The Berlin Conference of 1884, the legacy of Hugh Trevor-Roper and the religious practices of Kenya’s Watu wa Mungu sect – you can’t accuse Njambi McGrath of underestimating her audience’s intelligence. Her Accidental Coconut show – a version of which is being serialised on BBC Radio 4 – untangles McGrath’s identity as a child of a recently independent Kenya still in thrall to British manners and prejudices. Why did she grow up with no knowledge of her people and culture? Why are western perceptions of Africa still so two-dimensional? Might the “old white men” who carved up the continent from Germany 140 years ago have something to do with it?
McGrath is wedded to that standup rhythm that shepherds every idea briskly towards a punchline, and so it can’t help but feel that Accidental Coconut only skims the surface of these meaty matters. (Her book on the subject probably does it more justice.) The hour would benefit from greater tonal variety, too; its comic beats become repetitive. And the quality of the jokes is inconsistent. “There’s this new term called BAME,” runs one, which dates the show not just as pre-pandemic (when it was first performed), but practically last century.
More often, McGrath brings fresh perspectives and a twinkling sardonicism to her account of colonialism in Africa and its aftermath. She’s droll on the relative virtues of Christian missionary and Kikuyu (to her, Agĩkũyũ) theology, and dismayed that British children are trained to eat with reference to starving Africans. “Take back control” Brexit is put in its place, too, when seen through the eyes of this daughter of erstwhile Kenyan freedom fighters. The material on McGrath’s father threatens to burst the show’s seams: there’s clearly much more to it than we get tonight. But the point is made: the after-effects of racist British imperialism continue to be felt, even by a comic piecing together her fractured self on a London stage in 2021. She could deliver tonight’s jokes with a little more animation – but McGrath’s remains a voice worth listening to.