On a dusty patch of land on the outskirts of the capital Niamey, Niger’s most famous comedian Mamane shows off a site he says will host a drama school to promote African artists and freedom on a continent rife with corruption and strife.
Largely unknown in the Anglosphere, the performer is famous in French-speaking Africa for the satirical radio show “The Very, Very Democratic Republic of Gondwana” spoofing crooked regimes and the rich nations that prop them up.
Having spent a large part of his career in France, Mamane smiles with pride as he describes plans to construct a drama school that will offer comedy and other entertainment training to Niger’s youth.
“We are all Muslims, Christians — we are human beings — and it will be a school to really learn freedom, the love of life. Living together is what we want,” he said.
Rated by the United Nations as one of the world’s least developed nations, the push to open a drama school is an unusual step in a country better known for its entrenched poverty and jihadist insurgency.
“All that the jihadists don’t like is to see people live, enjoying their freedom to the full. They want to constrain people and lay down the law,” Mamane said.
“This (school) aims to provide jobs to young Africans, giving hope to these young people, telling them that we can create jobs here in Africa,” he said.
It is the latest step in a career that has already won over an international radio audience of some 30 million people, according to a Radio France International estimate, and a switch to the big screen with the 2016 satirical film ‘Bienvenue au Gondwana’ (‘Welcome to Gondwana’).
Like Mamane’s radio work, the movie made fun of an African state whose venal dictator is set on clinging to power.
“Policemen in Africa sometimes call me ‘Mr President'”, Mamane told AFP after being pulled over by a policeman during a routine check on the road and then saluted in jest by the cop who recognised him as the comedian.
“This is African second-degree humour, a way of laughing while criticising the system. It’s a kind of resilience.”
– ‘Project of my life’ –
Born in 1966, Mamane spent his formative years living in foreign capitals with six siblings as their father was a career diplomat.
He embarked on a scientific career and moved to France in 1991 to finish a master’s degree in plant physiology.
But once in Paris, the underbelly of power he observed as a child came to the fore as he took to the stage and honed an act known for tackling touchy topics and lambasting African rulers.
Now branching out, Mamane says he plans to take his irreverent stand-up act to the English-speaking world.
“I’m preparing a bilingual show with Anglophone humourists from Nigeria, Cameroon and Rwanda in October,” he told AFP.
“I haven’t played in Anglophone countries yet but it’s my next step.”
But his focus is still on the sandy patch of ground which he says one day will help develop a new generation of Niger comedians.
“This school will grow and it will really be the project of my life,” he said.