Sunday, April 12, 2009

Forget the stock market, Kenya’s millionaires are entertainers

Sunday Nation, April 11 2009

Today Charles Bukeko will take his family out to a fancy restaurant in Nairobi to eat together in the spirit of Easter celebration. He can afford it, in sharp contrast to a few years back when hunger was a part of his life.

Just the other day, Mr Bukeko would walk all the way to town from Eastlands because he could not afford the Sh10 matatu (public minivan) fare. Now the worst seems to be over as Mr Bukeko is a millionaire and a celebrity of international repute.

Having a conversation with him in public for five uninterrupted minutes is next to impossible. Hardly a minute goes without someone coming over and yelling “Brrr!” to him or shouting out his on-screen name, Papa Shirandula. The greatest attention comes from security guards, who can never let him pass by without violently shaking his hand as they try to tell him how much they love his show and enquire why he decided not to tell his on-screen wife what he does.

He is used to this status and basks in its glory with humility. That’s understandable, considering that he was recently broke and living on nothing but hope for a better day. But the reception in Kenya is nothing compared to the kind he gets whenever visits other countries.

On his last tour to Mauritius, for example, one would have been forgiven for thinking he was a political figure or a Hollywood celebrity. Though he has always received first class treatment abroad, the experience was a bit of a surprise.

Private security

“They had four fully armed, private security guys in shades and suits, and before I checked into my room, they had sniffer dogs check out if the room was safe,” he said. There was even an armed man stationed outside his hotel room. Then he got a surprise call.

“I was informed that the president wanted to say hi to me over dinner. I thought someone was playing tricks on me but, luckily, it was for real.”

“He was so happy to meet me because of the Coke ad, and he had seen the Vodacom South Africa one where I acted as Idi Amin. There was nothing specific we talked about, but it was one moment I will never forget,” he said. The president knew of Bukeko’s arrival from the media.

In South Africa, Mr Bukeko is a superstar. The hotel where he stays is usually kept secret for security reasons. Crowds of fans would jam the lobby to say hello if they knew the location. When he goes down south, he is received by Kenya’s ambassador, who also sees him off at the airport.

He recalls a time when a security guard mishandled his luggage at Oliver Tambo Airport, and he was angry. “He ran to call for backup and when they came, they realised who I was, and we started laughing and shaking hands. Before I knew it, I had been whisked away to the VIP section, and it has been like that every time I travel to South Africa,” he said.

All this started with the “Brrr” advert for Coke. The promotion has run around the globe wherever Coca-Cola is sold, and even though few know his name outside Kenya, Mr Bukeko’s face is recognisable everywhere. Interestingly, he does not hav a manager, and negotiated the Coke deal on his own.

“I met with a director of Coke from Atlanta, and he told me he was trying to come up with a concept involving an African politician who has travelled to a workshop in a very hot area. He was looking for a way to express the tingly feeling one feels after taking a cold Coke, and we came up with the “Brrr!” effect,” he recalled.

Although he won’t give details, Mr Bukeko does acknowledge that the money he has received from the promotion, said to be millions of shillings, is beyond his wildest of dreams. Today it is hard to imagine that he once walked from Nairobi’s Eastlands to the city centre because he could not raise the fare. He drives top-of-the-range cars.

“I never thought this would be possible a few months ago,” he says. This year, he is scheduled for a month-long activation programme in Asia. A reputable stage actor, Mr Bukeko still remembers how he used to hang out at the Kenya National Theatre trying to get a gig. There were many of them, and some are still waiting for their big break.

“We started from rock bottom, but what kept us going was the fact that we knew when it came to acting, we were the best there was, and we knew one day we would make it,” he said.

Starting out as a halls custodian at the University of Nairobi, Mr Bukeko got into acting by accident when, during a production he was helping a friend organise, actors dropped out at the last minute, and he had to go on stage to save the day. He would wake up at 3 a.m. to rehearse his lines and leave the house early to be in town by 9 a.m.

“Transport was Sh10, but we could not afford it and would walk to town with a tie in one pocket, a shoe brush in the other so that we looked presentable when we entered someone’s office for an audition for which we would be paid, at most, Sh5,000,” he added.

Too proud to let people know of his challenges, Mr Bukeko only told his mother of his predicament, and she would send him food to last him three months. “She kept telling me to go back to shags (rural home) where there was enough food, but I refused,” says Bukeko.

They did get jobs, at least six in a year, but they often had to beg for their money from the agencies. “I would go to agencies, do a voice- over for a radio ad perfectly but getting my money was always a pain. Sometimes there were no jobs, and I would hang around KNT to look for shows which would give me some money for fare home,” he recalls.

His biggest pay day came when he featured in a show by Ochieng’ Odero, for which he was paid Sh30,000 for just one line, “The film doesn’t film”. “I panicked when I heard how much I was to be paid because the initial amount was Sh15,000, but the show exceeded expectations, and they decided to double our pay. That was a lot of money. I did not even want visitors in my house!” he said.

His turning point came when he was introduced to legendary theatre director James Falkland, the founder of Phoenix Players. “He advised me to start thinking about production rather than just acting, and he trained me for two years for free, and we even explored sponsorships for our shows.”

Mr Bukeko’s dream was to become a professional football player, something that set him on a collision course with his father who wanted him to be a lawyer or an engineer.

He played for PanPaper before he broke a leg and quit on the account of his father, who was concerned about his joblessness. His father would ask him: “What do you want me to tell my friends my son does when we meet?” But the old man is proud of his first-born son today.

The big money and opportunities began coming in after he volunteered to play a security guard in Bob Nyanja’s 2006 film, Malooned. After that, Wachira Waruru, the Royal Media Services managing director, approached him with an proposal to develop his character in the film into a television series.

“Local productions were still a big No, and I remember Waruru saying that we take a risk and see how it would turn out, and that is how Papa Shirandula was born,” her says. The initial target audience was the lower class viewers, but the show exceeded expectations and was an instant hit with everybody.

“The funniest part is that security guards look at me like their hero,” he said, adding that he sometimes got scripts from them telling him how hard their lives are.

Now that he is rolling in money and fame, the actor plans to start local productions that will help improve the quality of shows and provide employment. He also hopes to continue the “Brrr!” campaign and get involved with other high quality productions.