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Week of 1.1.10

Transcript: Soap Opera for Social Change

BRANCACCIO: Television has often been accused of everything from promoting loose morals to inciting violence, but now there's a serious effort underway to try and use both TV and the power of popular culture to help one nation on the long road back from the brink of civil war. Senior Correspondent Maria Hinojosa and Producer Fae Moore have our report.

HINOJOSA: Milli Mugadi is a 26 year old Kenyan who lives here...in the heart of Nairobi. She lives on her own...her parents died when she was just a teenager and she was raised by her brother. Life has been a real struggle for Milli with a lot of uncertainty, but she's got something to look forward to. Millie is now a working actress and she and her friend Bonaventure are rehearsing some lines together. It's for a new soap opera series that's taking on one of the most serious issues for Kenyans today - the hatred and violence that arise from tribal divisions. The soap opera is called The Team. It's a show about a co-ed team of young soccer players in Nairobi. They are all from different tribes. And in Kenya tribe is a very big deal. Milli Mugadi is one of the stars .....she plays Johari, the captain of the team. She was drawn to the part for its strong female character, but she was intrigued by the show's theme of diversity

MILLI MUGADI: We have characters from each background, the rich the poor and the middle class, they have all been affected. It has taken people from all these background and tribes and it has out them together and created a story out of it.

HINOJOSA: Onscreen she's transformed, wearing a soccer uniform and a different hairstyle. She takes on the role of peacemaker, diffusing hostility and bringing the players together. It's a natural role for her because in her real life her parents came from two different tribes and she's always been something of a mediator. To an outsider tribal conflict can be hard to grasp. Especially in a modern nation like Kenya. Long considered an African success story, Kenya has one of the highest GDP'S on the continent and a thriving business and tourism industry. But beneath the surface lies a country plagued by corruption, poverty and increasingly, conflict between tribes. At the end of 2007, the tensions, spurred on, many say, by politicians, came to the surface, after Kenya's presidential elections. Victory was widely reported to be stolen by the sitting president, a member of the majority Kikuyu tribe. His opponent was from a different tribe. Armed with machetes, stones, even bows and arrows, tribe fought tribe for over a month, leaving almost 1500 dead and nearly 300,000 Kenyans displaced. Given that history, the program proposes a bold and risky venture —-create a TV show to change the way people think about each other ...and use it to make them think twice about engaging in tribal violence

HINOJOSA: Call it "soap opera for social change". But how exactly can a soap opera keep people from killing each other?

MARKS: I mean, I'm not naïve. You don't watch one of our television shows and drop your submachine gun. But you can change the environment, so it becomes more and more difficult to be in violent conflict.

HINOJOSA: John Marks is the visionary behind the soap opera, The Team. An idealistic young man during the Vietnam era, Marks first worked at the U.S. Foreign Service...but he quit in protest after the invasion of Cambodia in 1970.

MARKS: And I was in this phase of being in opposition. And gradually, over the next three years, four years, during the 1970s—I got to the point where I saw that I was being defined by what I was against. And instead of being against things, I wanted to be for things.

HINOJOSA: In 1982 Marks founded Search for Common Ground—its mission is to bring tools for peace building into conflict zones.

MARKS: I started at the time of the Cold War. And it was the U.S. Soviet conflict that—was moving me. And if you remember, that was at the time of the evil empire, when—the idea that I was starting, let's say, wasn't a very popular idea. Because we were fighting a cold war. We weren't finding ways to live together or work together.

HINOJOSA: He came up with the idea to use pop culture for something positive when he recognized how many people - especially young people—could be reached by it.

MARKS: In West Africa, the—some of the rebel groups used Rambo to train child soldiers as a training film. But the idea of men being vicious and jumping out of airplanes, and cutting each other up and stuff like that can have a really negative impact and it's the kind of thing that we try to counter.

HINOJOSA: Marks was impressed by the more positive influence of groundbreaking programs in the U.S. -shows like all in the family, a radical program when it came out in the 70s. It opened a dialogue about a once taboo subject in America—racial prejudice.

MARKS: I think that people saw that it wasn't cool to be Archie Bunker. That it wasn't cool to be a bigot. And people had to look at themselves. It's—it's a process. It's a mirror. It's a little bit like therapy that the country goes through.

HINOJOSA: Through TV and radio, Search for Common Ground has deployed this soft approach towards resolving differences in twenty countries. The point of Common Ground programs isn't to stop people from disagreeing - it's to stop them from killing each other when they do. And Marks is convinced that it works - that it's making people re-think their relationships with their neighbors

HINOJOSA: How can you actually quantify this? I mean, it may be nice. You may even get great ratings. How do you quantify whether something like your productions, The Team, actually have an impact?

MARKS: We did a series in Macedonia, which went on for five years. But after the first year, we did a—a survey. And we did this partnership—this was a children's series, and we did it in partnership with—Sesame Workshop. Sesame Street folks. And what they found was before watching our series. Only 30 percent of the kids in Macedonia would've invited home—someone home from a different ethnic group to play after school. After watching only eight episodes, it went from 30 percent to 60 percent. And that was a significant behavior change to document.

