Nelson Gitonga: The man making laughter and a living using puppets
In his own words, he has seen it all. Life doesn’t seem to amaze him anymore. It has never been kind to him anyway, for as long as he can remember.
But the tides are gradually changing. His stars have begun to align, but not just yet. He says.
This perhaps best explains Nelson Wachira Gitonga’s soft-spoken, mild-mannered demeanour.
He walks everywhere with a black duffle bag. Stashed inside is a well-dressed puppet he named Jonte.
“These are my tools of the trade,” he says while unzipping the bag to check on Jonte. Jonte now puts food on his table and that of his family.
The 34-year-old is perhaps the only ventriloquist in Kenya today. His popularity has been rising since last year, but still, he finds it difficult to convince Kenyans what his job is all about.
A well-known and appreciated art in the West since the 18th century, ventriloquism is a very new phenomenon in Kenya.
It is a performance act in which a person speaks in such a manner that the sound seems to come from a distance or from a source (in this case a puppet) other than the speaker.
“It is not an easy technique because to create the illusion with Jonte, you have to speak without moving your lips. Many always think that a recorder has been put inside the puppet that responds to what I say. I had to practice the art for months because there are certain vowels and letters that are very difficult to pronounce without moving your mouth,” Gitonga explains.
During one of his performances, a curious onlooker accused him of using witchcraft. “He said I was using juju on Jonte. He was convinced Jonte was the one speaking.”
Until last year, Gitonga’s only source of income was working as a fumigator, a job that has now become secondary since the emergence of Jonte.
Born in a modest family of twelve siblings, Gitonga, the sixth born, wasn’t able to continue with his studies after Form Four.
“When my father died, my stay-at-home mother could not afford school fees for all of us, so once we sat for our KCSE exams we were asked to go and look for a job.” Gitonga, or Johnte as he has been christened, says.
After high school, Jonte was ready to pick any blue-collar job that came his way.
“At one point I was a makanga (tout) earning between Sh600 and Sh800 a day but I quit after three months. I also worked as a gofer at Sarova Stanley doing dishes and cleaning the kitchen, then I got introduced to the fumigation industry, a job I have done for years now.”
Last year he quit his job at a fumigation company he had worked in for years and has been mauling over starting his own.
“I still want to continue working as an independent fumigator. It is my main source of income but ventriloquism is now taking over. It is turning out to be my main source of livelihood at the moment,” Gitonga says with a half-smile.
When starting as a fumigator, Gitonga’s pay was Sh20,000 per month, but currently, he makes between Sh40,000 and Sh50,000 a month and sometimes even more during the festive season such as Christmas when there is a surge in demand for fumigation services.
But how did he stumble upon ventriloquism? “I have always been a fan of cartoons since I was little. While I was growing up there were popular cartoons like Popeye, Scooby Doo, Dexter, Pingu. These were my favourite. I would pick socks, wear them on my hands and then start imitating and mimicking them.”
Last year, while he was watching the popular American Got Talent Show, a ventriloquist performance caught his attention.
“Every time I tried ventriloquism at home with the socks on, everyone, including my girlfriend, dismissed me. They felt I was being childish or possessed, or that I had lost my mind because I never stopped even when I moved in with her.” Nelson says.
“Then last year, while watching AGT, I saw Terry Fator making people laugh and my desire to become a ventriloquist grew even stonger. I mean, this guy is in his 50s and cracking up hundreds of people in an auditorium. I thought to myself, I am much younger. Why can’t I?”
Growing up, Nelson always knew he was funny, as he always cracked up his family, peers in school and friends.
With this gift and a little research online, Gitonga discovered successful ventriloquists in the world, majority of who were old enough to be his father.
This inspired him even more. He was now more determined than ever to pursue his calling without caring much what people thought of his ‘crazy ideas’.
“By the time I knew I needed a puppet, I already had a character in mind – Jonte, a ghetto policeman. So I visited Gikomba market, bought a funny doll that looked like a monkey and made it into this Jonte you see here.”
At first, Nelson had thought of purchasing a polished dummy from abroad with his little savings but realised they were pricey.
“The cost of one was enough to buy a Probox,” he laughs.