In April 2019, an Instagram comedy skit went viral on Nigerian social media. In it, the mother is scolding her daughter while driving her to school, her head tie and glasses underlining that artful energy that our millennials have popularly come to associate with an “African Mother.” Mother and daughter are played by the same person. The daughter had overslept and missed the school bus. “Just come back from school first,” the mother threatens. “You’re doing yourself. Rubbish.” Then the daughter’s face falls: she just realized her worst offence. She is looking around the car, searching for something. “What?” the mother sneers. “What are you looking for, joor?” she shouts.
“My school bag,” the daughter says.
“Did you carry food?”
“Yes, I carried food—”
The slap comes like lightning, a clap of refined thunder.
“You carry food and forget your school bag?” the mother shouts. She kicks the daughter off the car.
It is only 56 seconds, but those were all it took to introduce a major comedic and acting talent. In the one year since, the 21-year-old Taaooma, whose real name is Maryam Apaokagi, has become one of Nigeria’s hottest social media phenomena, carving out a niche of substance, engagement, and likability. Last year, she won Best Online Comedian of the Year at the Gage Awards. Last month, she reached one million followers on Instagram, which, in the Nigerianspeak of numbers, is the threshold of arrival. Add 647,000 followers on Facebook, 362,700 followers on Twitter, and 151,000 subscribers on YouTube, and she has 2.1 million people coming to her for laughter. These figures underscore the unprecedented relatability of her formula: every storyline peaks with the mother slapping the daughter or someone else, the humour resident in the exaggerated tendency of “African” parents to want control over their child, no matter said child’s age.
When Your Nigerian Mom Drives You to School was her breakout skit but not her first. She had joined Instagram in 2014, and a year later, her fiancé, Abula, a video director, taught her video editing. While he sometimes helps in the shooting, the ideas and editing are all her. “I like to write it down, not type on the phone,” she tells me, on a day she uploaded a new skit. “I could remember things that happened and I’ll say, wow, it’s actually funny, I can act it out. And sometimes when I remember it, it might not be as funny, but I’ll just add some things.”
When she started, she had no template. “As at then, I really didn’t know about Instagram. I cannot say, ‘Okay, there is this particular person I was looking up to.’ I just started because I wanted to learn how to edit. I would just upload it and leave. I didn’t think anyone was watching. I wouldn’t get any likes.” Subsequently, she began to study the app’s analytics, planning when to upload a video, and she began to pay attention to the details of her scenes as well. It takes her between two to three days to make a skit. “But it depends on how interested I am and the urgency,” she explains. “If it’s urgent, I’ll have to make it quickly, like in five hours.”
At first, she played only the mother and daughter characters: Mama Taaoo and Taaoo. Then last year, while preparing for an advert for Nokia, she created a third: Papa Taaoo. And later two more: Tayo, the son, and Iya Taaoo, a neighbour. Remarkably, the five are recognizable and realized, playing off each other’s behaviours. Because the intention is to capture the typical “African Family,” their interaction is undergirded by traditional gender dynamics.
Mama Taaoo, executor of slaps, provides the out-of-the-blue moment viewers anticipate. But commenters have raised a question over the months: Do the skits glorify abuse? “They can’t say because you are watching Money Heist that you’re promoting stealing from a bank or something,” Taaooma replies. “When I slap Taaoo, as long as it is Taaoo, Taaoo is an adult. You know it’s a character, I cannot slap myself, definitely. If I were actually using a child, then that would be abuse. As a mother, there’s no way you would say, because Mama Taaoo slapped Taaoo like that, let me slap my own child. I just want them to think of it as something for laughs. I’m a totally different person from my skits, my lifestyle, everything is totally different.”
In the ever-moving current of social media storms, Taaooma understands the importance of storified commentary. “There’s a video I dropped today,” she says. “It’s about the rape issue.” In the skit, a man makes a comment about Taaoo’s childhood, and it is Papa Taaoo this time who lands the slap on him. In two days, it has received 717,000 views across Instagram, Facebook, and YouTube. “There’s one on coronavirus,” she continues. “There’s one I’m doing that makes it clear, education is important. I don’t do comedy for just laughs. I pass messages. I put all other things as a way to make people laugh, no matter how exaggerated I make it.”