HINOJOSA: Common Ground's soap opera, The Team, is now in twelve countries, each with its own national version. In places like the Ivory Coast that are dealing with similar deep rooted ethnic conflict, Marks believes that soccer itself is part of the solution

MARKS: The basic premise was that in any coun—every country in the world, you would find some division. And you could have a soccer team which had people on all sides of those divides playing for it. And the core metaphor is just very simple. If they don't cooperate, they don't score goals. And from there, you can do anything.

HINOJOSA: The worldwide popularity of soccer is the key to the whole project. In Kenya . At almost any time of day you can find the game being played in every neighborhood. Marks and his group took the world's most popular sport and combined it with one of the world's most popular entertainment formats on radio and TV. Hundreds of millions of people worldwide are hooked on soap operas, day and night...many of whose basic themes cross international boundaries. Like Ugly Betty—the popular American series started as a Colombian telenovela. Now there are soap opera versions in more than a dozen countries.

HINOJOSA: How important is television, soap opera for Kenyans across the board, is it really important for them

MILLI MUGADI: You have so many problems. So the only thing you would rather see is watch television, watch a soap opera, drift away and have your own dreams in your head. So I believe by having these types of programs at least Kenyans can associate; we can entertain them and educate them at the same time.

HINOJOSA: Deborah Jones, a screenwriter from Hollywood, was brought in to help with dramatic structure. But the Kenyan writers are in charge of the story lines and the character details. Deborah works closely with Mburugu Gikunda, the executive producer in Kenya. Today the producers are editing a scene with Milli's character, Johari. The coach has just made her the captain of the team because he thinks they're from the same tribe. But they're not.

The Team Episode 1: Coach: Fate has a way of bringing people from the same blood together believe it's only natural and I mean we should be proud of it that out of the two of us, one is the coach, the other one is the captain.

Johari: And what do you mean by one of us?

Coach: "Blood is thicker than water...."

Johari: "I see, but I'm not from there, I'm from the other side of the country"

MBURUGU GIKUNDA: Johari is later told by coach that I appointed you captain because I thought we came from the same region. And Johari says no I don't come from there and the coach is like suddenly nasty to her...

HINOJOSA: And what does Johari do?

MBURUGU GIKUNDA: And Johari does not make the same choice as coach does. She instead chooses to work and motivate the team to a win and the team wins.

HINOJOSA: Gikunda chose not to assign specific tribes to the characters...or even give them telltale last names. Gikunda, who has worked for years as a media producer in Kenya, agrees that in some cases the media itself was to blame for provoking the tribal feuds that broke out after the 2007 election. Some of the worst culprits were the dozens of local language radio stations, where talk show programs stirred up tribal anger in the run up to the elections.

MBURUGU GIKUNDA: The things that you write, the things that you say if you're a radio host, the things that you put on TV have the potential to inflame people's passions and then take them to the level where they probably may take up arms.

HINOJOSA: These programs, coupled with images of burning buildings and murderous crowds in news reports, kicked off a cycle of revenge attacks. Do you really believe that someone who had the capacity to grab a machete and slice another person, a fellow Kenyan to death. Do you honestly believe that if they watch a soap opera about a soccer team on television that that's actually going to have some kind of impact?

MBURUGU GIKUNDA: You sound like you doubt Maria. Umm, the thing is people do what they do because they don't think there are alternatives. Therefore when someone that person is grabbing the machete to attack a neighbor the guy thinks I'm at the end of my wits this is it this is my best solution.

HINOJOSA: Gkunda is committed now more than ever to using media in positive ways. It's why he's working with Search for Common Ground. There are critics who say that nothing can be done about violence that comes from ancient animosities....but tribal conflict in Kenya is actually a fairly recent phenomenon. There are forty-two official tribes in Kenya...And they co-existed more or less peacefully for centuries. But in today's turbulent democracy, there are politicians who use tribal divisions to inflame passions and get votes.

Lulu: Why Grandma, because it's the truth. If we all focus on being different tribes what makes us Kenyans?

HINOJOSA: The Team pushes back, asking Kenyans of all tribes to think of themselves as Kenyans first. In the real lives of the actors this issue of tribe is ever present. In an actor's meeting, this young man, Wayan Mwita, tells us that he has a half sister from a different tribe - and ever since the election in 2007 she has refused to speak with him.

WYAN MWITA: She disconnected any communication up to this minute we don't communicate and she is my sister. Even mum doesn't communicate even if you call with a private number a different number. She'll pick nicely enough and you'll find yourself she'll disconnect just like that.

HINOJOSA: Wayan plays a character called Oli —a young by-the -book law student. He has never experienced violence....until he gets his first taste on a trip to the slums with his teammate Kezia. Her brother is nearly beaten to death in a fight and Oli gets in the middle to break it up. When we meet up with the actors it's halfway through the first season. The producers have asked some of them to go on a mission that could be dangerous....holding screenings in villages and slums where violence was at its worst.

