The best medicine: South Sudan's comedians tap the power of laughter

South Sudanese audience react as comedian David Lodiong (not seen) imitates Pope Francis during his performance, at the Kilkilu Ana Comedy Show in Juba on February 9, 2023. 

What you need to know:

  • Kilkilu Ana Comedy Show set out to achieve the seemingly impossible in South Sudan: getting people to laugh as civil war tore the newly-independent nation apart.

It is a Thursday evening, and the young audience crammed into a concert hall in South Sudan's capital city is howling with laughter as a comedian lands his closing punchline.

"South Sudan got what?" shouts the host, Isaac Anthony Lumori, at the full house for a weekly comedy night that's become one of Juba's most popular entertainment fixtures.

"Talent!" roars the crowd, mostly in their late teens and 20s munching popcorn and ice cream, dressed in their best for a fun night out.

Kilkilu Ana Comedy Show set out to achieve the seemingly impossible in South Sudan: getting people to laugh as civil war tore the newly-independent nation apart.

But comedy, and other performing arts, found fertile ground in the traumatised young country, even as space for free expression and dissent have shrunk elsewhere.

Stand-up acts, poetry readings and music shows have no trouble drawing crowds eager for distraction and solace -- or a rare chance to poke fun at those in power.

"I use these jokes to make them smile, to heal them from the trauma that they went through," Kuech Deng Atem, a former child soldier turned comedian, told AFP.

"I also use it as a medicine for myself," said the 28-year-old, who is known on stage as Wokil Jeesh Commando.

'Smile again'

Crowds start arriving at Kilkilu Ana well before the first act, paying $1.40 for entry. Lumori, an event promoter better known as MC Lumoex, says they can sell 2,000 tickets on a good night.

"Every Thursday we try to come out," said Amiok Kuer, a 26-year-old who attended with three friends, and occasionally sings between skits.

"People really need to have some time to relax."

When it kicked off in May 2014, Lumori worried the night would flop.

South Sudan had no experience with stand-up comedy and at the time, there seemed little to laugh about.

Just a few months earlier, the country had exploded into horrific bloodshed that pitted neighbour against neighbour and drove millions of people over the border. 

Lumori -- who fled to Uganda -- returned to Juba and found a city scarred and broken.

"So many people lost their loved ones," 43-year-old Lumori told AFP.

"We thought maybe we could restore love, could restore laughter. People should smile again."

Growing scene

Some of the country's best-known comedians have cut their teeth on the Kilkilu Ana stage, and the scene has matured in recent years.

"Every Thursday you come here, these people are hungry for new jokes. You just can't come with the jokes you did last week," said Hakim James, a 22-year-comedian known as Sultan Kimo.

"It isn't easy. South Sudanese have started to know what comedy is."

Today Kilkilu Ana is hardly the only show in town and Juba is even hosting an international comedy festival in April for the second year running.

"South Sudanese, in general, are funny," said Emmanuel Jal, the country's most successful musician and well-known internationally.

"If you could find how they integrate their jokes into events, you'd be amazed."

Comedy has taken off as room for free speech has constricted, said Nelson Kwaje, who founded a creative space in Juba in late 2020.

The country's media and civil society groups are tightly controlled, and taking out a camera in Juba without permission attracts immediate trouble.

Some subjects are no laughing matter. In January, six journalists were arrested after a video surfaced showing the country's President Salva Kiir apparently urinating on himself. 

Power of laughter

Comedians have been able to push boundaries about war, tribal divisions, corruption and poor governance -- all hot-button issues in the heavily-policed state.

In a skit this month, Atem joked about South Sudan's schools being broke and teachers underpaid at a high-profile event where the country's education minister was guest of honour.

"I think some time back, that would not have been feasible. But now it is," Kwaje, whose venue Scenius Hub hosted the event, told AFP.

"I do have concerns. But in South Sudan, the lines in the sand are not very clear about what is allowed and what is not... It is a constant evaluating and reevaluating and seeing what's feasible."

Akau Jambo, South Sudan's highest-profile comedian, said comedy should hold the powerful to account and he sought to pose difficult questions in a thoughtful manner.

"A society that doesn't ask questions is a society that isn't going to go anywhere," he told AFP from Australia, where he is touring at comedy festivals.

"It's important for us to find ways through our tragic times, and that's the role artists can play... That is the power of comedy."