TIBEBESELASSIE TIGABU, The Reporter Ethiopia

A common scenario during the African Union summits in Addis Ababa was the tight security where roads are blocked and some parts of the city were at a stand still.

Watching the motorcades of heads of state and government, ministers and dignitaries passing by is an all too common phenomenon.

During this time, federal police officers instruct pedestrians to walk fast or to look away. Once, after observing one old woman, a comedian said, “I thought they were protecting them from terrorists. I did not think it was from the buda (evil eye).”

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This was one of the humorous observations of one of the stand-up comedians in Addis. Performed at the Sheraton Addis Yisakal stand-up comedy night, the joke was accompanied by laughter and cheering from the audience.

Jokes about the African Union continue with another stand-up comedian talking about why the AU summit is frequently held in Addis. With an impersonation performance of the freedom fighter Nelson Mandela’s frustration of the African Union, one of the stand-up comedians, Abiy Melaku (Jammy), said, “I am sick and tired of the African Union, the integration, the union, the development and all the fuss. I know why they are coming here, for the women. They even have an Ethiopian women menu. Let me tell you what’s on the menu “Traditional Aselefech …without makeup, 100 percent organic…..” The audience cheers and applauds the comedian.

Ethiopia is a country of humorous people like the Azmaris with their shrewd sense of humor and the wax and gold ironies. Even the then kings used to ask about what Azmaris were saying. Apart from humor, the then Azmaris were considered to be a voice for the voiceless and constantly amplified what was going on.

Most of the jokes trace their history back to the popular poet Aleqa Gebrehana. Even some of the jokes are transformed, refurbished and used as his sayings.

Although Azmaris have been around for generations, stand-up comedians in Ethiopia are a new phenomenon.

With the comedic works of Alebachew and Limenh, Tesfaye Kassa and Abirham Asmelash, many Ethiopian stand-up comedians seem to make an impact on the society both positively and negatively.

In the past people observed the status quo and made jokes about it. These days their mere focus seems to revolve around three issues: poverty, nations and nationalities and sex, and these three issues seem to dominate Ethiopian comedy.

Some of the famous household names these days include Dokile, a character that he took from the southern nations and nationalities. It is not only an impersonation but he takes over the character and people think he is actually from the south. His distinctive voice and his facial expression are adored and appreciated by his fans.

Apart from that, there are also many comedians who mimic the different Ethiopian accents and lifestyles. Many of the comedians create a name, Tekeste, to represent a man from Tigray. Kibebew Geda’s Gebremedhin who is also from Tigray is one of the famous characters. Like those people, the comedians struggle and stagger to speak Amharic, which is “humorous” for many people. Kibebew Geda’s Shemisu from Gurage also depicts a mischievous character

Some are portrayed as angry, fierce, mischievous and fools in no cultural context. Apart from those lines, the contrast between the poor and the rich is scrutinized and the sad side of the poverty is mocked. Everything is joked about.

Nolawi Tessema, who watches Ethiopian stand-up comedy, is apologetic by saying that it is the nature of stand-up comedy. He watched a couple of CDs with his favorite being ‘Bole Rock’, a compilation of many of the contemporary comedians including Dokile, Alex and Lij Yared. Special jokes in broken English bring him to tears. He thinks Ethiopian comedy is at an rudimentary stage but he sees hope in it. Even though he has heard many people say they are sexist and offensive to the nation and nationalities, he seems to be okay with their jokes.

One of his favorite comedians is Russell Peters and he loves his famous punch line “Be a man, do the right thing!” Even Russell Peters is famous for his race and stereotypes, which might sound offensive to some, he says. Being an Indian, he also makes fun of Indians. He says things should not be taken so seriously.

One of the prominent comedians, Dereje Haile, who has been on the scene for the past 28 years with his partner, the late Habte Mitiku, does not see these in a positive manner. He says there were only a few of people who did stand-up comedy and worked hard to get there.

As a guideline, he says comedians should refrain from mocking the nations and nationalities, which he says has become the trend these days. According to him, most of their works were family oriented but somehow they could not escape the censorship.

During the rule of the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), there were many demonstrations and the duo came to the forefront with a short comedy work. The scene follows one journalist interviewing a child about the hunger strike.

