A Kenyan 'Guiding Light,' with moral lessons

A radio soap focuses on social issues like AIDS, drugs, and family planning.

In a slum on the edge of this market town in the Rift Valley, the conversation centers on whether Lulu, who runs a beauty salon, and Kinga, a young village man, ought to get married.

Six women discuss it beside a stall selling cabbages and potatoes. Nearby, a cluster of men also debates the union. "The marriage cannot work," declares a man siding with Kinga's father, who believes a city girl brings the wrong kind of values to the village. "There are problems when boys choose for themselves." As chickens pluck at corn drying in the sun, the women, however, voice their support for the couple.

It might sound like typical neighborhood gossip in any African town, but it's actually all about a prime-time radio soap opera: "Ushikwapo Shikamana" - literally, in Kiswahili. "If assisted, assist yourself." Two 15-minute episodes air weekly on the Kenya Broadcasting Corp., aimed at getting people to talk more openly about social issues in Kenya, such as family planning, AIDS, drug abuse, female genital mutilation, and forced marriage.

A radio soap focuses on social issues like AIDS, drugs, and family planning Population Communications International, a nongovernmental organization (NGO) in New York, has sponsored the show since 1998 here in Kenya. In addition to the East African nation, the group has brought the popular soap opera medium to Brazil, Mexico, India, and just this summer to China. Its goal: to encourage change in private behavior for improved public health.

And that's a worthy ideal, according to Kimani Njogu, the soap's chief writer in Nairobi. "People are tired of facts and more facts," argues Dr. Njogu. "They would like to be given information in a more playful manner," where they relate to the plot.

Every three months, Njogu's associates venture into the Kenyan hinterland to survey audiences on how effective the shows are, what should happen next in the plot, and ask questions on health and social issues.

Last week, the researchers visited Thika, a Nairobi suburb, and were here in Nakuru, about 100 miles north of the capital. The results from these interviews will be immediately used in next Saturday's planning session with producers and writers to plan the next four shows - and to influence episodes airing all the way until November, when the next survey is tentatively planned. The soap is scheduled to run for another 15 months.

In a conservative society like Kenya, touchy subjects like contraception, and whether girls have the right to be educated can often be best tackled through fictional drama, Njogu says. "It engages and teaches without being preachy, without being moralistic. The audience gets a kind of vicarious reward or punishment every time we punish or reward our characters for a certain behavior. It's as if you are peeping into the lives of your neighbors and learning from that experience."

Female listeners tend to use the show as a jumping-off point for discussing sensitive topics with their children and husbands, says the lead researcher, Leah Wanjama, a lecturer in gender and development at Kenyatta University. "They think it is helping with breaking the silence within the family," says Ms. Wanjama.

She adds that women who listen to the show with their husbands criticize the behavior of certain characters to discourage the men from following suit.

There's Shindo, a rich supermarket owner who makes much of his money trafficking drugs and spends much of his time cheating on his wife, Maua. With lavish gifts, he tries to seduce teenaged Pendo, who had to undergo genital mutilation before fleeing her village. Her parents had arranged for her to marry Kinga, whose brother Pangupangu is keeping company with members of Shindo's underworld. And so on.

Asked to name her favorite character, Elsie Njeri, a 20-something mother of two, picks Shindo - because she feels the way he preys on Pendo is so realistic. "That's how sugardaddies behave," she says. "When they have money, they act powerfully to woo the young girls."

The soap's action takes place in three settings: Langoni, the prototypical rural village; Kanyageni, an urban slum; and posh Ulimboni. In Langoni, men control the women and girls, with female circumcision, early marriage, and lots of children the norm. Kanyageni faces problems of crime, drug abuse, prostitution, and poor housing. The characters all have connections back to Langoni. All of this mimics today's reality for Kenyans, who face poverty, rural-urban migration, high rates of HIV, and traditional views on gender roles.

Ms. Wanjala says her research team has seen evidence of changes in behavior and attitudes among some listeners in their study groups. Both she and Njogu acknowledge that such change takes time. With no such thing as Nielsen ratings in Kenya, no one can accurately say how many people are listening to each Ushikwapo episode, but the program has received letters from more than 3,000 people since going on air in 1998. According to the researchers, 32 percent of Kenyans surveyed listen regularly, and 56 percent had listened at least once in the previous month.

Those who tune in over the coming weeks will find out whether Pendo escapes from Shindo's clutches, and whether Kinga and Lulu get married.

And maybe, whether the values of their own husbands and children are evolving.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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