Out of Ambridge;Features

8th May 1998 at 01:00
Transplanted from middle England to east Africa,'The Archers' has found fertile ground for educational messages on social issues from AIDS to female circumcision.

Ann McFerran reports on Kenya's own radio soap about everyday farming folk in a time of change.

In the shade of a mango tree, sheltering from the blistering midday sun, a group of Kenyan farmers gathers to discuss a subject close to their hearts - Tembea na Majire. They say it has revolutionised the way they think and behave on a variety of issues, including AIDS, female circumcision and women's place in society.

Tembea na Majire is a vital force for change sweeping rural Kenya. But it is no exotic African cult. It is a Swahili radio soap-opera, based on the BBC's epic series The Archers.

Such is its appeal in Kenya, where 80 per cent of the population are involved in agriculture, that it has become the country's second most popular radio programme. Our own story of Ambridge folk in green and pleasant Borsetshire might seem light years from vibrant African village life, but in a country where even the poorest family owns a radio, Tembea na Majire (Swahili for Change With the Times) is providing a potent educational message.

"I used to think AIDS was a wicked charm sold by witch doctors for drunkards," admits one man. "Since Tembea na Majire I have learned the reality, and now have only one partner - we call it zero grazing," he adds to laughter.

"Tembea na Majire has helped my marriage," volunteers a woman. "Before, I worked hard on the farm while my husband drank the profits. Now we discuss money and family matters."

The programme has had a long gestation and is the brainchild of British media consultant David Campbell and Kate Lloyd Morgan, a development officer working for the Overseas Development Administration. It has been created with the help of Archers editors Vanessa Whitburn and Liz Rigbey, who first swapped Ambridge for Africa for the pilot soap, Ndinga Nacio. "Behaviour patterns are different in Africa but there are universal archetypes and that's what gives the soaps their strength," says Ms Whitburn.

Walter Gabriel might turn in his grave at the Kenyan show's heavyweight agenda, but he would probably be relieved to know the programme's inspiration and primary function is still that of the original Archers - to communicate vital agricultural information.

Today I am the guest of David Campbell and the Tembea na Majire production team, led by Jared Mukarebe and Rose Kinoti. We are in the staggeringly beautiful Meru district, where mud huts and fields high with maize, tea plants and coffee beans stretch up to Mount Kenya. The farmers have walked miles to describe the show's impact.

The atmosphere is a potent mix of the confessional and the celebratory. There is lively discussion and some mirth when someone suggests Tembea na Majire may have gone too far in talking about condoms and childbirth. "I used to think children came out of the river," smiles one man. "In Africa men would never attend childbirth." Superstition and tradition still dominate rural Kenya but Eddie and Clarrie Grundy would have much to share over a Tusker beer with these resourceful farmers.

What the thoroughly middle-class Archers would make of the African show is anyone's guess. Phil Archer's counterpart, for example, has two wives. His daughter Maria is HIV-positive, and his son Juma, an Eddie Grundy-style wastrel, boozes his money away and forfeits his daughter's education.

But parallels are striking - Tembea na Majire is set in an imaginary village so typically Kenyan that many fans swear they know where it is. Just like The Archers, the story is based around a family with characters everyone feels they know - a traditionalist grandfather, his two wives who don't see eye to eye, their children and their families.

Other characters come and go, including a modern "good" doctor who stands by Maria when she is revealed as HIV-positive, and a village busybody not a million miles from Linda Snell.

Inevitably, there are significant differences. When the team introduced a chief - a political appointment - they decided to portray him realistically. He is not averse to backhanders or dodgy deals selling relief food, and he "moves" with local bar girls. "Moves?" I ask. The laughter negates a need for explanation.

If African men "move" with bar girls, African women's place is firmly back in the shamba (smallholding). The team explains how, in most tribes, women have no rights and are owned by their husbands, who have jurisdiction over their children and control their earnings. Small wonder that the modern Kenyan woman who works hard while her husband drinks their earnings tunes into the radio to find ways to gain more say.

Kate Lloyd Morgan, who worked with the team, developing skills and managing the project from 1992 until 1996, says: "Meru women told us again and again they were fed up with their husbands wasting money the family earned growing tea and coffee on booze and women, then coming home and infecting them with venereal diseases or, worse, AIDS."

The scriptwriters use an elaborate system of "correspondents". Mostly women, they meet farmers in markets and at watering holes to find out what they want to know - from water sanitation to the best time to harvest beans. Communication often takes place with the help of sticks and stones on the dusty earth. And the soap's Monday episode is followed by a factual magazine programme.

