South Sudan comedians find laughs in painful past

South Sudan musician Isaac Anthony Lumori
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When Isaac Anthony Lumori launched South Sudan’s first weekly comedy show at the height of a civil war in 2014, his performers’ quips about different ethnic groups were not always well received.

“They had … (a) few attacks because of some of the jokes they made,” said Lumori, better known by his stage name MCLumoex, citing one comedian’s remarks about the bowel habits of a particular tribe.

A decade on, with South Sudan officially at peace and audiences accustomed to the comedians’ equal-opportunity digs, the reception has grown considerably warmer.

The 25 comedians from the troupe Kilkilu Ana, which roughly translates as “Tickle Me” in Arabic, perform each Thursday at a culture centre in the capital Juba before more than 1 500 cheering fans from diverse ethnicities and walks of life.

They make wisecracks about everything from the 2013-2018 war that cost hundreds of thousands of lives to South Sudan’s economic woes and everyday quarrels between husbands and wives.

“Every day I get messages and calls from people saying I am so stressed, after going through your comedies I am now relieved,” said Gista Wasuk, a 33-year-old comedian who grew up as a refugee in neighbouring Uganda during South Sudan’s war of independence with Sudan.

In one recent sketch, Kuech Deng Atem, a 30-year-old former child soldier, poked fun at the tribalism of a family member who reacted furiously to his daughter’s plans to marry someone from a different ethnic group, only to change his tune after learning it was the son of a wealthy politician.

While security has improved since the war’s main belligerents signed a peace deal in 2018, political and economic turmoil has continued to roil the world’s youngest country, which became independent in 2011.

A general election is due in December to replace the current transitional administration. But the United States has raised doubts about the credibility of the process and local conflicts between rival groups over land and natural resources have intensified this year, killing nearly 200 people.

Atem said he hoped comedy could help promote reconciliation and unity ahead of the election. Still, he acknowledged that certain topics remain off limits.

“You cannot talk about some government officials directly,” he said. “You can’t talk about some issues directly – issues to do with security.”

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