Edwin Okong’o, ‘storyteller by any medium necessary’

Persons of Interest logoBERKELEY — There’s the joke about a fast-food-chain hire hunting high and low for something referred to in the employee manual as a “spatula.” And the one about paying Western Union $9 to send Michelle Obama $5 for her husband’s election campaign.

As Edwin Okong’o knows firsthand, the immigrant experience includes “a lot of suffering,” but it’s also “a gold mine” for humor. Put fellow Africans “through the journey” again — whether as featured funnyman on the Africa Channel’s “Africa Laughs,” or as the night’s entertainment at an African-immigrant community event — and you can get them “cracking up left and right,” he’s learned. (His email signature: “With the fearful strain that is on me night and day, if I did not laugh I should die.” — Abraham Lincoln.)

Edwin Okong'o

Swahili instructor Edwin Okong’o (Cathy Cockrell/NewsCenter photo)

A standup comic as well as a UC Berkeley Swahili instructor and journalism grad, Okongo’s many titles include public-radio host, writer, reporter, video producer, husband and father, as well. His website’s trademarked tagline offers a unifying theme: “A storyteller by any medium necessary.”

Born in 1974 in rural Kenya, where the oral tradition is strong, Okong’o was exposed early on to his elders’ uses of body language, suspense and a sense of authority to weave a spellbinding tale. More stories came by way of radio and newspapers, which “transported us from the village and took us elsewhere” — Nairobi, London, the United States, he recalls. “We had no pictures, absolutely nothing.”

Big dreams

But each day the whole village would gather around a portable radio to listen to news broadcasts, music and plays. “You could not make noise,” Okong’o says. “Someone would beat you if you did.”

His fascination with radio dates to that time. “How does it work?” he wondered as a youngster. “What does a studio look like? How does that guy get in such a small box? And how come he’s in every box?”

Little did he know that he’d one day co-host a live weekly radio show in the U.S.A. (It’s called “Africa Mix,” featuring music from the continent – “anything with a cool beat and catchy hook,” he says — and airs Thursdays,  9 to 11 p.m., on KALW, 91.7 FM.)

Likewise, if someone brought a copy of a newspaper from a bigger town, “we would read it from end to end,” then “take it into our mud hut and line the walls, and re-read it every day,” Okong’o recalls.

One newspaper writer — the author of a humorous, illustrated column on everyday life in Kenya’s cities and countryside  — inspired Okong’o to “think about telling stories I heard in the village” and to be “always alert to what is going on.”

“The more I read him,” he says, “the more I wanted to tell stories, to be a journalist.”

Edwin Okong'o

Okong’o serving up laughs and the “cool beats” of Africa.

As fate would have it, an uncle in the United States helped Okong’o move to the U.S., at 20, and get a foothold in the San Francisco Bay Area. Eight years later, after being laid off of a warehouse job, he summoned the courage to enroll at Cal State Hayward (now East Bay). There, he gained confidence as he realized that his own writing surpassed that of some fellow mass communications students, who laughed at his accent and whose first language was English. With encouragement, he applied to UC Berkeley’s graduate program in journalism, where he specialized in long-form writing and radio.

Grammar + culture

A lecturer, now, at his alma mater, Okong’o is known for weaving songs and stories about African culture into his instruction of Swahili, the national language of Kenya and the lingua franca of much of East Africa.

“I give them the good and the bad, so they can understand,” he says of the cultural insights he imparts about Africa. “I’m not like the media that gives only the bad.” Should his students visit East Africa, he hopes that rather than “rashly condemning” cultural practices they don’t agree with, they’ll understand where people “are coming from, and try to convince them otherwise. In my opinion, that’s how culture should be taught.”

The resilient storyteller speaks his truth whenever opportunity knocks. During the 2008 presidential election, he returned to East Africa to make a PBS Frontline documentary on his countrymen’s reaction to the U.S. presidential candidate with Kenyan roots. “Sweet Home, Obama” was a People’s Voice winner at the 2009 Webby Awards.

His essay “The Day I Became a Man,” on the circumcision ritual that marks Kenyan boys’ passage to manhood, was a finalist for an award from the Society of Professional Journalists; he won accolades for his coverage of the African-immigrant community while editor of the Minneapolis-based newspaper “Mshale.”

Okongo’s current storytelling project is a memoir exploring the abuse that he and many others in post-colonial African societies have been subjected to at home and in school, as children, and the toll it takes on their self-esteem.

“The book will be published,” he quips — in dead earnest — “as soon as it finds a publisher interested in an African story that lacks child soldiers, disease and famine.”


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