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Cape Town, South Africa
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  • Ellen Bassett

From Kenya to the World!

When I first arrived in Kenya in 1989, there was one television network, the Kenya Broadcasting Corporation, with an affiliated radio station. I didn’t have a television in my house in Embu—couldn’t really afford one as a Peace Corps volunteer, plus I had the BBC, a lifeline to happenings in the wider world. But when I did see show on KBC they were mainly produced elsewhere or were government-produced shows focused on development themes and citizen education (like improved farming and aquaculture). The nightly news was my favorite show as it tested my Swahili. One thing was very easy to follow: the opener. Every night the news broadcast began with “Leo, Rais Moi alisema.” Translated: Today, President Moi said…

Media under autocracy is apparently pretty simple!

The electronic media landscape changed radically once we got into the multi-party era in the early 1990s. KTN (Kenya Television Network) emerged, radio stations proliferated including a local one affiliated with BBC. KTN carried telenovelas that my Kenya colleagues and friends loved—especially The Rich Also Cry from Mexico. Today there is a boggling and exciting array of choices for television and radio, including Ghetto Radio in Nairobi (name is an interesting choice), a station that broadcasts completely in Sheng. (Sheng is often described as an English-Swahili fusion. I think it is even more sophisticated than that.) I can’t understand anything on Ghetto Radio.

Kenya has had a history of full-length feature films. But as one might expect a lot of the films focus on the colonial experience with the breakout film for the country as a film location and subject internationally being Out of Africa. Kenya’s stunning beauty is on display, as you can see in the photo of Karen Blixen (Meryl Streep) on her front porch. In case you don’t know this film, it is based on Blixen’s life (as written under a pen name of Isak Dinesen) and her ill-fated love affair with Denis Finch-Hatton. (Who really was something of a jerk to her and other women.) The basic injustice undergirding her privileged life—land theft—is never examined. How did a white woman from Denmark even get 4,500 acres in Kenya?

Colonialism has come in for more honest and brutal treatment in more recent films, particularly those dealing with the Mau Mau insurgency and the brutality of the British response. See The First Grader—a beautiful and moving film based upon a real life story.

Kenya’s home-grown film industry has started to really take off in the last couple of decades and that, along with the growth of the industry elsewhere on the continent, is really changing the narrative about life in Sub-Saharan Africa. Kenya’s first submission for an Oscar was a film called Nairobi Half-Life which chronicled the urban aspirations and disappointments of a would-be actor drawn to Nairobi. He ends up falling in with a gang and almost being murdered by detectives with the Kenya Police. (The police are the least trusted institution in Kenya, as reported by the Afro-Barometer survey as well as stories such as these in the New York Times and The Guardian.) The film captures Nairobi’s grit, energy and striving well.

Rafiki (friend in Swahili) tells the story of an LGBTQ couple, again in Nairobi. Banned by the country’s film censors, it too was a submission for Best Foreign Film. Outside of the unconventional storyline for a country that is generally hostile towards and in denial about same sex relationships, I love the scenes of the city and African urban life, including the lovers boating together in Nairobi’s main park downtown. (This image is at the top of the blog.)

Finally, Kenyan creativity and life depictions may now be hitting the mainstream as it has been reported that

a new show, Sincerely Daisy, is to be picked up by Netflix. It is a coming of age story for a middle-class Kenyan girl, again based in Nairobi. It will be interesting to see its international reception—but I am excited to have the normalcy of urban life and middle-class aspirations and challenges in Africa on view, an emergent reality that defies the stereotypes many Americans have about the continent.

Hongera Giraffe Africa Films!

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