Older listeners in Britain will recall how The Archers started in the Fifties like a Ministry of Agriculture agit-prop show. In 1979, Kampala-born David Campbell set out for Africa with a pile of Archers scripts. Having worked at the Royal Agricultural Show near Coventry, he was convinced "a compelling issues-led drama might communicate agricultural information to people in developing African countries".

It wasn't until 1991, after the liberalisation of Kenya's airwaves, that he met Kate Lloyd Morgan, who was conducting a survey of Meru women for the ODA. At Mr Campbell's request, she included questions about the impact of radio. "We found that 75 per cent of households owned radios, and 90 per cent listened, including - significantly - the women," says Mr Campbell.

Together they approached the ODA for help in creating a realistic radio soap-opera that could reach the parts and people of Kenya other more didactic media had failed to reach - its women.

Jared Mukarebe describes Vanessa Whitburn and Liz Rigbey as "wizards of soaps". Working on the pilot programme, Ms Rigbey at first believed Ndinga Nacio was overloaded with messages. But having witnessed it in action, she concluded Africa was different from England - Kenyans were hungry for every kind of information and education and were applying it.

Ndinga Nacio dealt forcefully with female circumcision. In one memorable episode a Kate Archer counterpart rebels. Her reactionary grandmother, fearful for her grand-daughter's marriage prospects, tricks her into a remote house, from where her screams make clear what is happening.

By 1996, Ndinga Nacio had six million listeners and had graduated into a national soap, Tembea na Majire. With funding from non-government bodies including aid agencies Plan International and GTZ, the programme now has more than nine million listeners. Inevitably, donor agencies determine certain dramatic twists.

"At first we were very narrow-minded," admits Ms Lloyd Morgan. "We thought, because we represented the Ministry of Agriculture, we would be talking only about farming. But of course when you talk to people, you find agriculture is part of a complex set of inter-related issues. So we decided to include wider social concerns."

AIDS is not only devastating Africa's population - eight per cent of Kenyans are infected - but is destroying the solidarity that used to bind rural people together, and remains shrouded in superstition. Many believe it is punishment for infringing tribal taboo, or a spell cast by an enemy. To counter such myths, Tembea na Majire reveals that two of its most upright characters are HIV-positive: caring, hard-working Maria and her teacher husband, who strayed just once. He dies, but she becomes pregnant and gives birth.

Back in the Nairobi studios the actors discuss how Tembea na Majire is affecting their own lives. "We get depressed playing certain scenes," admits Susan Kayaya, who plays Maria, and counsels AIDS victims for the Red Cross. "But I believe we are enlightening people. People with AIDS used to be outcasts - now it is your sister or brother. Some of my friends said I shouldn't play this role, but my father is so proud of me, he calls me Maria."

Siperanza, the Linda Snell busybody, shuns Maria for fear she might contract the virus. Martha Muswahili, who plays her, says: "Siperanza gossips and doesn't listen. Playing her has made me think before I speak."

If anyone "deserves" AIDs, say the cast, it is Juma, Maria's brother, the Eddie Grundy wastrel who connives with the chief to sell relief food. Actor Jim Were, also a scriptwriter, despises his character. "I hate it when I have to tell my wife I've spent all the money. I am even having problems at church - people seem to think I may be Juma."

Just as the nation cheered when Eddie retained his farm tenancy and booed at Simon Pemberton's domestic violence, so Tembea na Majire is tackling taboos and promoting good practice in gender issues. And, just like the English fans who reacted to John Archer's demise like a death in their own family, Kenyan listeners write to ask for Maria's address to send her money.

But the soap balks at a more political agenda. Recently it turned down a request from Amnesty International to become a donor because it might risk airtime in President Moi's Kenya. "We are concerned with more basic human rights issues - food, water, shelter and family life," says Mr Campbell.

Kate Lloyd Morgan and David Campbell are now working through the Mediae Trust, which aims to promote education and development. They are building rapidly on their Kenyan experience. Their work has included training videos and a TV drama promoting coffee production in Tanzania. A Somalian radio soap, promoting peace and mine-removal, is being developed by Chris Wallis, former Archers producer and artistic director of the Unicorn theatre for children in London.

Mr Campbell and Ms Lloyd Morgan are launching a similar project in Zambia. "Soap opera works almost intravenously," says Ms Whitburn. "It celebrates the good in a society but it also coaxes people into thinking and working in different ways. As the Kenyan Archers tackles more ambitious issues, it will become very powerful indeed."

The Mediae Trust: 01367 860550

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