It is her shining eyes, her slight frame, a bubbly mouth that oozes jokes, and a rather serious demeanour that first strike you on meeting Anne Kansiime.
Many Kenyans know the rib-cracking Ugandan actress for her Don’t Mess with Kansiime Citizen TV show, or from her YouTube videos that have gone viral, in which she tickles her fans with jokes on everyday life.
“People love to win. So, when they see me flooring bosses, husbands or the landlord, they put themselves in my shoes,” she says.
Kansiime says her acting is about a local, rural, or ordinary person.
“There is a local person in everyone. When they hear my accent, and see my casual dressing, and the manner in which I deal with my challenges, typical Africans identify with me,” she told Lifestyle.
Kansiime is the biggest comedian out of Uganda, given the size of her fans spread across Africa and beyond. But like the legendary prophet who is not recognised at home, she is not the name that comes to people’s lips when you ask anyone in the streets of Kampala to name the best comedian in town.
It is easy to ignore her until you are told she is a winner of the best comedian at the Black Entertainment Film Fashion TV and Arts in the UK.
She wears other accolades which include best actress at the Lagos International Film Festival Awards, and Airtel Women of Substance Award in Uganda. She has also won awards in Malaysia, and attended a Commonwealth Day reception in London where she rubbed shoulders with Queen Elizabeth.
Her diehard fans the world over line up to have her sign autographs and take selfies with her, but in Uganda, she may move around without turning heads.
She once went to Zimbabwe to host a show by musician Mathias Julius. Out of the blue, a group of Ghanaians attending the event surrounded her as she walked down the street.
They wanted to know her name — as further confirmation that she was who they thought she was.
“I am Ann Kansiime,” she responded.
“You need to visit Accra for people to believe you are alive,” she was told by one of the Ghanaians in Harare. They told her that people in Ghana think she is a relic from the past and her videos have been compiled by fans in her memory.
“The excitement on their faces made me feel like I was Brenda Fassie resurrected from the dead,” says the comedian whose Facebook page has more than 360,000 likes.
And everywhere she goes the story is similar — be it in Rwanda, South Africa or Britain.
It has taken Kansiime only six years to make her presence felt. In 2008, she was a second year Social Sciences student at Uganda’s iconic Makerere University. Her friends were in the Music, Dance and Drama department and so she spent most of her time with performing arts students.
That is how she landed her first deal to act with Rock Point 256, a radio show targeting Ugandan youth to influence and model their behaviour positively. It is while she was acting for radio that she met a group of comedians from an urban outfit, Theatre Factory, which was the first to experiment on and popularise stand-up comedy in Uganda.
Today, comedy is an entertainment package that is found in almost all entertainment joints across Uganda.
Theatre Factory used to stage comedy shows at the National Theatre in Kampala. Julius Lugaya, a director and founder of Theatre Factory, told Lifestyle that he had known about Kansiime from her radio plays before her name was suggested to the group when they needed more female characters for a play.
“The first day she came I was struck by her character and charisma,” recalls Lugaya.
Kansiime’s first day on stage is one she, however, hates to remember.
“I was given a role that involved crying. However, I was so scared that I started crying for real. People thought I was being funny. But I wasn’t. I have never been so afraid in my life as I was that day,” she says.
The actress says that apart from performing, her other passion is interacting with children. And she hopes to have some of her own soon.
“Women have a short professional lifespan. I am working 35 hours as that is all I can do now, so that the day he (husband) says it is time for raising a family, I should have done something with my career,” she says.
Kansiime is married to Gerald Ojok who works at Kyambogo University in Kampala.
However, her love for children is not just for marriage’s sake. She has also done songs to entertain the little ones.
“No-one thinks about doing songs for children. Radio and TV stations are full of adult content, nothing for children apart from cartoons,” she says, adding that she has produced a nine-song album and is currently shooting videos.
On the day this writer met Kansiime at the National Theatre in Kampala, she was in a group of comedians — and half of them were star performers. Herbert Seguja, for instance, is famous for imitating President Yoweri Museveni. Then there was Frobisha Lwanga, who featured in the Makutano Junction drama aired on Kenyan TV, and a pile of others that are either radio or TV personalities.
Here, they treat each other as equals — “as a family” — says their managing director, Hannington Bugingo.
“We have the best comedians in the country, but when we come here, we are all the same. We treat each other with respect, we contribute ideas, critique the skits, and we are expected to receive criticism with open minds,” Bugingo, who was two years ahead of Kansiime at university, says.
From her high school days Kansiime wanted to act. She dreamt of having her own show, but did not know how it would unfold.
“I love acting. I don’t do it for money,” says Kansiime.
She tells how she started posting her YouTube videos. They were part of the TV show Mini Buzz that discusses current affairs with the population. She had a segment of making sense of events of the day in a few minutes.
“I like talking about things that are going on in life, because that’s always going to be different and original,” she says.
The videos started getting traction and her friends started making fun of her. Something told her she was doing it right.
One day Google, the American technology giant, wrote to her asking if she wanted to commercialise her account. They asked for her details which she provided. Then, her bank called one day and handed her a $8,000 (Sh696,000) cheque. She took the cheque to her Mini Buzz producer, Sanyu Kalibbala, who thought it was all a joke.
Now, Google sends her cheques every month, and she makes money from product endorsements and being a brand ambassador of among others, Gotv in Uganda and Old Mutual Kenya — an investment, savings, insurance and banking company.
She says she is grateful to God for the lucky break and says she puts in a lot of hard work.
“Things are happening fast. I didn’t plan enough for it all,” she told Lifestyle. “I dream today. It happens tomorrow.”
The actress has so much on her plate but she is not complaining.
She has two managers, one in Britain who handles international deals, and another in Uganda, Emma Kakai, who happens to be her best friend.
In a society like Uganda that prides in being courteous in word and deed — sometimes letting others step on one’s toes keeps the peace for peace’s sake. It is, however, Kansiime who conveys in her humour what many feel deep down in their hearts.
Her skits get people laughing at themselves, so much because she paints their world and their feelings on so many situations in life. One day she tells off a mechanic, another day it is a house maid, landlord, matatu driver, boss, neighbour, or spouse that annoys her.
For instance, there is the episode where Kansiime’s make-believe hubby turns up with a slender lady wearing blue jeans, high heels, a sleeveless blouse and spectacles on her eyes. Hubby introduces the lady as the new maid. Kansiime does not hide her disapproval and indignation. She accuses her man of bringing home a mistress before dismissing both of them with the meanest of words.
Kansiime was born and raised in Kabale, a district seven hours away from Kampala. She only came to Kampala for university education.
When she started out as a comedian, she was earning Sh500 per performance. And she had only four shows in the month.
“Sometimes, I was forced to walk to campus,” she says.
She adds that it is comedy that has given her all that she has today, recalling the day she went home on holiday with about Sh60,000. Her mother castigated her, asking where she got all that money when her elder sister had completed university but did not have a job.
Kansiime is also proud of her community, the Bakiga, much as they are stereotyped in Uganda as being a little bit “backward”. However, many are actually hardworking people, who also happen to be straightforward with high levels of resilience.
No wonder, the most famous Mukiga, Dr Kizza Besigye, is the Opposition leader in Uganda and has given President Museveni sleepless nights when he bluntly reminds the king of his nakedness.
It is that honesty in telling things as they are that Kansiime rides on as she takes her career to another level, one skit at a time.
And that is why she must be taken seriously when she says that she does not want to take her Kenyan audience for granted.
“The day I will run out of jokes, I will just stop shooting comedy,” she tells Lifestyle.