Fare thee well, Papa: Nation mourns man who cracked its ribs

Charles Bukeko aka Papa Shirandula. PHOTO | COURTESY | NATION MEDIA GROUP

What you need to know:

  • His brother-in-law Charles Wanyama said the actor was in self-isolation until the wee hours of Saturday, when he developed chest pains accompanied by difficulty in breathing.
  • Among those who eulogised the actor was President Uhuru Kenyatta, who described Bukeko as a gifted storyteller whose contribution to the development of Kenya’s entertainment sector will be “cherished forever”.

Actor Charles Bukeko, popularly known as Papa Shirandula, yesterday became a grim illustration of the danger that home-based care of Covid-19 patients poses after he died while in self-isolation. He was 58.

After testing positive for coronavirus on Monday, Bukeko was allowed to battle the virus from home since, in the opinion of doctors, he did not have any serious symptoms.

His brother-in-law Charles Wanyama said the actor was in self-isolation until the wee hours of Saturday, when he developed chest pains accompanied by difficulty in breathing.

He was rushed to Karen Hospital but died at the parking lot before he could even be admitted.

“It is sad he didn’t make it out of the hospital alive. He had tested positive for Covid-19. We are devastated,” said Mr Wanyama.

The family rued their failure to consider the fact that his condition would deteriorate that fast, saying he should have stayed in hospital for closer monitoring the moment he was found to have the virus.


It was not immediately clear whether the TV star had any pre-existing medical conditions, but Mr Wanyama said Bukeko had been out of Nairobi for two weeks before returning on Sunday.

Saturday afternoon his widow Beatrice Atamba and other family members gathered at the hospital waiting for further instructions. She was yet to come to terms with the sudden death of her husband of two decades. As contacts of the patient, they could also be put in quarantine or isolation if they test positive.

After confirming Bukeko’s death, Karen Hospital informed the National Emergency Response Committee on Coronavirus about the death. The Ministry of Health subsequently took over all operations, including handling of the body that was scheduled to be taken to Montezuma Funeral Home for preservation pending burial.

Leaders said the unfortunate death of Papa Shirandula should serve as a stark reminder that Covid-19 is lurking at every corner and it is, more than before, urgent that everyone complies with the preventive measures laid down by the government.

They said the tragedy also offered a tough lesson on how rapidly the symptoms of Covid-19 can change from stable to critical. Bukeko becomes the latest high-profile person to succumb to Covid-19, whose official death toll in Kenya now stands at 225.


His death left many shocked, because in his acting career he had won fans far and wide, not least because of the sitcom Papa Shirandula (his screen name) and the “Brrr” Coca-Cola advertisement that saw his face beam on TV screens in every country where Coca-Cola is sold in 2009.

Charles Bukeko.

Among those who eulogised the actor was President Uhuru Kenyatta, who described Bukeko as a gifted storyteller whose contribution to the development of Kenya’s entertainment sector will be “cherished forever”.

“The Head of State wishes Kenyans God’s fortitude as the country mourns the departed entertainer,” said a statement on State House’s Twitter account. Deputy President William Ruto eulogised Bukeko as a “versatile television star”.

Ms Yvonne Khamati, a family friend of the Bukekos and also the CEO of the National Heroes’ Council, said the actor’s input in the creative industry was indelible.

“Many things can be said about Papa, as he was fondly referred to, but most importantly, he showed artists how to commercialise their craft,” stated Ms Khamati. “For many years, artists in Kenya have not been able to feed from their craft but Papa Shirandula, through his acting and being business-savvy, and with this clarity of mind, managed to commercialise the art.”

Part of that business-oriented mind was inculcated by studying the high-fliers in the acting industry, Bukeko often said in interviews.

Before he discovered how to cash in on the arts, he tried his hand in many things. He told the Nation in a 2009 interview that his first love was football. He wanted to be a professional football player, not the lawyer or engineer that his father wanted out of him.


Out of his love for football, Bukeko managed to play for PanPaper, one of the top sides in the Kenya Premier League in the 1990s, but later sustained an injury that knocked him out of the game.

He would later become a halls custodian at the University of Nairobi before developing an interest in the acting activities happening at the Kenya National Theatre (KNT) that borders the university’s main campus. He would sometimes market plays and soon took an interest in watching the performances staged there.

He got an engagement with a theatre group called Arts Ablaze. One day, an actor dropped off when a performance was due and he decided to take up the role.

“We have a saying in theatre that ‘the show must go on’ and thus I took a script and went on stage,” he told Daily Metro, a defunct publication of the Nation Media Group, in 2008.

That marked the start of his illustrious career in acting, and it set him into meeting James Falkland of Phoenix Players, who mentored him and taught him the tricks of acting.

It was not long before Bukeko found himself in a number of TV dramas. He was in Malooned, playing a watchman who would come to work in the evening and sleep the whole night. He was also in Makutano Junction, acting as a former Member of Parliament who is a bitter critic of the incumbent.

It was his role in Malooned that set him up for bigger success. The current Royal Media Services managing director, Mr Wachira Waruru, developed interest in Bukeko’s role and asked him to develop it into a television series, and that is how the Citizen TV show Papa Shirandula was born.

In a statement yesterday, Mr Waruru referred to the early days of the show.

“I am honoured to have worked closely with Bukeko in the creation of the Papa Shirandula series that immediately gained wide acceptance across the country,” Mr Waruru stated.

With the soaring success of Papa Shirandula alongside shows like Tahidi High and Churchill Show, Bukeko became one of the actors who redefined the local acting scene, which at the time was crying for new content.


And with that he was thrust into global fame by shooting a Coca-Cola advertisement. The scene where he sipped a soda, looked at it in awe then let out a “brrr” was as dramatic as it was iconic. He earned millions off it and along it came the role of being a Coke brand ambassador.

“I met with a director of Coke from Atlanta and he told me he was trying to come up with a concept involving an African politician who has travelled to a workshop in a very hot area. He was looking for a way to express the tingly feeling one feels after taking a cold Coke, and we came up with the ‘brrr’ effect,” he recalled.

He would later be engaged in advertisement campaigns for brands like GOtv and Safaricom, among others.

Even as he shone bright as an actor, he did not entirely detach himself from football, his first love. He is well-known in the AFC Leopards circles for the support he tendered for the team.

In February 2011, Bukeko was part of a 10-member interim board appointed by the then Sports Minister Paul Otuoma to run the affairs of the club.

Through their Twitter page, AFC Leopards yesterday described Bukeko as a “super fan”.


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