Kenya tests out its democracy with satire and adultery on screen
As Polly wanders into her father's house, she seems not to have a care in the world. But the look of surprise on the face of Mbonge, her father, suggests all is not well. "What is the problem? Why have you come so early?" Mbonge inquires, leaping from his chair.
When Polly replies, a female voice in the background grabs the attention of both. "Sweetheart, do I go to the bath or do we bathe together?"
The owner of the voice, Susan, then walks in, a towel sexily wrapped round her body. Shock and horror fill Mbonge's sitting room -- for reasons viewers of Wingu La Moto soap know well.
Polly and Susan, middle class Kenyan girls in their 20s, have been friends since college and share a flat. Now Polly has discovered who her friend has been having a secret affair with her middle-aged, widowed father.
"You have brought your prostitution to my father," Polly screams at Susan.
Wingu La Moto ("cloud of fire" in Kiswahili) is one of the east African nation's newest local productions and part of a rising trend.
They lack the slick quality of western counterparts but they give Kenyans a chance to view their own lifestyle issues in easily identifiable settings, whether it is comedies that ridicule politicians or a soap such as Wingu La Moto that delves into the murky world of turbulent sexual relationships.
Nation television (NTV), one of half a dozen independent stations launched in the past decade, is currently running two Kenyan soaps, including this one, and has a sitcom in the works.
Kenya Television Network (KTN) is producing its own soap, to air in October, while the state-owned Kenya Broadcasting Corporation (KBC) -- the father of local TV productions, first airing Kenyan soaps in 1980s -- is running both new and old Kenyan productions.
There are also quiz shows such Who's Smarter Now?, which pits a men's team against a women's, and topical talk shows.
"The main issue is being able to identify with the issues and the person and relate to what they are performing. Foreign programmes may be good quality and content but it's so hard for people to relate," says Mudegu Kibwana Onguso, a producer at KBC. "Kenyans want to be seen; they want to see their problems and get a hint of solutions."
Yet foreign programmes still dominate the airwaves. On any week night, viewers can tune into US or Australian soaps: The Bold and the Beautiful, Days of Our Lives, Neighbours or Home and Away. Dubbed Spanish-language soaps such as La Mujer de Lorenzo and Cuados Seas Mia are also proving popular because they are "simple and not too raunchy", says Mwaita Kiseu, a producer at NTV.
"In between, there are US drama, and comedies - The Sopranos, CSI Miami, The Practice, Friends, Will and Grace and, perhaps surprisingly in a conservative country, Sex and the City.
Another channel, Family TV pumps out non-stop Christian broadcasts, mostly of American evangelists who stride, around screaming into microphones.
And while Kenyan producers say the appetite for locally made programmes is increasing, they complain they are constrained by funding. It can cost up to 500,000 shillings ($6,700) to produce one episode of a local soap, but an episode of a foreign production costs between $200 and $1,000.
TV advertising has risen from just under 1.0bn shillings in 2000 to 1.8bn shillings in 2004, according to Steadman Associates, a Kenyan-based research group, yet stations still find it difficult to attract sponsors for new productions. Wingu La Moto was in its third season before a sponsor came forward, in part because of doubts about whether it would be sustainable. Producers say the soap is increasingly popular and has broken new ground by showing couples kissing passionately on screen. A forthcoming story line will tackle the sensitive issue of condom use, Mr Kiseu says.
"Wingu La Moto is redefining local content by tackling subjects that were considered taboo," he adds. He does not give much away about the sitcom NTV is working on, but says it is designed to provide viewers with "Kenyan situations people can make fun of".
One of the most popular programmes of recent years has been a satire that first aired in late 1999, entering uncharted waters by lampooning the political establishment, including Daniel arap Moi, then the president and a man notorious for his autocratic tendencies. The show is still running, as Red Korna, and Kenya's new government and president, elected in 2002, have not been spared.
A recent episode featured Lucy Kibaki, President Mwai Kibaki's eccentric wife, rampaging through a newsroom, cursing reporters and ordering her police escort around. In the amusing sketch that mirrored an embarrassing true-life situation involving the feisty first lady, the male actor impersonating Mrs Kibaki -- with a pillow stuffed under his jumper and a huge black wig on his head -- pranced round the newsroom swatting people with a handbag.
When the programme first ran it symbolised the changes taking place in Kenya as press freedom and democratic space opened up. Analysts say the changes have speeded up and become more deeply embedded since the last elections, a factor that may be influencing TV trends.
"Viewership for these more 'upmarket' local productions is on a slight increase, while that of the older form of local dramas on KBC shows a definite rise on the station within the same two years," says Steadman and Associates. "This may also be attributed to a wave of appreciation of local art, craft and music felt in the country, especially under the new government."
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