Comedy remains a field of men. The household names; Mc Kapale, Mariachi, Mad Rat and Chiko, Amooti, Swengere, Salvado and Alex Muhangi among others, are definitely men. Agnes Akite Opio is one of seriously hilarious female comedians who are breaking the barriers fighting for space with the funniest men on Uganda’s biggest TV shows. She was hitting it big as an actress in popular local TV series The Hostel when fellow comedienne Anne Kansiime graciously encouraged her to pursue stand-up comedy as a career. Clearly she did not need much persuading since Akite was blessed with such wit, style and presentation that once you hear her, you will forever be a fan.
While the Ugandan comedy industry thrives on cheap jokes that lean towards obscenity, Akite stands out with with her own style of clean, understated comedy and she has proven herself that she is a star worth the laughs.
Working as a full-time comedian is more than just joking around. They need a special sort of bravery that enables them to stand in a spotlight and make fools of themselves while being heckled, all in the hope that someone finds them funny.
“For years, nobody knew me. I told myself I had to work so hard that people can recognize me,” Akite says.
In the series, she acted the role of an illiterate young woman, who followed her boyfriend to Kampala. Her acting, which she says was complimented by adlibbing earned her followers.
As a comedian, Akite’s style derives punch lines from everyday life.
“My comedy is observational. I use daily life experiences in taxis or neighbourhoods to develop jokes. Sometimes, I also roast myself, especially about my thin legs.”
The former front desk manager at an office in Luzira confessed that she was looking for a job by the time she was offered a role in The Hostel. She traces her journey from the Punchliners’ performance at former Waikiki, Centenary Park in 2014, which she calls the baby class of Comedy Files at Labonita.
“I performed there once and was taken to Labonita. I have since not gone back there,” she says. Her comedy became popular instantly.
Career in comedy is not all fun. It takes a lot of energy to plan not only the routine, but to create material. Yet for the 35 year-old mother of two did not charge for her laughs for more than a decade. She says she just did it for passion.
“Most people never realise they are something until someone points it out to them. It all started when I acted in The Hostel yet it took another year before Ann (Kansiime) and Dan Omara, who were performing in Lira, urged me to give a try.
But Akite really hit it big last year at the ‘Africa Laughs Season Four’. It was an opportune moment to invite even her parents who at first had despised comedy as merely a wastage of time.
“Our parents raised us with the thinking that you have to work. When I started doing stand-up, I never told them because I knew my dad would say I was wasting time instead of looking for jobs. He had never come to watch me but I said it is fine. When I performed at Africa Laughs, I invited him and mum. Dad said we were actually not joking. He now asks me ‘how is work?’
She says the best way to measure impact is by the amount of people who repeat lines from her comedy in casual conversation.
When she wakes up usually at 6am, she prepares her children before they are picked for school at 7am. She prefers not to hire a maid, so after housework, she writes one or two jokes which she later reviews with peers. Her duties take her to the kitchen to prepare food for her family before going for a show or having to wait for the children’s return from school on days she has no performances.
“We naturally multi task. I am able to do all that because it is naturally in every woman,” she comments.
Despite gaining increasing attention, she still gets butterflies before hitting the stage. “But before my show, I actually pray. I do not want to talk to anyone and I keep breathing in and out. I am always nervous. It helps because I was told that the day I stop getting nervous, my career would be doomed,” the comedienne shares seriously. Yet even when she ‘kills’ it, she does not watch her shows saying it makes her uncomfortable.
No jobs, no problem
Akite’s career got off after a rocky job hunting expedition. She does not regret dumping her athletics talent which made a name for her at Our Lady of Good Counsel Gayaza. “There are no jobs in Uganda to absorb everyone. I graduated with a Bachelors of Tourism yet I have never stepped in a tourism office. You cannot sleep hungry. If you have a talent, just embrace it. What we studied in school has no guarantee of jobs. I am now very happy where I am. If anyone ever offered me a job, I would still do comedy,” she adds.
“Many people in the arts are not creative and they end up duplicating content from elsewhere. But to stand up in any art, one must be creative or else end up losing fans,” Akite observes. Akite, who jokingly refers to herself as a half caste having been born to a Langi dad and an Acholi mum, spent her childhood in Namanve and Kitintale.
“I come from a very big family in Kitintale overlooking Bugoloobi flats. Whenever power would go off during load shedding, we would star telling each other stories each trying to be funnier than the other. I think wit is in our genes,” Akite says in all humility.
The fifth born of the nine children of Anthony and Hellen Opio, Akite had her early years of school at Our Lady of Africa Nursery School, Mbuya, St Kizito Primary School Bugolobi, Our Lady of Good Counsel Gayaza, Naalya SS and St Lawrence Schools and Colleges, Creamland Campus from where she joined Makerere University to pursue a bachelor’s degree in tourism graduating in 2007. Her love for rugby led her to marry rugby coach Brain Makalama.
She is worried that the comedy industry is about being vulgar with some stealing content yet she confesses to have never offended anyone. Yet she did not know the true definition of comedy until she started out.
“The only comedy I thought was for clowns like dikuula, who used to perform by the roadsides,” she shares. Today, she is inspired by American comedian Kevin Hart, who she says is a true definition of never giving up because many people never found him funny at the start.