HARARE, ZIMBABWE — A loud high five smacks through the air.
The sound of women laughing follows.
The two women on stage, Sharon “Magi” Chideu and Samantha “Gonyeti” Kureya are two of the female comics gaining popularity in Harare, Zimbabwe’s capital.
As the laugh dies down, the director yells “action” and the duo begins a new improv skit. This time, it’s a satirical double entendre about an old man who is caving to the realities of his advanced age.
Towards the end, Kureya reveals to Chideu that the man she is talking about is Issa Hayatou who, a few months ago, was ousted from his position as the president of the Confederation of African Football, after serving for 29 years.
The audience laughs and cheers again.
Despite the audience’s reaction, Lucky Aaroni, the show’s production manager, says they decided not to post the skit to social media, fearing it might be misinterpreted.
Comedy is an evolving art in Zimbabwe that is newly inclusive of women.
From television comedies to street theatre and skits for social media platforms, female comedians are gaining new prominence in a field once dominated by men.
Kureya and Chideu also star alongside Felistas Maruta and Tyra Chikocho in “The Drama Queens,” a comedy show for the online television channel, Bustop TV. These four local funny women sat down with Global Press Journal to talk about their new-found love of comedy and the power of the profession to help them earn significant income at a time when many others here continue to struggle against a crumbling economy.
Samantha “Gonyeti” Kureya
Kudzai Mazvarirwofa, GPJ Zimbabwe
Kureya’s life on stage began as an actress in local plays. She says she didn’t have the courage to become a comedian until last year, when her production manager persuaded her to take the stage as a stand-up comedian.
She says her first show as a comic was nerve-wracking.
“I cried just before the show. I even got sick on my way to the show,” she says, admitting that she vomited before getting on stage. “But to my surprise people loved my performance.”
Despite her early jitters, she is already receiving wide notoriety for her comedy. In February, Kureya became the first woman to be nominated for the National Arts Merit Awards by the National Arts Council of Zimbabwe. She was nominated in the Outstanding Comedian category.
The award eventually went to a male comedian, but Kureya says she was humbled by the nomination.
“I was shocked!” she says.
Kureya completed a national stand-up comedy tour in April where she performed in front of Zimbabwe’s diverse audiences. She says adjusting comedic routines for audiences who speak different languages and dialects and span multiple generations was a challenge.
Comedy is also adding new income streams to her life.
She’s been invited to host corporate events and shoot commercials, like a recent spot for RubyLynn Make Up Artistry, a cosmetics line started by a Zimbabwean woman.
She says her dream is to see women take the lead in the once male-dominated comedy sector here.
“Women can entertain and offend just as well as men,” she says.
Felistas ‘Mai Titi’ Maruta
Kudzai Mazvarirwofa, GPJ Zimbabwe
Maruta stormed into Zimbabwe’s comedy consciousness earlier this year after a video she posted on Facebook last December titled “Ndiise paprofile pic,” Shona for “Put my photo as your display picture.”
The comedic skit depicted a wife chiding her husband about why she never appeared in his social media profile photos and why he didn’t portray himself as a family man online. Bringing comedy to real life situations is her forte, she says.
“I have always been a humorous person and I thought, ‘Why not put it on Facebook like what others are doing?’” she says.
The video hit a nerve and received wide reaction. It has been viewed more than 12,000 times on YouTube and even more on Facebook. In that video, she says her career was born.
Maruta says she is more popular with female audiences because of the subjects she tackles, which have made her unpopular with some men.
“Some men don’t like me because of the things I talk about,” she says.
Recent online comedy skits tackled controversial issues like women pleasing their husbands in the bedroom and men taking on “side chicks,” a common issue for couples here.
“I usually do not respond to utterances that seem to intend to hurt feelings, but some critics are constructive,” she says of the comments she receives online.
Since her entrance into comedy several months ago, Maruta says she’s loving her new role as a comedian specializing in relationship comedy, because it’s fun and also because it pays.
Maruta makes paid appearances at bridal showers to make people laugh and to offer comedic counsel to the bride-to-be on marriage and bedroom affairs. She says she has also been invited to host weddings as the mistress of ceremony.
“I counsel people in a comic way,” she says. It’s easier to reach out to people if you are making them laugh in the process,” she said. “This is something that’s actually lucrative. Every Saturday I’m not home, I’m busy making someone laugh for a fee.”
Besides comedy, Maruta says she previously worked as a musician and a fashion designer. She holds a black belt in taekwondo too.
