I caught up with the Ugandan comedian Herbert Mendo Ssegujjaaka Teacher Mpamire at the Mirror Hotel in Remera a day after his maiden stage appearance in Rwanda, at the Seka Live comedy show at the Kigali Serena Hotel last week.
He was in his room, preparing for his flight back to Kampala in just over an hour. Still, he managed to spare a few minutes for this interview:
“I want to say I was so proud to come to Kigali. My students in Kigali are the best and it’s so amazing they were ready to receive their teacher. I know most of them had suspensions; many of them had waited for report cards so yesterday was a blast in Kigali and everyone might have passed their exam. Everyone was promoted to another class even without sitting exams, because we’re living in a confused world,” he explained last week’s exploits.
Just a few moments earlier, he had posted a short video clip of the show on his Facebook page, and the caption that accompanied the clip had said it all:
“What a Grand Entrance! Thank you my Students in Kigali. Hope Zambian, Malawian, Zimbabwean, Namibian, Kenyan, Ugandan, Tanzanian, Somali, and South African Students Copy this,” he wrote.
Mpamire was the first Ugandan comedian to grace the Seka Live comedy event that debuted in March. This was the second edition.
And while Kenyan funnyman Eric Omondi who headlined the previous edition is a familiar face in Kigali, having performed here a couple of times before, fans of Teacher Mpamire or Mwalimu Mpamire were out to catch him in ‘3D’ for the first time.
From president to teacher
As a standup comedian, Herbert Mendo Segujja (his real names) first caught the public eye as “that guy that imitates Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni”. He performed the role quite well, replicating the president’s speech patterns, body language, hand gestures, down to his physical gait and dress code.
Such was the popularity of this persona that the name Museveni eventually stuck with the comedian. What’s more, his skits became so popular that even the man he mimicked became a fan. Occasionally the comedian would be invited to presidential events, to crack up guests. The ensuing laughter would spare none, including the president himself.
But somewhere along the way, and much to the confusion of fans, the comedian mutated from the Museveni stage persona to that of Teacher Mpamire:
“Teacher Mpamire was born two years back from a character I created after having had comedy training at the American Comedy Institute in New York under the sponsorship of President Yoweri Museveni. The president sponsored me for a one year program in comedy writing and performance,” he explains. He describes the Ugandan president as his number one fan.
Unknown to many fans, the comedian is a school teacher in real life:
“That’s how I came up with Teacher Mpamire. I’m a teacher by profession and I teach at Standard High School Zzana, in Kampala. I was so much inspired by a teacher from my school called Arthur Mpamire and he’s the one who inspired me to act as Teacher Mpamire and that’s where I got the name. Mpamire means brave. I’m brave and I’m firm.”
“The major objective of the American Comedy Institute is to help comedians discover their own bone. Discovering your own bone is discovering what you are in standup comedy. So I requested them to discover me. Who am I in standard comedy? They said now that you’re a teacher it’s better you create a character that works well with what you do.”
As Teacher Mpamire, the comedian no longer talks of fans, but ‘students’ or his ‘class’. He acts the humorous but dutiful high school teacher who is so knowledgeable and so engaging, no one can sleep in his class.
On Stage, he recreates the classical classroom atmosphere with his carefully chosen choice of words: words like back benchers, report card, exams, matron, test, marks, uniform and suspension frequently pepper his banter. His show time is also peppered with class interaction where he melts into the ‘class’ to mark a test, admonish a wrong doer or simply ask one of his ‘students’ to tuck their uniform in.
“When I go on stage I make sure everybody is part of the class. There is no way you can sleep in my class, unless you’re pregnant,” he quips:
“I decided to have students instead of fans because it works well with the Teacher Mpamire character. Most of the fans I have are all my students. When I come on stage I come to teach, that’s why all my followers are supposed to be students -whether they are dropouts, back benchers, matrons ...everything.”
I ask if he does miss the days of being the ‘president’ of Uganda before he acquired the teacher persona:
“I don’t miss that episode of my life because I believe it’s another level I took. In the arts you must keep on improving yourself and your act every day. So I’m proud that I started out acting as president Museveni and after that it introduced me to another level.
I had to move on, but based on the character of the president it wasn’t so much easy and I knew I couldn’t contain it for a long period of time based on the fact that’s it’s a political character where some people might feel sensitive. I wanted to create a character that is universal and that everyone can concur with. But I’m so proud of the character of the president and I still act it.”
Indeed at the Seka Live show, his performance was punctuated with a few lines and skits in his presidential mode. At the close of his performance, he returned to the stage to convey his greetings as the president of Uganda.
“He (Museveni) is my number one fan and the greatest achievement he has ever done is sponsoring me to the world’s best comedy institute -the American Comedy Institute based in New York. That means that comedy is a funny way of being serious. There are many people out there who need sponsorship but the president chose comedy because he knew that comedy is a funny way of being serious. We contribute a lot to the society by making people laugh and we relieve them of stress in the process.”
Mpamire believes that talent and passion alone may not be enough to produce a well-rounded comedian:
“One thing I want to tell you is that no one is born a comedian. My name is Teacher Mpamire and I repeat this; no one is born a comedian, but there are some people who are born with that funny instinct. That’s why the first step is turning the fun into comedy. That means everyone can be a comedian but few can be funny,” he explains.
“And everyone can be funny but few can turn that fun into comedy. To become a comedian you must have a funny bone. That funny bone must be in your DNA to become a comedian. I know a number of people who are called comedians and they are not funny. In Uganda I act as the president of the country but I wouldn’t do it if I wasn’t funny. Anyone can act as the president.
They can dress like him and people have voices to sound like him. But it requires that funny bone in you where you know that yes, I’m acting the character of the president, but let me create something that can make people laugh. That moment of having people laugh is where the funny side of it comes out. I also imitate a character called Mpamire who is a teacher at Standard High School Zzana but if I wasn’t funny you’d simply have said okay, he is acting the character of Teacher Mpamire but how come he’s not funny?”
He urges fellow comedians and artists to embrace formal training as the next step even after discovering their talent.
“Training helps you prepare your professionalism in the arts and in the comedy fraternity.”
Even as his fan base grows exponentially as an entertainer, the comedian vows to always stick to his roots as a school teacher.
“I’m teacher Mpamire and if I remain teaching I’ll always be on form. I get fresher and more creative that way. At times I get to class and crack one or two jokes and students laugh, and I get time to now deliver the joke to the other theater students. Another reason I can’t quit teaching is that it’s another area that allows me to do more research because I believe this is a character that requires a lot of research so that when a person asks if a mosquito is a domestic or wild animal you can easily know basing on your research in Biology.”
His dress code is inspired by a character named Stefan Urquelle from a comedy series called Family Matters: “I tried to build my brand dressed like him because I believe Teacher Mpamire is an African teacher, therefore I wanted to bring that out.”
He has a personal designer based in the DRC, who tailors his bespoke suits for stage.