While she has made it clear that Mama Taaoo is not her mother, the real Mrs. Apaokagi was not always convinced. “My mom once asked me, ‘Why do you make me look so wicked?’” Taaooma laughs. “She asked me that. I’m like, ‘I’m sorry, it’s something I started with and I can’t stop.’”
“I’m the lastborn so I’m always with our mom,” she continues. “I just took everything she’s always doing. The way she nags, the way she shouts, the way she takes things personal, which, like, every mother does. So I just took that and added the slap, for humour.”
Taaooma doesn’t belong entirely to Nigeria. Her secondary education was in Namibia, in the capital city of Windhoek. She returned to Nigeria for university, to Ilorin, where she was born, and obtained a degree in Tourism and Hospitality Management from Kwara State University. At the moment, she is on her National Youth Service, in Lagos.
“When I was in Namibia with my mom, we always watched stand-up comedy, Babyface, Akpororo, Bovi, and Basketmouth,” she says. “I really liked them—everyone loves stand-up comedy—but I really didn’t think it could be my style because I can’t do it. I’d rather go to movies.”
Taaooma is the co-owner, with her boyfriend Abula, of The Greenade Company, a video-making outfit. “We are going to have another part that handles filmmaking,” she says. Should we expect something similar to Funke Akindele’s Jenifa series—with slaps? “I don’t know what kind of movies I really want to make yet, but I’m not sure I want to make a series because it takes so much to keep the storyline. I’ll probably make a one- or two-hour movie.”
This year, she worked with the rapper and actor Falz. “He’s a really nice person,” she says. “We chose the date, and he came and we shot it.” In the skit, Falz’s vulcanizer character is chyking the daughter Taaoo, and Mama Taaoo, whose tyre he couldn’t fix well, pops up to deliver him his slap.
Her success has opened doors, but at the moment, “I get money from adverts alone,” she says. Plans are ongoing for a formal monetisation of her platform. “We are all on our toes, one hundred percent,” her manager, Akeem Bello, who started working with her six months ago, tells me on the phone. “I plan her calendar a month ahead. She’s not giving me stress. I don’t need to come into her creative thinking. She does it herself. My job is just to keep her on point.”
Last month, Taaooma launched a finger foods business, Chop Tao, which runs deliveries. “I’ve had that in my mind since university,” she says. “Now I share it on Instagram and say, ‘Okay, I have a business,’ and I do advert for it.”
Two million people come to her to laugh, but who does she go to when she needs a laugh? “Other comedians like Beyu and Twyse,” she says. “Sometimes I don’t see myself as funny, but I like the fact that I pass my message across in a way that people actually like. I think everyone has that feeling, I’m sure.”
CORRECTION: The previous version of the story erroneously suggested that the skit with Falz is Falz’ idea.
Otosirieze Obi-Young is a writer, editor, journalist, and curator. He is Editor of Folio Nigeria, where he profiles innovators and facilitators in culture, art, photography, business, activism, and health. He has vast experience working in literature. He has sat on the judging panels of The Gerald Kraak Prize and of The Morland Writing Scholarship. He is an editor at 14, Nigeria's first queer art collective, and Curator at The Art Naija Series, a sequence of e-anthologies exploring different aspects of Nigerianness. For three years, Nov. 2016 to Apr. 2020, he led the transformation of the literary blog Brittle Paper into a continental powerhouse, ideating and administering The Brittle Paper Awards, the first by an African publication. His work in queer advocacy has been profiled in Literary Hub. In 2019, he won The Future Awards Africa Prize for Literature. In 2020, he was named among "The 100 Most Influential Young Nigerians." He completed a collection of short stories in 2016 and his novel in 2020. Find him on otosirieze.com or on Twitter & Insta: @otosirieze.