With some of her new-found income, she recently bought a commuter omnibus, known locally as a kombi, which can cost around $4,000 USD and generate significant income. Maruta says she’s saving for the day she stops acting in favor of becoming a pastor.
“When I become a pastor I won’t drop comedy. I will be one hell of a pastor,” she says, laughing.
Sharon ‘Magi’ Chideu
Kudzai Mazvarirwofa, GPJ Zimbabwe
Known by her fans as Magi, she says few are aware that her stage name is short for Magirazi, the Shona word for glasses, or spectacles.
The name, Chideu says, was bestowed upon her by a rank marshal, the term for the person who collects money on public taxi buses, who was catcalling her one day as she walked around a bus terminal.
“I heard someone shouting ‘Maggie, Maggie’ and I was wondering, why isn’t this Maggie responding? I happened to turn around and he shouted ‘Yes, you! Magi! Magirazi and the name stuck,” says the bespectacled Chideu.
Growing up, Chideu says she wanted to become a lawyer or a flight attendant, but eventually decided to study film. She studied directing and script writing at the Zimbabwe Film and Television School of Southern Africa.
That’s where she met co-founder of what became Bustop TV, which produces and airs “The Drama Queens” show.
“When I joined Bustop TV, I just wanted to act. I never thought I could actually be funny, ” she says.
Chideu had a varied career before settling into her new role as a female comic. She acted in local film productions, she’s a professional baker, a writer and a mother too.
“I have a great family support system and it makes it easy for me to juggle both,” she says, adding that she and her daughter live with her mother who helps her balance her busy schedule.
As a comedian, she says she’s proud to demonstrate that women comedians can compete at top levels.
“The fact that I managed to monetize comedy is my proudest achievement,” she says. “I can actually go home with plastic bags with groceries and my daughter can say ‘My mom is back from work.’”
Like Kureya, Chideu says she’s also starting to earn new income through advertisements.
While she says she’s still most comfortable acting in improv skits, Chideu has also begun testing the waters of stand-up comedy to become a more versatile comic.
Her manager, Lucky Aaroni, said she has done a few stand-up shows so far and is still trying to establish herself.
“Magi is still finding her voice and style,” he says of her stand-up routines.
Tyra ‘Madam Boss’ Chikocho
Chikocho’s fans know her as Madam Boss. They describe her as ridiculously candid.
She’s known for her willingness to say the things that most people are too polite to utter aloud.
Chikocho describes her comedy as, “Tyra being her normal self,” adding that she was surprised when her online skits started generating laughs and a following.
For her, comedy is about de-stressing her audience. She aims to reach a large audience by uploading comedic skits to social media.
“I’m doing comedy because I want to make people happier, I want to de-stress people,” she says. “People in the diaspora are always saying to me ‘Tyra, you remove our stress,’ and that’s what motivates me to keep doing this.”
Kudzai Musemburi, an avid fan of Chikocho’s work, says she believes the comedian is one of the best.
“Madam Boss has true talent, she just never disappoints me,” she says.
Like her other female colleagues, Chikocho also became a comic just last year. But her entrance into comedy was not premeditated, she says.
“There is a skit I did for my family’s WhatsApp group, and somebody downloaded it and it went viral,” she says. “And then there is a guy from the U.K. who contacted me and urged me to open up a Facebook page and upload more skits like that one.”
Among her other skits to go viral, one that demonstrates her unique style, is about a bird.
With a serious expression, Chikocho gives a short oration about the quail bird, a common bird in Zimbabwe. She delivers meaningless and nonsensical information about the bird in a sober, formal manner. The result, her fans confirmed, was hilarious.
On her YouTube channel, her videos receive 12,000 to 100,000 views on a regular basis. Her online fame, concentrated among Zimbabwean audiences, also prompted the creation of her nickname, Madam Boss.
“I was using my name Tyra when I started and there are some people who just kept commenting on my skits saying you must be “Madam Boss,” because of my bossy character in the skits. So I adopted the name,” she says.
Before entering the comedy sector, Chikocho was a gospel singer, with one album to her credit.
“I never thought of, or dreamt of acting. When I did the first skit, which went viral, I never thought it could be something that people would find funny,” she says.
Unlike her other female comedic colleagues on “The Drama Queens,” she says she’s not ready for stand-up yet, preferring to keep her comedy online. (Chikocho declined to be photographed for this article.)
“Trying to make a person laugh who is just seated in front of you and has come just for that isn’t easy,” she says.“I wouldn’t want people to go around saying Madam Boss has lost verve and humor.”