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Comedy queen who’s making UK laugh

Njambi McGrath, an award-winning comedian is making Britons confront their prejudices in a humorous way

Harriet James

Njambi McGrath’s first comedy gig was a disaster. Her jokes about Africa in a half-empty club in London never moved her audience. There were times she would be booed off the stage just after introducing herself. That was in 2010. Today, the Kenyan-born comedian is making waves in the UK.

And she has received a few nods in her budding comedy career. Last year, she was a finalist at the International Delphic Comedy Awards held in Johannesburg. In 2012, Njambi was voted by Fabulous Magazine as one of five top female comedians and later that year, she was nominated as the Best Newcomer at the Black Comedy Awards. In 2014, she was the quarter-finalist at BBC’s Radio 2 New Comedy Awards. In addition, in the year 2015, she was a finalist in the Laughing Horse Competition and took the second place at the Piccadilly New Act Competition.

Family struggles

“I am a political comedian. My audience tends to be educated people who understand the world and are open-minded,” says the 35-year-old.

Despite all the glamour, her childhood was full of ups and downs. Born in Thogoto, Kikuyu, but grew up in  Kiambu where her parents had bought a coffee farm, her childhood is a cocktail of bitter-sweet memories that made her who she is today. As a young girl, she always desired to sing and she joined the church choir. A conversation with the choirmaster ended this ambition; a door that she is thankful was shut. 

“I attended Musa Gitau Primary School, Kiambu High School and Gathirimu Girls High School. As a child, I always wanted to be a singer. I was unfortunately kicked out of the choir for ruining the harmony. I still can’t sing,” she says.

The second born in a family of five has fond memories of picking coffee in their family farm. But her parents had the usual struggles faced by many small farmers of not getting paid on time or at all. That was not the only trouble that her parents faced. When Njambi was just 12 years, she witnessed her mother being physically abused by her father.

“I was about 12 when my mother was beaten and kicked out of our home and up until the age of 20, I prayed everyday that my parents would get back together. They never did. Their separation was traumatic and I don’t think anyone ever overcomes that sort of thing,” she narrates. 

Consequently, in 1989, she travelled to the UK in her late teens to study Information Technology at Thames Valley University. She worked for a national telecoms company and later an American software house before retraining to work in midwifery, teaching childbirth classes. One day she got bored teaching, so she began to crack some jokes. This was the beginning of her journey into comedy.

“I had watched stand-up comedy before, but I never imagined I would be a comedian until I worked in adult education and one of my clients suggested it,” she recalls. Njambi quit her job and in 2010, she plunged into comedy, something that was challenging at first. Being a black African woman doesn’t ease the situation because Africans are more often than not depicted by the western press as beggars covered in flies, dying of Aids or Ebola or famine. The shock of seeing how the continent was depicted during her stay in England three years ago motivated her to a employ comic touch to raise serious issues. Njambi’s repertoire covers subjects such as the touchy, nettling matter of racism and the legacy of British colonialism in Africa.

Passion

“If then I don’t speak in the way they perceive Africans, some just look at me in confusion whilst others appreciate hearing a different perspective,” she says.

Despite starting at the bottom, she worked hard, was consistent and slowly improved. This is why she credits passion as the engine that should drive any person doing stand-up comedy. Her husband too has been supportive assisting at home when she is on a work tour. “The nature of comedy involves night travel and that can be limiting to women, especially if one has children,” the mother of two says.

Njambi is also the author of Through the Leopard’s Gaze and is currently working on her second book. “Through the Leopard’s Gaze is a memoir about my childhood growing up on a farm in Kiambu. Opposite our house there was an acacia tree on which a leopard lived. I wondered what he made of our family from his position across the valley,” she says.

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