The constitution of Kenya not only outlaws homosexuality but also terms it an unnatural act. One found practicing it can be arrested and detained. In the court of public opinion, homosexuality is against the African culture. Yet Kenyan television, in its various forms and with its capacity to influence, continues to present Western programmes that use dramatic scenes to make audiences cheer, cry, laugh or generally empathise with homosexual characters. Is this an acknowledgment that homosexuality is practised in Kenya and that it needs to be discussed openly? Or, FRED MBOGO wonders, could there be a subtle agenda by TV to open up to “world” trends and cultural values?
Homosexuality is not the only “vice” that purists of “African culture” see as evil influence coming through television in Kenya. There are also concerns about its cheapening of the sexual act. Characters have multiple sexual partners without any sign of remorse and often are not in a hurry to have long term relationships in these sexual liaisons.
Heroes who rescue the troubled are presented as more committed to their jobs at the expense of their families. Individualism is praised.
Brought through attractively dressed scenes in addictive soaps, comedies, court and action dramas, these stories throw “African” cultural purists into a state of shock.
Characters in these programmes have a sense of fashion that leaves many mouths agape with either how very little of their body parts are covered or how grotesque they are. Sometimes the language is foul as curses easily float from one mouth to another. Other times the heroes are thrown into situations where they openly defy authority without much explanation.
Television stations have not shied away from airing programmes that have what is often termed as “adult” content at prime time when children are still awake.
For more than ten years in the 1990s The Bold and The Beautiful was reportedly the most viewed programme on Kenya Broadcasting Corporation Television. Many religious leaders in Kenya condemned it for what they perceived to be its accommodation of immorality. The American-made soap had instances where one of its female characters ran from her marital bed to her husband’s brother’s bed for a “fling” that developed into a marriage.
The Bold and The Beautiful also entertained the idea of the pairing off of a much younger man and a far much older woman. This was termed as “unAfrican” and bad for the younger generation. Many scenes in the soap explicitly showed couples engaged in long kisses and sex although characters were never always nude.
Perhaps it is Ally Macbeal’s strange ways presented in a manner that at once excites, disgusts, or out-rightly provokes that might attract more vitriol from African cultural purists, particularly from a gender perspective. How can an unmarried woman have such freedom to do as she likes? How can she, for instance, choose to pick up and throw away men as though they were toilet paper? What purpose is education if a woman gets so much freedom from it that she fails in her “natural” duty of bringing up a wholesome family? Should a woman be so committed to her work that she fails to nurture her children in the proper ways of life?
Ally Macbeal is part of the many courtroom drama series that have, and continue to be, aired on Kenyan television and which sometimes present interesting systems of Justice. What, for instance, is a jury? The Kenyan court system has no roles for juries. The role of an African court judge in these procedures is sometimes watered down by the television courtroom dramas which bring the mostly American justice system at work. While the court drama judges are presented as “wise”, patient and unencumbered by difficulties apart from reading the jury’s verdict, and occasionally playing referee between the contesting lawyers, a typical Kenyan judge often suffers through physical toil. He, for instance, writes every statement from court participants in long hand. This makes his work far less flashy than that for a judge presented on screen in such a programme as Boston Legal.
The realities presented in such comedies as How I Met Your Mother are so much removed from the Kenyan ones. While the anxieties of the characters in the programme are seemingly presented as universal in the sense that human beings are always in search of partners, the realities in a country like Kenya where the economy is small and constantly struggling and the youth is caught up in a cycle of survival, with issues of bread and water at the helm, are different. The styles of wooing a potential partner are certainly not the same. Simple things such as what people can do or say to each other while dating are governed by access to money and cultural trends.
Young people not only enjoy the often juicy storylines or colourfully presented characters in these programmes but also discover fashions that may be thought of as “latest” or “trendy”. They often end up imitating speech patterns and words which in the process changes their languages.
Anyone who wants to be believed as being “in” will catch up on the goings on in the lives of the characters of these foreign programmes and can easily waft into conversations with her peers with references to the aired actions.
It is also possible that people that may otherwise be “conservative” or culturally “purist” may sometimes accommodate these programmes as a way of explaining away the ‘rotten’ nature of the foreigners on screen. But the truth is that many viewers store these images in their subconscious memories and recall them later to ‘order’ their lives.
Is it therefore justified to conclude that homosexuality has become a lifestyle to some in Kenya as a result of the influence of TV programmes that present the homosexual character as “normal”? Is it possible to state that it may be accommodated now more than ever before because television has preached that it is an acceptable life style?