood by different people. My points of reference.”

Jambo tells jokes about his childhood and about the refugee camp he was born in; politics; different cultures; the African continent; and white people. “It’s just like an exchange of showing people how my culture is, how this other culture is.”

He would love to see more foreigners eventually visiting South Sudan – perhaps inspired by his shows. “Comedy also brings in a sense of tourism, like sometimes you can sell a country to people and they can get the interest to go to that country.”

And though stand-up comedy as a craft may be new to South Sudan, that’s not to say that there has not always been humour there, he said – even during the darkest times. “Humour comes from trauma and I came to terms with that a very long time ago ... Most of the times I find myself in a terrible, terrible situation, the only way [out] is to find the light side of it. That’s just like a coping mechanism for humans.”