A Kenyan 'Guiding Light,' with Moral Lessons ; A Radio Soap Focuses on Social Issues like AIDS, Drugs, and Family Planning

Article excerpt

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. …