For 23 year-old budding comedian Muvunyi Junior Damian, mimicking President Paul Kagame in public fora is not just fun, but work—and work for which he gets paid.
When I meet him at the Goethe Institut in Kiyovu on Thursday afternoon, he is in the middle of rehearsals for the Comedy Knight’s performance at the Executive Car Wash in Kimihurura last evening.
The first thing I realize is that he is not wearing the President’s persona, although the physical resemblance is obviously there, complete with the President’s trademark dark-rimmed glasses.
Otherwise, he is wearing a close-fitting yellow T-shirt and an equally tight pair of jeans. At the shortest notice though, he will instinctively assume the President’s physical gait, and immediately delve into one of the President’s lines.
However, his comic antics are not limited to just mimicking the President. After learning he is still a student I ask where he attends school, and with a straight face he says: “I study in the UK. Yea, I’m a student at the University of Kigali.” This sends his colleagues cracking and booing.
But since he discovered his niche as “the man who mimics H.E the President”, Muvunyi has been doing less and less of other forms of comedy, concentrating instead on his customized brand.
Joining Comedy Knights
He joined the Comedy Knights in March 2013, becoming its newest member to date. Admittedly, it is his mimicry of the President that earned him a slot among Kigali’s comedy elite.
But Muvunyi’s comic side had manifested way before this move, when he was still in high school.
According to him, it all started while he was at St Jean SS in Muhanga.
“Whatever happened at school, I would dramatize it and bring out the funny side. After preps students would swarm my dormitory to listen to me imitate people, mostly the headmaster and teachers.
“Our Headmaster was a Catholic priest called Oswald, a very funny man. Because he was funny, I used to mimic him a lot, and students loved it. One day I put up a great show mimicking him at the school assembly. When he took to the microphone, he just asked me to join him in his office after the assembly. When I went there, he gave me Rwf 10,000 and thanked me for my talent.”
Days later, he took the joke a little further, this time delivering a skit in the President’s voice. At the time, a recording of the President’s voice urging citizens on the virtue of Agaciro (self-reliance) had gone viral, playing on radios and as ringtones on people’s phones. This was his first shot at parodying the number one citizen.
But the school administration was not amused by his antics, handing him a two-month suspension that would see him return to the school only to sit for the national exam.
Weighing his options, he quit St Jean SS, in Muhanga, and joined Nyamata High School.
While a door had closed on him at his previous school, at Nyamata it was the reverse.
“I improved my talent a lot. Here, I was considered more of the perfect guy, unlike at my previous school where I was considered a bad influence on other students. Without any hesitation I joined the school media club and asked for a slot to showcase my comic side, and within a short time the whole school, including the administration, was laughing at my jokes.”
He did a slot called “Did you recognize this?, where he would gather interesting news from around the world, give it a funny local angle and read it on the weekly school assembly.”
After gaining confidence in his comic abilities by conquering the school turf, Muvunyi decided to venture out in the world.
“I started organising small shows over the weekends around Nyamata town. I remember my first performance was at Black and White Hotel in Nyamata town, where I performed every weekend. To add spice to my shows I also started dancing because that’s my second talent, after comedy.”
Now in position to raise pocket money from these weekend gigs, there was just one problem; he was a student, studying and staying in a boarding school.
Faced with a choice between risking expulsion and earning a little pocket money from his weekend gigs, he settled for the second option, and quit the school’s boarding section.
Looking back at that juncture in his career he says: “I wasn’t a pro (professional) at the time but an amateur who just felt what I was doing. I didn’t know it would be my destiny.”
He continued getting gigs at different bars around Nyamata town, and soon, at a few social functions.
How did he join the ranks of the country’s first and leading comedy ensemble? He admits his fate was heavily influenced by his friends.
“After the skits I used to perform for them, they convinced me to take comedy professionally as a job. They had always pestered me to call up Arthur Nkusi of Comedy Knights, saying he would appreciate my talent and maybe even work with me.”
One day, he yielded to his friends’ demands and called up Arthur.
“I was home relaxing and who do I receive a call from? It was Arthur and he just asked me to “join him for work” at KFM. When I went, I found him doing the Rush Hour show with his co-host, Uncle Austin. Anyway he just asked me if I could voice a radio promo for Comedy Knight’s upcoming show, and I said why not?”
The short and precise promo consisted of three lines in Kinyarwanda that translate to:
“Those who say that they are more funny than Comedy Knights are lying to you. If you want to prove it, come to Ishyo Arts Center on March 29 2013. I too will be there.”
Simple as it was, this particular promo marked one of the turning points in Muvunyi’s budding career.
It stood out because it sounded unlike other radio promos broadcast on local airwaves. What Muvunyi did in that promo was nothing short of daring, in that he delivered it in an accent that deliberately mimics the voice of H.E Paul Kagame –that clear, high-pitched and measured tone.
“I took the rhythm of H.E the President’s voice and imitated it to bring out something funny,” he comments.
In all, it took him about two minutes to voice it. “Arthur was impressed and discussed the issue with the rest of the group. He also invited me for Comedy Knight’s next rehearsals at the Ishyo Arts Center.”
Today, Muvunyi enjoys the enviable tag of “that guy who mimics H.E the President” in comedy circles.
Incidentally, even with his close physical resemblance to the President, he is no blood relation.
“I was born in 1992 in Mwanza, Tanzania, and I remember growing up with my father and grandfather, and we used to talk a lot.”
He first came to Rwanda in 1997 with his family, and stayed until 2003 when the family returned to Tanzania.
Today, he credits his colleagues at Comedy Knights for the mentorship accorded him. “I have realised that Comedy Knights isn’t just a group but a brotherhood,” he observes, adding:
“I and Babu are like brothers. We share everything. I’ve learnt to think big from Herve Kimenyi and Michael Sengazi. I’ve learnt to value hard work from Arthur and Jerome. I’ve learnt creativity and initiative from Babu, while George and Bob are friends that are always there and will do everything to save you.”
Muvunyi describes the group as “a place where you learn about the normal life of everyday, and it’s a place where everyone is talented in their own way.”
Meeting the President:
Ironically, or sadly, Muvunyi has never shaken hands with his hero, and does not even know if the President is aware of his comic alter ego. His wish is that one day this comes to be.
“The President is like a mirror in my life, so even just to shake hands with him and say , thank you, would be enough for me. I want to be a great comedian in Africa and in the whole world, because I do believe in talent.”
Final words: “Talent is something I respect and believe in more than anything. Talent can protect you the whole of your life. Let’s earn from our talent”.