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Sandiago, the Eritrean Prodigy of Comedy

“Thank heavens the world is not a rental place. Had it been so, God, the owner, would be telling us to move out or that the rent was up like house owners do.” Ghirmay Yohannes, aka Sandiago.

With more than three decades of expertise, Ghirmay Yohannes, better known by his nick name Sandiago, is a comedian of high and mighty esteem. He is the source of laughter to the Eritrean community, or better still, Tigrigna speaking communities in the Horn of Africa. Ghirmay Sandiago means a perpetual urge of smiles.

For today’s Q&A we went to the set of ‘Meselet’, Sandiago’s latest weekly sitcom.

  • -Thank you for your time, Sandiago. It is such an honor to have you here with us.

The pleasure is all mine. Thank you for having me. Hello to you all, it is me, Ghirmay Yohannes Sandiago, with Eritrea Profile.

  • -Did you know you were going to be a comedian?

No I didn’t. You don’t know what you want to be until you discover what you are really good at. I was an ordinary child growing up. But, of course, I like being in the company of my friends and family. During the armed struggle for Independence I started telling jokes and my comrades seemed to enjoy them so much that they would ask me to tell them more. Some of the jokes I told back then were from comic books I read but most of them were spontaneous. It means that situations would lead me into making up jokes of my own. Yet again, I still didn’t know I wanted to be a comedian. However, I did like writing. I enjoyed writing essays of all kinds. I published some in the magazines that were famous during the armed struggle. I kept writing even after independence. Moreover, I slowly got a reputation in hosting shows. And that was where I realized that I liked telling jokes and that people accepted my innovations. That’s it. That is how it all started.

  • -So how were your first steps as a real comedian?

I think it was in 1995, I am not sure, but I was invited to work on a package of entertainment where I’d be hosting a competition show which included mime competitions and more. I am taking about the origins of ‘Teawet’. ‘Teawet’ was an entertainment package which grew in the course of the years in its run of almost twenty years. In the package we included competition shows, mime, telephone pranks, hidden camera, kids’ talk show and many more gigs to spread laughter amongst our people. I was responsible for hosting and arranging the general package though every gig included in ‘Teawet’ had its own production managers. The show became addictive and people were longing for it with excitement.

  • -Despite your success in the broadcast media you still remain faithful to essay writing. Tell me about it please.

Like I said writing has been with me since I was young. But as I was immersed in the profession of comedy I also shifted my writing to comic essay. I have a column in ‘Meneisey’ magazine. It is called ‘Zelku dea…’. The literal translation of ‘Zelku dea…’ in English would be ‘What I mean is…’. Just from the column’s name you can understand that there is a comic vibe to it. Even though my ultimate goal is to make people laugh while writing, and honestly while doing all of the other activities related to my comedy, I plan on passing messages that go beyond amusement. And for this special focus I use comic essay as one of my tools. Therefore, ‘Zelku dea…’, or, ‘What I mean is…’ is a column that raises controversial issues and with a touch of satire extends deep, meaningful critical and constructive messages.

  • -You are also much known for your standup comedy gigs.

After I stopped participating in the production of ‘Teawet, I focused on producing standup comedy shows. I also started, on the side, learning ventriloquism. For the very reason that the community was not familiar with ventriloquism, at first I was concerned that it might not bring enough laughter to my community with ventriloquism. Ventriloquism is the art of manually moving puppets, without you have to move your lips and seemingly making the puppets talk. So, that was new when we first started. But contrary to what I had thought, people loved the art. Kids became my number one supporters when I was doing ventriloquism.

Therefore, side by side with standup comedy and just general comic gigs I normally do ventriloquism.

  • -You do all sorts of comedy. You do gigs, you do standup comedy and even ventriloquism. It might be easy, for you, to even do it all at once, as you are a professional comedian, may I ask, is there any difference that you feel moving from one form of comedy to another?

There are some differences, of course, because the standup comedy, gigs and ventriloquism are all different techniques within the field of comedy. Jokes have no nationality. Jokes migrate like birds from one community to another and can even travel through generations. So telling jokes is a lot more different than doing standup comedy as standup comedy is more elaborate. It is more of a team work. There could be writers despite the main comedian, you may call it, the face of the gig. Research is required and the topics raised are often contemporary. But of course this is not a universal truth because techniques might differ from one comedian to another. So to answer your question, yes, there are plenty of differences because comedy is a vast field and the approaches might differ accordingly. Most of my works are out on DVD and on several YouTube channels. You can find my works of standup comedy, ventriloquism and live gags there.

  • -What is comedy to you?

Comedy to me is the work of love. There is no other job in the world, at least for me, that spreads laughter by chasing away sadness at least for a dozen of minutes. Art in general is a great form of culture, and comedy since is part of art, it is one of the sources of awareness. People learn more while having fun than in a serious atmosphere. Comedy is a constructive art.

  • -What are the challenges a comedian faces based on your experience?

If an author or a singer comes into a room people stand up to shake hands and greet them with respect. But if a comedian walks in people would rather scream and just think of you like a doll. They ask you to tell them jokes and they won’t like you if you put on a serious look. Honestly, there is nothing wrong with it. That is the way people show the love they have for you. After all, you are their main source of joy. But comedians too are people, so we crave for privacy. We can’t smile always and make jokes to everyone we meet in our daily lives. There are days when we, too, are sad. Those are most of the challenges comedians face. Having to be happy at all times cannot be possibly human. So we hide our sadness.

  • -You are the source of joy to many people. Is there someone that can be identified as a source of your happiness?

My favorite comedian is Eddy Murphy. Anything that starts Eddy Murphy makes my day. See? Even a comedian needs another comedian to laugh. Above all, though, my family is my greatest source of joy.

  • -We are here today, in the set of ‘Meselet’, a sitcom where you are starring as Mr. Sengal. The sitcom has already in received the love of the public. Could you please tell me about it?

‘Meselet’ means reflection. The sitcom is about a family that reflects a typical Eritrean family. Every character from the father, Mr. Sengal, my character, to the youngest of the family, Mikal, Sengal’s grandchild, represent different types of people within the modern Eritrean community. Like you said the ratings and reviews are great and I am contented to be part of the cast. Working with actors, writers and the production team has been awesome.

  • -Many young comedians look up to you and are fond of your comments on their works. What is your opinion of Eritrea’s aspiring comedians?

They are incredibly talented for their age. They are young and smart. They are accurate and attentive to what would satisfy the public. They are educated and that is why I appreciate most of them. They are eager to grow and work hard for it. So they make me proud as my own children. You know how traditionally our community retains having offspring as a blessing as they are expected to live the legacy of their parents? Well, that is how I feel about young Eritrean comedians. They’ll keep me and our profession alive long after I am gone. I truly respect them.

  • -Thank you Sandiago for being such a dear artist that the Eritrean community cherishes with extraordinary love. And thank you for your time. Is there anything you want to say before we end our Q&A today?

I want to urge the Eritrean Cultural Affairs to be more attentive to all comedians and their works as it is a big component of culture and arts. I want to remind stakeholders and the public in general to support their comedians because comedians are the reflection of the society. And off the topic, if by the time my interview is published, the Ethiopian Prime Minister, Dr. Abiy Mohamed, is here I want to welcome him. I hope peace and stability will reign in our region so that the joy of comedy can spread its wings. Tons of love to my fans!

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