In Animated Series, A 'Character Smoothie' Based On Springfield's Tanzanian Community

May 5, 2021

A cartoon sitcom about a Tanzanian family living in a fictional western Massachusetts town has just wrapped up its first season.

Comedian Zul Manzi, 23, wrote and animated the 10 episodes of “The Matumbila’s” — with more on the way. He said the storylines and characters are “loosely based” around the Tanzanian community in Springfield, where he grew up.

“So I will take maybe a few people from my real life, and kind of put it in a blender, and then I get a character smoothie,” he said.

The generation gaps between the parents — Hashim and Zainat — and their children — Amina, Rajab and Zulfiqar — are often where the laughs and the cringes come in.

Manzi wrote and animated the shows shortly after the pandemic shut down clubs where he had been doing stand-up comedy.

In one episode, Hashim and Zainat are in the front seat of the car, on their way to a celebration for their 21st wedding anniversary. It’s understood at this point that Hashim hates parties.

ZAINAT: Hashim, I am looking forward to this big — I mean, uh, uh — SMALL gathering!

HASHIM: Yeah, I hope it is quick. We still have one hour left until the grocery store closes. I am not missing those cassavas. 

The three kids are in the back seat, dreading the party.

ZULFIQAR: I hope I don’t see anyone twerking on a chair.

RAJAB: Or worse: an old auntie twerking on a chair. Those poor chairs.

AMINA: Don’t worry, guys. I wrote a speech which will call out all the wrong things in our community.

RAJAB: Oh, so that’s why you are dressed like a 40-year-old politician?

AMINA: At least I’ll have a career.

Episodes run 10 to 15 minutes long. Manzi said he keeps them short because of the audience’s short attention span, and because people have a lot of content to choose from.

 

The dialogue, like Manzi’s stand-up comedy, has a rhythm.

“Even if it’s not like a straight punchline, but it’s something humorous that happens at least every, like, third line,” he said.

The Matumbila family lives in the fictional town of Hopedale. Manzi animated certain buildings along Springfield’s Main Street for the show, including a halal restaurant he often goes to. 

“I go to City Pizza — it’s that building, the shapes and everything. I just kind of use that as my inspiration,” Manzi said.

In his show, Zul Manzi modeled a restaurant, ABC Halal Fried Chicken, on City Pizza and Fried Chicken, which is on Main Street in Springfield, Massachusetts. The neighboring storefronts -- a smoke shop and an Italian deli -- are also depicted in the show.
Credit Screen Shot / YouTube

“The Matumbila’s” is on kweliTV, a streaming service for movies, series and documentaries made by Black producers from around the world.

Manzi voices many of the characters, and he said he’s making enough revenue from the show to hire voiceover actors. Among the cast, Rajab is voiced by Chris Yates, who also did music for a one episode. Actress Samadhi Hernandez plays Zainat and Amina.

As a satirist, Manzi takes on pretty much everyone he knows. Family life, pop culture, food and school are recurring storylines. Most episodes are light, although one is based on his early school life.

Manzi grew up in Springfield, but he went to school in the neighboring suburb of Longmeadow.

“I was the only Black boy in my whole entire grade. I always felt like a delegate,” Manzi said, adding he repeatedly had to explain certain things about being Black, being Muslim, being Tanzanian.

In the first episode, it’s the 100th day of school, and teacher Mrs. McCrust still can’t pronounce Zulfiqar’s name. The class is about to work on projects about different countries. He tells her he’ll do a project on Tanzania. She asks why, managing to mispronounce both his name and the country’s. 

ZULFIQAR: Because Tanzania is where my family originally came from.

Another student, Emily, turns to Zulfiqar. Her pupils are now stars.

EMILY: Really? Wow! My sister Amy went there to teach kids in villages how to read! She may have taught one of your cousins how to read! Isn't that cool, Zulfiqar?

The scene moves to that evening around the dinner table, with Zulfiqar wrapping up his explanation of the day. His family is staring at him, and he sighs. 

ZULFIQAR: It definitely wasn’t cool. (Beat) But our cousins can read, right?

Even as he pokes fun at Tanzanian rituals and customs, Manzi said he’s very interested in modern African music, the African diaspora and where his own family comes from. That also was fodder for the show, and its title.

“My mom used to always call me Matumbila and stuff. But then I said, ‘What does this really mean?’ And on my father’s side, my father’s tribe is Matumbi,” Manzi said.

Looney Tunes, Disney, “Fat Albert,” and “King of the Hill” inspired Manzi to make “The Matumbila’s” — but not another animated family show connected to a fictional city named Springfield, “The Simpsons.” Manzi said he never really watched it.

The final episode of the first season dropped in early April. In it, Hashim directs his family to watch the sequel to “Coming to America” together. He announces that the original Eddie Murphy film inspired him to leave Tanzania.

Season two of “The Matumbila’s” is in the works.