Why you should care
Jane Bussmann’s gags blend South Park and investigative journalism and are for a very insubordinate audience.
Pooja Bhatia is an OZY editor and writer. She has written for The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and the Economist, and was once the mango-eating champion of Port-au-Prince.
It was Saturday morning in New York and Saturday night in Nairobi, and your correspondent worried she wasn’t caffeinated enough to keep up with the very energetic comedy writer-slash-aid critic on the other end of the Skype video.
“That’s all right,” said the comedienne-critic, legs tucked up on the couch, swigging her beer. “I’ll be quite drunk soon.”
Though she’s British, Jane Bussmann has lived in Kenya for the past few years and has been a prominent, if thoroughly unconventional, aid critic for longer. Her book, The Worst Date Ever, Or How it Took a Comedy Writer to Expose Africa’s Secret War, describes how she set off to woo a hunky American human rights activist, was dissed, and more or less stumbled into an investigation of Joseph Kony and the Lord’s Resistance Army in Africa. She performed it as a one-woman show in New York, LA and London. Over the past year and a half, she’s performed another one-woman show, Bono and Geldof are Cunts, at the Sydney Opera House and London’s Soho Theater. The latter is a vicious, furious and stomach-turning critique of the foreign aid industry.
Bussmann, by the way, calls it the “poverty industry,” a take that’s less controversial in aid-dependent countries than in rich ones.
Bussmann, by the way, calls it the “poverty industry,” a take that’s less controversial in aid-dependent countries than in rich ones. After all, saving suffering Africans is a winning pitch. Refugees are “cash cows, useful, a currency” that governments and agencies “deliberately create” to plump their coffers and extend their careers. Again, this is not a subversive notion in, say, the Great Lakes region of Africa, but it can shock her first-world audiences.
So can the “raprons.” Bussmann is wont to go on and on about them. “Rapron” is her portmanteau for the aprons made by survivors of sexual violence she encountered at a shelter in Uganda. (She bought one.) Somehow Bussmann ties the gag back to a point about hypocrisy, waste and the undermining of democracy by foreign aid. And it kind of works.
With her wiry frame and deep brown eyes, Bussmann looks a bit like Ally Sheedy circa 1995. She talks fast and works all the time. Her sentences are thick with jokes, foul words and metaphors so extended you wonder if she’s lost the thread. Just when you’ve begun to grasp for your bearings, she spools it all back to the point, or the punch line, which to her are similar beasts anyway.
In England in the late ’90s, Bussmann wrote for an Emmy-award-winning British comedy sketch show called Smack the Pony. She moved to Los Angeles around the time George W. Bush became president, and she wrote for South Park, among others.
When agent difficulties left her unable to write for TV, Bussmann took to celebrity journalism. There was a 12-page profile of Anna Nicole Smith (“She spoke two words all day, which was a miracle…and one of those words was “oh!”), and Britney Spears, and Ashton Kutcher. She seems still traumatized by Hollywood publicists, likening her interactions with them to “walking into a room and being slapped in the face by a total stranger.” She credits them with her decision to leave Los Angeles for Uganda.
“Well, it was 20 percent Kutcher, 40 percent publicists and 40 percent John Prendergast,” says Bussmann.
A push and a pull, in other words: Prendergast is a dishy human rights activist and genocide expert, based in the U.S. and Africa. Sure, he has broad shoulders and a CV as impressive as his stubble — but, still, Prendergast lured her Uganda?
Somehow Bussmann ties the gag back to a point about hypocrisy, waste and the undermining of democracy by foreign aid. And it kind of works.
“Hell yeah,” says Bussmann. She hadn’t met him or anything. “But women don’t need to meet men. It often inhibits it, I think. It’s much better to have what I had, a really cool photo in Vanity Fair of him saying he was really cool and doing cool things. Pretty much anything else is going to fuck with a good fantasy figure.”
But seriously. Or as seriously as schtickster like Bussman can be: “I was so fed up with writing nice things about Paris Hilton, I thought the best thing I could do would be to find a country that had a really bad problem with genocide and just help out.”
She quickly realized how stupid that was. “The whole image of aid culture is that anyone — a college freshman, anyone – has the right to just turn up in a foreign country and announce the fact that they’ve come to save you.”
Her book tells it slightly differently. Tired of Hollywood journalism, she scraped up the money to buy a plane ticket to Uganda to profile Prendergast, but Prendergast had left town. While waiting for him to return, she began asking questions about the civil war, and Kony’s kidnappings, and why it was that after nearly 20 years, no one had been able to find him. In classic investigative journalism mode, Bussmann followed the money— or asked who benefits from perpetuating the war — and argued that it was mostly non-governmental organizations and the Ugandan state.
Bussmann and her Kenyan writing partner, Naisola Grimwood, are now adapting the book into a screenplay. They’re also working on a a new sitcom, titled Distinguished Ladies. It’s a raunchy sendup of the celebrity journalism world — one running gag concerns a British colloquialism for women’s pubic hair — and has little to do with foreign aid.
Bussmann has two pieces of advice for those of us in the rich countries who’d like to reduce global poverty…
But Bussmann has two pieces of advice for those of us in rich countries who’d like to reduce global poverty. First, trade and tourism help. “If you want to help a country that’s troubled, buy their shit. Do a three-day stopover, even, and spend spend spend.”
Also? ”Next time you’re on a long-haul flight and you get woken up from your sleep for a really depressing, upsetting film about Unicef” – she’s referring to the video that’s a part of Unicef’s Change for Good campaign, which collects unused foreign currency for donations – “just bear in mind: Unicef are nowhere near you on the plane. Unicef are in the business class section of the plane. With their children, who also have seats in business class. That’s what Change for Good pays for.”
Your correspondent couldn’t stop laughing.
”Now that’s not helping children– that’s ruining children’s lives! They’ll never be able to fly economy again. It’s unspeakable!”