Kenya mourns Papa Shirandula, the man who kept us laughing at ourselves

Actor Charles Bukeko, popularly known as Papa Shirandula, yesterday breathed his last, a victim of the Covid-19 pandemic at the age of 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.

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

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 it was reported 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.

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.

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 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.

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 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, 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.

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.

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

Papa will be laid to rest on Monday in Samia, Busia.

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