He asks him where his parents were and the child answers by saying that they went to have lunch. These could not pass through the censorship of Ethiopian Television. During the Derg regime they knew their spectrum, so their works were only limited to office bureaucracy.

He says political comedy is not for Africa where everything is politicized and precaution is taken. The different events at the exhibition center and the Ethiopian television gave them a stage to show their work.

Even though the duo got famous, the money they used to get from ETV was 20 birr a month. He says they were never taken seriously. Retired from comedy work, he shifted to films. Even though he says this time around the money is great, he could not be part of the contemporary nation and nationalities and sex humor stories.

According to him, most of the works are not children or family friendly. Despite all that, Dereje does not deny the creativity of most of the comedians. One of the comedians who has a famous name for it is Alemayehu Getachew, a.k.a. Alex. With his impersonation styles he tried to show the possibility of interchanging celebrities roles.

Some of his acts include “What if.” For instance, he jokes about if one of the sports journalists on Sheger FM, Abebe Gidey, was a doctor, or what if Abebe Balcha, with his famous character Asnake, was a weather anchor, what if Samson Mamo, a renowned advertiser, became a taxi conductor (woyala), and how he does these acts is overwhelming for many.

He is also renowned for imitating the former Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, which he stopped doing after he passed away. His professional career started four years ago at Bole Rock’s standup comedy sessions. His impersonation of the former Prime Minister, Mesele Mengistu (a sports host on FM radio) made him famous. Apart from that, he also created a character from the southern part of Ethiopia named Dembelay.

He took all these to the next stage to Yisakal standup comedy nights, which happens every month. Being a part of a generation that appreciates their work is a blessing for him. In the past their works were undervalued where their works used to feature concerts but now he says the music is used to feature the breaks in the middle.

Somehow he can do a 30-minute performance without any breaks. Now, most of the events, organizations, holidays, and celebrations invite the comedians to highlight. Even the pay is increasing, where the least he paid was 5,000 birr per performance and now he charges up to 30,000 birr per performance.

He says it is one of the toughest jobs where one has to be creative enough to bring constant laughter and be under constant pressure to entertain people. Even with one performance one has to keep it going. Like many of the stand-up comedians, he also improvises to make the stage livelier. Even though most of the works sound free, he says there is censorship, especially when it comes to imitating the accent of the nation and nationalities.

He says these are only characters and it is from a good place and it’s not hate, just humorous jokes. Whether this is merely a joke or not it offends people, says Hiwot Kebede. Even though she likes the fresh nature of their jokes, comedians like Lij Eyasu and a character from one of the comedy films, Wokeletis. She only saw a couple of Ethiopian comedian’s works and loves the works of African-American stand-up comedians such as Cedric the Entertainer, Chris Rock and Dave Chappelle. She says what if they didn’t speak Amharic? Why are they expected to speak Amharic perfectly, and she says this is an insult.

Apart from that, so many of the ones she has seen objectify women, and calls them “chauvinistic in nature”. Somehow, she says, “ sexism is taken as normal.” Even though she says that some comedians say the current trend should not be generalized, one of them is Markos Fikrewoldemariam.

He is renowned for his works Eyangualle, after the exposition of the famous black magician Ababa Tamrat and his work entitled Ejigayehu. Being a dream that stemmed from childhood, being a comedian was natural for him. All his appreciation goes into his neighborhood, Nifas Silk. His biggest break as a professional stand-up comedians came during the Ethio-Eritrean border war.

After taking some theatre courses he pursued his comedy works but only part time. His full time job was as a carpenter. For him, his works are not to make people laugh but are a platform to pass his messages along. That is why he brings in two or three new works per year. Questioning the societal values is his main theme and it is not only with words but also with funny dances and facial expressions that he does this. Talking about the current trend of comedy he says the jokes by themselves are limited because of the conservative nature of the society. Even with that, he says there are groups of people who are offended by it. He says this is time for stand-up comedy and comedians. He also performed at the Assosa University graduation and he says only creativity is needed. He is one of the established comedians, he asks 3,000 dollars for one performance abroad for his works. Since art does not have a monetary value, he says artists should respect their works and determine their value.

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