Ojwang is still hatari in comedy. At seventy three, Benson Wanjau who is popularly known as Ojwang still manages to make people laugh and he tells Antony Ongalo that he will not be leaving the comedy scene anytime soon.
His name and face have been become synonymous with the television comedy in the country. For over 30 years, Benson Wanjau Karira, who is popularly known as Mzee Ojwang Hatari has made many Kenyans laugh through his popular comedy show, Vitimbi, that is aired on Kenya Broadcast ing Corporation every week.
Many comedians have come and gone, but Ojwang, 73, has held on, and does not show any signs of leaving the set just yet.
“Mwanzo, najiona sasa ndio ni kama kijana. Mashabiki wangu watapenda,” he said when we sat for the interview.
If you thought that because of his advanced age he is unable to keep time, you are wrong.
When I arrived ten minutes late at the venue where we were meeting, Ojwang was almost leaving. “How do you keep me here for all this time? I don’t always stay in the city centre till late. I need to be at home early so as to play with my grandchildren and also manage the businesses that I run in the estate,” he said, sternly.
As I struggled with an explanation, and an apology, like a good grandfather, he decided to free me from my misery with his mirth.
At 73, Ojwang is still strong, witty and eloquent raconteur. He fondly talks about his life in Makongeni where he was born and raised by his parents who worked with the Kenya Railways.
“I learned sheng and how to be an entertainer in Eastlands where I lived for long,” he offers. “Initially, I was a footballer but I switched to acting after I realised that I was talented.”
Ojwang is widely traveled and in 2009, together with his Vitimbi wife Mama Kayai and other comedians, accompanied the Redykyulass comedy troupe to the United States during a Legend Tour.
The tour, which was organised by Redykyulass saw him entertain a number of his fans in different states.
“While planning our annual tour to the US as Redykyulass in 2009, the best gift we thought we could give to Mzee Ojwang was a trip that was not only a holiday but also a refreshing break for him from the normal Kenya life he had got used to,” said Walter Mongare, who is currently the Head of Radio at KBC. “It was an honour for us at Redykyulass for him to accept the offer and travel with us.”
Mongare, whose stage name is Nyambane says Ojwang is a champion of local comedy who has invested his time and resources in nurturing the comedy industry.
“He has literally led the Vitimbi team because the comedy revolves around him and it was not difficult to chose and Mama Kayai for this trip.
Vitimbi is probably the only comedy troupe that performs during public holidays, and at national functions. “We rehearse specifically for those performances,” says Ojwang, and he quickly adds that he is not about to retire. “Artistes, especially comedians do not retire. They only step down.”
He says that he wants to remain healthy and that is the reason he decided to heed his doctor’s advice and quit drinking.
Wherever he goes, adoring fans always fall overthemselves to greet him.
For Ojwang, this is the order of the day. “I don’t know why people think I am a unique person. I rarely use public transport because I am always mobbed and asked questions that I can’t answer,” Ojwang said, as he switched off his mobile phone.
“Some people call me even in the dead of the night only to say they just want to be sure they are speaking to Mzee Ojwang.”
Despite his fame, Ojwang is a down to earth person who interacts with everyone including the friends of his two grandsons, whom he says he adores very much.
How did he meet his screen wife, Mama Kayai?
According to him, they first met in 1980 when she made her screen debut in the television series, Darubini. He says Darubini was an eye-opener for him and the whole team. “It gave us the opportunity to tour Germany in early 1980s,” he recalls.
Darubini was replaced by Vitimbi, in 1985.
AmkaTwende (Benjamin Otieno), Othorong’ong’o (Joseph Anyona), Mutiso (Kimunyo Mbuthia), Masanduku arap Simiti (Sammy Muya), Wariahe (Said Mohammed Said) and Otoyo Obambla (Samuel Mwangi) were some of the prominent names that prominently featured on Vitimbi.
In 2009, the Vitimbi cast was given an award during the inaugural Kalashas Awards.
The previous year, Ojwang had been identified by Kenyans as the most trusted comedian in the country alongside
Churchill of Churchill Live show. The research was conducted by Infotrack Harris after being commissioned by Nation Media Group.
“I remember the first time I joined the theatre industry, I was only 34 years old. It was in the early 1970s and I had just completed school and was working as a shop assistant with White Rose Drycleaners.
“I left White Rose and joined Mater Hospital as a technician but after four years, found myself fully engaged in entertainment. I can say I was way ahead of some of my acting colleagues but I spent my free time perfecting my acting skills.”
But how did he get the name Ojwang? “It was while at White Rose Dry Cleaners that ‘ a friend nicknamed me Ojwang because of the way I dressed. When I went for auditions for Darubini, used the name Ojwang and it has stuck.”
Ironically, Ojwang cannot speak in Dholuo, despite his heavy Dholuo accent.
Ojwang studied at Purnwani Church Missionary School where he sat for his Common Entrance exams in 1952. He later joined Kagumo High School for Kenya Africa Preliminary Examinations.
He is married to Agusta Wanjiru and the couple has two children, Patricia Njeri, and Michael Karira and two grandsons.
As a seasoned comedian, what is his advice to upcoming actors?
“Patience pays. It is difficult to retain the big name without patience and humility. I believe good things are on the way as far as this industry is concerned and this is why they need to be more patient.”
Photographs by Harry Olang
Styling: Kami Munderu
Makeup: Kami Munderu