Obituary

Papa Shirandula: Millionaire actor once couldn’t afford Sh10 fare

Charles Bukeko had many things going on for him: A carpet size malleable face, bulb like expressive eyes, toothy grin and a hot air balloon of a body

Bulging fortunes: Charles Bukeko became a global celebrity with this ‘Brrr Coca-Cola’ commercial which was aired around the world the President of Mauritius had to meet him.

By Undercover Reporter

@UndercoverKe

Charles Bukeko, was the actor who once trekked from his house in Uhuru Estate in Nairobi’s Eastlands to the Kenya National Theatre. He couldn’t afford Sh10 fare, and had to carry a shoe brush for the journey. Things were so thick for the first born of four children, his mother sent him food stuffs, amatuma from her eshiachi in Mumias and which could last him three months in the ‘concrete farm’ that is Nairobi.

By the time he became famous as Papa Shirandula, the character of the eponymous comedy on Citizen TV, he was on his way to minting his millions-from Hollywood films like Constant Gardener, Coca-Cola commercials and as brand ambassador for Go TV.

Bukeko, got into acting by accident. A cast member in a play dropped out and a friend begged him to step in. He was then working as a Halls Custodian at the University of Nairobi. Basically, the caretaker. Despite that start, he had many things going on for him: A carpet size malleable face, bulb like expressive eyes, toothy grin and a hot air balloon of a body besides the zeal of waking up at 3am to rehearse his lines.

Charles Bukeko negotiated the deal with Coke executives himself, without a manager! Bad idea

For just saying one line-“the film doesn’t film”- in one play titled, Falling into Place at the Kenya National Theatre, he pocketed Sh30, 000. To a broke Bukeko that was so much money in 1999, he waded off visitors to his house. But Bukeko later hit the Mother Lode with the ‘Brrr Coke’ commercial. It was aired around the world making him such a recognizable face when he visited Mauritius, the President asked to meet him.

But the Coke advert was also a pointer to how Kenyan thespians approach their creativity: he negotiated the deal with Coke executives himself, without a manager! Bad idea.

Director, actor, playwright and anchor John Sibi-Okumu did the same thing when asked to do a voice-over for Citizen TV. For a few seconds saying “This is Citizen”, now heard daily in all Kenyan homes, Sibi-Okumu asked for a one-off check of Sh60, 000.

Researchers surveyed diabetes cases from clinics in Western Kenya and concluded patients there had “poor glucose control” 

Home grown: Papa Shirandula produced many stars including ‘Wilbroda’ (Jacqie Nyaminde) who was once a receptionist before she got into acting.

Had he tagged a manager, he could have squeezed a deal like Hollywood actor James Earl Jones who earns annual loyalties every time “This is CNN” is aired!

Recalled Bukeko of the ‘Brrr’ advert: “I met with a director of Coke from Atlanta, and who 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.”

It is also curious Bukeko is among prominent personalities from Western Kenya who have so far succumbed to it

Though the deal earned him undisclosed millions, he could have trousered home tenfold more like Sibi-Okumu, again, who was paid Sh3 million for hosting the Zain Africa Challenge show on television, but again, negotiated alone. But the figure nosed north to Sh6 million when a lawyer came on board!

Charles Bukeko, 58, died of diabetes, complicated by the virus now ravaging the world. Curiously, Bukeko is among prominent personalities from Western Kenya who have so far succumbed to it: Dr Doreen Lugaliki, Engineer Maurice Namiinda, Prof Maurice Mang’oli and Anthony Waswa, the brother of Bungoma Senator Moses Wetangula. Near common denominator: diabetes. Researchers from Moi University surveyed diabetes cases from clinics in Western Kenya and among others findings; concluded that patients there had “poor glucose control”  meaning  their dietary habits might need more  analysis?

Bukeko played a watchman in Bob Nyanja’s film, Malooned, which inspired Papa Shirandula

Season of harvest: Along with fame on television came endorsements like Go TV above.

The research was done in 2006-and a year later, Bukeko played a watchman in Bob Nyanja’s film, Malooned and which inspired the Papa Shirandula story line.

 He approached NTV with his idea of a watchman in Nairobi masquerading as a very important person to his folks in the village. Nabobs at NTV thought it down market. KTN, being an upmarket station at the time was out of the question. So, Bukeko approached Citizen TV which was trying to rebrand by capturing audiences above KBC but below KTN-the pretentious middle class.

Charles Bukeko was a case of self belief and polished talent meeting opportunities

Wachira Waruru, the MD, did not mind it, but Papa Shirandula which was meant for the lower classes, since many Kenyans ‘fake it till they make it’, became a crossover hit.

It was also at this time that Raphael Tuju, the then Minister for Information was pushing for 30 percent local content on our television stations. Kenyans had too much of The Rich Also Cry, Lady of the Rose and other Mexican soaps featuring characters who cried their love lives through 13 episodes. 

Tuju, having been a broadcast journalist knew one or two things about content. After all, before joining politics, he made his millions producing documentaries for the UN and related bodies. Kenyans should forever be thankful to Tuju now battling a court case over Sh1.6 billion borrowed while cavorting and cuddling with the woman banker, the fire now stoking his woes.

On his way to television comedy, commercials and international films, Bukeko had honed his skills in theatre

Spin-offs: Comedians Jalang’o and Otoyo were only had a cameo appearance in Papa Shirandula, but were so good the script was altered to accommodate them. It was Bukeko who came up with the stage name, Jalang’o.

Fourteen years on, Papa Shirandula  has spawned other stars: Wilbroda (Jacqueline Nyaminde), Jalang’o (Felix Odiwuor) and Otoyo (Kazungu Matano) all became household names on Papa Shirandula, but unknown to many, they began their careers as stage actors at Alliance Francaise, the defunct Phoenix Players Theatre or the Kenya National Theatre,  the ‘Shrine of Tears.’

Indeed, on his way to television comedy, commercials and international films, Bukeko had honed his skills in theatre, playing lead roles in Wole Soyinka’s The Lion and the Jewel before directing plays like Ola Rotimi’s, Our Husband Has Gone Mad Again, at Pambazuka Productions.

Charles Bukeko was a case of self belief and polished talent meeting opportunities: “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.” And making it, the father of three did.

Over the eliuba, rest well, Papa.

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