The collection of hipsters, artists, and passionate young designers that is the team at Shujaaz.fm has broken many taboos and launched itself into the consciousness of an entire generation of previously ignored Kenyan young people in its short life.
The group is behind the immensely popular Shujaaz.fm comic book, a linked radio show broadcast daily on 22 FM stations nationwide, and a booming online community on Facebook, Twitter, text message, and a website.
Together, all these media are used to one end: to boost the confidence, pride, and outlook of the 27 million people – 73 percent of Kenya’s population – who are under the age of 30.
Aid agencies, governments, and international donors trying to reach them with messages on ways to avoid trouble, to turn education into income, and to know their rights have arguably met with limited success.
“There have been for years a series of missed links in the chain trying to bring these conversations powerfully to these people,” says Rob Burnet, director of Well Told Story, the company behind Shujaaz.fm.
“There was a big fat hole there that someone needed to fill.”
Since it launched late in 2009, Shujaaz – it roughly translates as "heroes" in Kenya’s Kiswahili language – has rapidly expanded to plug that gap. It is a third funded by corporate sponsorship and two-thirds by donors, including Research Into Use and Twaweza.
Its monthly comic is the largest print run of any publication in the country, with 600,000 copies sent free each month with The Daily Nation newspaper. Studies show each copy is read by upwards of 10 young people.
Astonishingly, this means that close to one in three young Kenyans sees the monthly updates on the struggles and successes of its main characters.
There’s Boyie, a school-leaver, geeky but cool. His secret alter ego is DJ B, who runs a pirate radio show from his shack-studio just outside Nairobi.
Between one comic’s publication and the next, fans follow the gang on a Facebook page which now has almost 6,000 followers. Tweets and text messages to a dedicated short-code keep the engagement going.
A prerecorded radio show, where the comic’s characters are dramatized by performers in a dedicated recording studio, is aired daily on 22 FM stations nationwide.
In a patriarchal society where elders rule and youngsters must keep quiet, arming young people with the knowledge and skills to make their own decisions is revolutionary.
Subjects usually swept under the carpet – young women dating older men in return for cash, corruption carried out by local officials, and ethnic divisionism in a country where such schisms have spilled into violence – are confronted head-on.
At the same time, it’s combining a century-old medium – comic books – with others like Facebook and Twitter, which are barely half-a-decade old.
It’s breaking new ground in language use, too. The comic strips are written largely in Sheng, a shanty-slang born in Nairobi’s slums which is rapidly becoming the lingua franca for Kenya’s entire under-30 age group.
Shujaaz is believed to be the first ever to turn this spoken vernacular into the written word.
“It works so well because we speak to young people in their own language, about their own issues, and they can speak back to us and we listen,” said the young artist who voices DJ B for the radio show.
He couldn’t give his name, and asked to be photographed with his identity concealed, because he’s wary of being swamped by fans thinking he is the real DJ B.
This is part of the magic of Shujaaz. The comic book characters are fictional, but for their fans, the stories they tell and the challenges they face so closely mirror their own lives that lines between real and fictional become blurred.
The engagement on the website, Facebook and Twitter pages – DJ B answers his fans entirely in character – further fuzzes those lines.
Traditional donors funding projects aiming to ease the difficulties faced by young Kenyans often face criticism that there is no way to measure success.
For Shujaaz, the results are tangible. Story lines revolve around simple ways to earn money – rearing chickens or rabbits, growing spinach in sacks of earth, composting silage for fertilizer.
They encourage kids to stand up to adults exploiting them or ignoring them. They illustrate that young people should have a voice and a say in how their neighborhoods are run.
“With Shujaaz, people testify the positives,” said the performer who is DJ B, in an in-character interview with Daily Dispatches.
“They call in and say, ‘Hey, remember that idea you had? Well, I’ve been using it and it’s working and now I am earning some small coins. That happens over and over. Really, DJ B and Shujaaz believe in getting our issues solved by us.
“Use the youth to solve the youth’s problems, that’s the Shujaaz world. Already, we are doing it.”