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.

1 comment:

  1. We have the Kenyans who participated in the Film 'Famous Rich & in the Slum' still languishing in abject poverty up to now as we speak. The jamaa who was shoveling shit still does the same job, Not even one of them got his life improved or changed their lives. They are even poorer. Was Comic Relief just using these fellows then....? know, like tissue paper, very very important before you use it, but the worst thing you would ever want to see after using!