Friday, March 25, 2011

"Defecating with the locals" – was Comic Relief's Kibera documentary a cross-cultural blunder?


Comic Relief’s Famous, Rich and in the Slums two-part documentary has generated some controversy and confusion in the Kenyan press. Taking its inspiration from the BBC’s Famous, Rich and Homeless in 2009, in which famous volunteers were exposed to the plight of Britain’s homeless by being dropped into London’s streets with nothing but a sleeping bag, the charity fund-raising show pitches comedian Lenny Henry, actor Samantha Womack, and presenters Reggie Yates and Angela Rippon into a week’s survival training in Nairobi’s notorious Kibera slum. In this format, the attention on the celebrities is unavoidable – that’s how you pull in the viewers.

Although the avowed intention was to expose the criminally negligent way that Kenya’s government* and local authorities have ignored the needs of Kibera’s 200,000-plus** people, raising money from the public by text-donation, this was always going to look to Kiberans on the ground like slum tourism. And that’s exactly how some of the Kenyan press – and readers, to judge by their comments – have viewed the exercise, calling it “poverty as entertainment". "The film shows the celebrities mingling, sleeping, eating and defecating with the locals.”

Another opinion piece goes further, though, suggesting a cynical effort to rubbish Kenya’s carefully rebuilt brand in the wake of the post-election violence. This piece, by Kenya’s Director of Information and Public Communications, tells readers that Kenya’s biggest comedy star would be prevented by Equity rules from doing the same in Britain, much as it might be amusing, for TV standup Churchill to be filmed trying to keep warm with Britain’s winter hypothermia victims.

What a good idea – and why not? – so long as it’s only wealthy Kenyans who are encouraged to dig into their deep pockets to help Britain’s poor.

Seriously though, the problem with Famous, Rich and in the Slums is that Comic Relief and the films’ independent producers, Love Productions, didn’t consider their impact on a much bigger, global audience, especially in this case those watching in Kenya, or seeing the films on YouTube years hence. Assimilating their meaning, especially out of any cultural context, is presumably as hard for some viewers in Kenya as is a session of Churchill for non-speakers of Swahili slang.

There's plenty of other criticism of this kind of crisis TV – the sentimentalisation of poverty, the focus on instant relief rather than long-term development and in this case the sharply one-sided impression that naïve viewers might form of Nairobi – but those aren’t the objections that the Kenyan press has majored on.

Comic Relief raised more than £70M this year, and once again showed millions of viewers aspects of life on Earth that they wouldn’t normally think about – or want to think about. And that’s got to be a good thing.

Judge for yourself when the films are repeated at 23.25 on 29th and 23.15 on 30th March.

*The MP for Kibera (and also the plush suburb of Langata) is Kenya’s Prime Minister, Raila Odinga
** The much quoted figure of one million inhabitants, making Kibera “the biggest slum in Africa” turned out to be a huge overestimate when the 2009 census gave a population of 170,000 – though under-reporting (many Kiberans are technically illegal squatters) may have produced a lower than true result.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

African Safari Club has finally ceased trading

A holiday company has gone under and, just for a change, that's good news. The following is all that's left on African Safari Club's website:

A company that brought nothing to Kenya but dissatisfied customers who vowed they would never return, and left nothing in Kenya after extracting its profits but exploited and often unpaid staff, is finally no more.

You have to feel sorry for people whose holidays have been ruined, or are now not going to happen, but this demise has been a very long time in the making, as any glance at the Trip Advisor Kenya forum would show. Caveat emptor indeed.

Even more deserving of sympathy are ASC's miserable hotel employees in Kenya who were always left dangling from a string of empty promises and who only stayed in work because they could at least expect some tips from sympathetic guests.

What's good about this news is the benefit to Kenya's tourist industry, which has been cursed for years by an organisation that seemed almost intent on maximising the stink of negative PR about Kenya that blew off every disappointing holiday it sold like an unemptied dustbin.

It's not as if every other company in Kenya tourism is a paragon of virtue – there's plenty of room for improvement – but this one really stood out as one to avoid, and one that was damaging Kenya's image.

Good riddance.