There are several constants in Africa. There is maddening beauty to be found at certain points in all 53 countries on the content. There is abject poverty and social strife that abounds in every corner; there is a warm yet fighting spirit that lives deep within the hearts of the people; cell phones are somehow ubiquitous regardless of income; and wherever even the weakest of electric current can be found, no matter how run-down a neighborhood or home, there most certainly will be a TV hooked up to it if one can be found - which in Kenya’s case is an especially important point.
Despite its recent economic surge and growth in tourism, it is a nation that still continues to be plagued with poverty, disease, and low life expectancy. Nearly 80 percent of the population live in rural areas, which through the years has made education on health, skills, and social affairs extremely difficult. That is, until TV executives decided to weave these issues into the unlikeliest of places - a soap opera.
It began years ago with a radio drama called Heart & Soul, which was broadcast to tens of millions in hard-to-reach areas across East Africa with incredible success. Taking it to the next level, the Kenya Broadcast Corporation for years now has been airing Makutano Junction which has taken the country by storm, not because of ridiculously incredulous plotlines, but rather because the show has continued to address real, concrete issues that Kenyans come across and need to be educated on.
Everything from information about proper health care including how to go about getting an HIV test, the importance of education, human rights, and even Kenyan history tidbits, and agriculture tips is laid out on the table, no holds barred. Sure, some of the acting is a bit melodramatic, but to see the level of importance placed on issues that need to be addressed so desperately is so admirable that you don’t even mind the emoting.
In going through a few episodes myself, I noticed messaging beyond the credits which prompted the viewers to engage via SMS messages for interaction with experts and further information on specific topics. Not only is it reaching people who otherwise would not have access to the information, it’s also all addressed in a relatable manner which critically affects the audience’s ability to absorb, as it’s been long noted and agreed upon by experts that proselytizing and documentary-style methods just do not connect en masse.
Studies conducted based on responses taken via text message on particular topics addressed on the program have displayed encouraging statistics, such as 57% of viewers reporting they’d tried out a new concept of seed-soaking after seeing an episode addressing this technique to help improve crop yields. Beyond this, however, the viral component is most impressive, whereas 94% of the thousands of viewers of this episode reported they shared the information they learned with up to five people.
Encouraging to say the least, and in a land as complicated as Africa, it’s beautiful to see a shining example of out of the box thinking yielding positive results. They say it takes a village. I believe rather that it takes a village, sitting around a TV screen.