It has never been too difficult to shock a Kenyan. Liberal westerners will often brand Kenya as a traditional country – conservative and puritanical – but now this image is growing dated, in the capital Nairobi anyway. The soap opera Shuga on Kenyan TV may be a metaphor for these fast-changing times, thanks to new technologies and a growing middle class.
A heated Angelo tries to open the miniskirt of his girlfriend Kipepeo. As his temperature continues to rise, he makes an attempt to dive right in.
This scene definitely shocks in a country where just 25 years ago the then president Moi banned the American TV show Solid Gold for showing bikini-clad ladies performing some mildly sensual dances. Also not a fan of modern art and music, Moi preferred to promote traditional dancers and slowly swaying church choirs.
“People who know Kenya from before 1990 will not recognise it anymore,” says Nick Ndeda, who plays Angelo in Shuga. “A revolution is taking place,” echoes Kenyan actress and singer Avril, who plays Miss B’Have, “and the best way to stimulate changes is through soaps and music.”
Shuga is entertainment with a message. That’s why NGOs fighting AIDS and the American government are among the financial contributors to this soap opera produced by a South African team and with a primarily Kenyan cast.
The six-part series focuses on the lives, loves and the sometimes complicated sexual relations of young Kenyans. The characters are depicted struggling to realise their dreams while attending university, living in ghettos and enjoying Nairobi’s bars and dynamic nightlife.
They do this all in a quickly changing social environment, where parents no longer have the final word, AIDS and gays challenge the old traditions and the internet provides an escape route.
“Shuga is a mirror of Nairobi,” says Ndeda, whose character Angelo surprises himself after his quickie with Kipepeo, by falling in love with her. But since women are supposed to be submissive and available for anybody who can afford it, Angelo has to stand by as Kipepeo sleeps with all the rich men who promise her a good job.
“This is what is happening in the real world,” Ndeda sighs. “And we show it in Shuga.”
Maybe the trickiest sexual issue remains homosexuality. “Gay” is still a term of abuse in Kenya and is punishable by law. Kenyan president Kibaki was probably taking a relatively mild stance when he once said about gays: ‘Every village has a village fool’.
In other words: ignore them. Ndeda advocates more liberal values: “Don’t neglect gays. There are many more of them in Nairobi than some of us would like to know.” A male student in Shuga casually reveals his sexual orientation when he says he is looking for a male soul mate.
When Ndeda and Avril were going to primary school in the 1990s, a big change in Kenya was setting in. An African political movement for the introduction of multi-party democracy was coupled with an urge for more cultural freedoms.
The window to the world was being opened by the introduction of international TV, and later by the internet. Such media showed an alternative way of life than that of their parents. “The new technologies offered access to the outside world and so our behaviour changed dramatically,” says Ndeda.
Meanwhile the older generation wonders whether these “liberated” new youth are not just uncritically aping a decadent Western culture. “We are stuck in the middle,” admits Avril. “We are copying the West but we also want to remain African.” She says she will still show respect to elders as tradition demands, but she will not be told what she can, or cannot, do. “I maintain the right to individual choice, that´s where I draw the line,” she says firmly.
But will this cultural revolution epitomised by Shuga just be for the kids of the well-to-do? Ndeda and Avril don´t think so. For them, the changes are unavoidable. But Avril admits: `Yes, in the rural areas where women still walk around with fire wood on their heads and not in miniskirts, Shuga may lead to a lot of miscomprehension.”