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Workings of a Kenyan TV Soap: How Drama Promotes Development

A Kenyan TV series, its spin-off comics and advisory text messages are powerful and novel ways of educating millions of people about issues including abortion, HIV/AIDS and zoonotic diseases. That was the message from Cynara Vetch during a presentation at LIDC on 6 April as she described her recent work on the weekly TV show Makutano Junction. The former Communications Manager for the media for development company Mediae – the producers of Makutano Junction – explained how storylines are constructed to deliver development education in an entertaining way.  She said the programme broadcast on Saturday evenings in Kenya is “a cross between Eastenders and Hollyoaks” and she spoke of the “exciting” response to the comic series and interactive text message service which she started to deliver more information to Makutano Junction’s audiences. The series, which attracted eight million Kenyan viewers at its peak, is also available throughout Africa via cable TV.

Makutano Junction’s purpose
Vetch outlined the recent history of the media in Kenya and set out Makutano Junction’s niche within this environment. She charted the liberalisation of the media from the 1990s and the rapid growth of private radio stations, which has led to audience fragmentation and declining listenership for Mediae’s radio programmes. In the same period, TV ownership has grown markedly, particularly in rural areas. Kenyan TV stations broadcast many imported American and Mexican shows and there are few Kenyan dramas featuring Kenyan actors. Makutano Junction, largely funded by the UK’s Department for International Development, is unusual as it relies on Kenyan actors, directors and producers and is set in a peri-urban Kenyan setting. It is a means of disseminating the latest development research, in exchange for a production fee, on behalf of NGOs, academic institutions and their partners. The programme addresses a wide-range of issues including climate change, governance and tuberculosis, and gives practical advice for people to improve many aspects of their lives, whether it is making better silage or encouraging them to get tested for HIV.

Vetch’s work on Makutano Junction included facilitating dialogue between development professionals (concerned with delivering technical and complex information) and scriptwriters (eager to produce a human interest story). She said: “There needed to be bridge between the writers and the development researchers to get these academic ideas and reports and put them into a soap. Often research gets bound up, put on a shelf and no-one sees it again.” For example, a potentially technical checklist about crypto – a cow disease transmitted via cow dung to humans – was covered in an engaging way by creating a storyline featuring an arrogant doctor and a competent vet.
Controversial subjects
Makutano Junction has covered difficult and taboo subjects in its programmes, including abortion, domestic violence, female genital mutilation, and commercial sex work. Vetch spoke of the extreme sensitivities involved in preparing the programme about abortion because the practice, which leads to 20,000 women being admitted to hospital with complications every year, is illegal in Kenya. She also spoke about how the commercial sex programme generated many text messages asking for advice. Vetch explained how the text message advisory service and the two-page comics, which can be requested via text message, are effective at delivering development messages in response to people’s needs, and they complement what can be achieved during a weekly 20-minute TV programme.
By Guy Collender, Communications Officer, LIDC