You're not afraid to speak out.

MILLI MUGADI: No, I'm not afraid to speak out because as you can see from my environment you have to be a strong person, you have to learn to fight for yourself since you are growing, you have to learn how to speak your mind and ask for your right, or else if you don't do that, people are going to step on you and with that I've learned it really helps. It helps to speak for myself and I am not afraid.

HINOJOSA: We join Milli and two cast members, Ruth Maingi who plays the assistant coach Beth and Kevin Yator who plays Ben, as they travel to their first screening in Naivasha, about an hour from Nairobi. Naivasha was a hot spot- one of those towns where angry calls for retaliation fueled mob violence. Two months after the election almost 50 people were dead and 10,000 people had been chased from their homes. In the car ride up the actors spoke about their very real fears of what might happen.

HINOJOSA: They worried if the TV show they hoped would spark peace, might suddenly backfire and the actors themselves could be attacked.

KEVIN: My biggest worry is when you have a crowd it's hard to control a crowd and there are all these issues of group psychology, which because it's a group thing the affect of a group is bad.

HINOJOSA: We arrive on the dusty outskirts of Naivasha. Today the streets are eerily quiet...occupied by people trying to survive in the daily poverty that persists throughout Kenya. At the community center reserved for the screening...a group of schoolchildren welcomes us with a performance of ring around the rosy...the nervous actors loosen up. Many in this area don't have TVs so the event has drawn a large crowd - a diverse group that comes from many tribes. After the screening the floor is opened to the audience...and, instead of angry reactions, a lively debate begins. And they aren't just talking about tribe either...some say that women have no place on a soccer team.

MILLI MUGADI: You men give our women a lot of stress and they handle you and handle you.

HINOJOSA: As the screening comes to a close the actors and producers tell us their mobile mission accomplished just what they hoped....it got people talking about issues rather than fighting about them.

MILLI MUGADI: I was very, very surprised to see how Kenyans want change, how they want to live in peace and the way the responded to us, they opened up their hearts and to find that there were people from different tribes talking about peace, reconciliation, they've forgiven each other, it really encouraged me and I was very happy.

HINOJOSA: The show has struck a nerve with Kenyans ...according to ratings, it's reaching over 2 million people on TV and millions more tune in by radio. But not everyone is convinced that the show can heal the wounds caused by Kenya's tribal divisions. Remember those graphic images of the election violence? They were taken by this young photographer, 25 year old Boniface Mwangi. Boniface grew up in a neighborhood like this - selling trinkets on the street to survive.

So you could have been anybody.

BONIFACE MWANGI: Yes, their life is my life, their story is my story...I understand them

HINOJOSA: This is Kibera, east Africa's biggest slum. Home to almost one million people, about half of them unemployed. It was here, in Kibera that tribal attacks first broke out when the results of the elections were announced.

BONIFACE MWANGI: I've seen a lot of killings, I saw the worst, I saw human beings becoming beasts, I saw blood flowing in the streets.

HINOJOSA: Boniface says tribal conflict will continue as long as the country's leaders benefit by it.

BONIFACE MWANGI: All of them represent a tribe so they're stealing in the name of tribe but they're stealing for themselves and stashing the money abroad.

HINOJOSA: When you think of the images that you've taken, the violence that you've seen and you think of a soap opera like "The Team", can it have an impact?

BONIFACE MWANGI: But now you're getting professional actors to try to stimulate what happened and they don't have the emotions, they don't have the gist of the story.

HINOJOSA: But Milli understands the story only too well—in late 2007 the violence was right on her doorstep.

During the post election violence what was your neighborhood like?

MILLI MUGADI: There was a tribe that was planning to attack the others so it got to a point where you had to get arms. You had to get a machete, put it in the house.

HINOJOSA: You?

MILLI MUGADI: Yeah, I have a panga, like a metal rods, just in case they attack you at night.

HINOJOSA: Fortunately that attack never happened. But it's still hard for Milli to look at Boniface's photos on what did happen.

MILLI MUGADI: We were possessed at that time like nobody was really in their minds when this was happening so I can't look at the pictures for a long time.

HINOJOSA: And just recently The Team experienced a real life tragedy. Shortly after our visit to Kenya, one of the actors, Wayan Mwita who plays Oli....the guy who saved a friend from being beaten to death in the show....was himself beaten to death in a street attack—the motive is still unknown. For The Team it's a terrible blow, and a cruel reminder of the everyday realities they hope to take on through their TV show.

MARKS: We are changing the political vocabulary and that's an incredibly important thing in areas where their is conflict because to have conflict and to have violence you need to be able to dehumanize the other side but if you can re-humanize them, if you can give them real life and get into their problems and you see their problems the same as your problems then you are talking about changing things.

HINOJOSA: So far The Team has been a big hit with young people. And just this month they will begin production on season two. The producers are hoping they can touch hearts and minds throughout the country. And for the passionate young Kenyans who make up the team, the show has allowed them to dream.

What is your dream for your country?

MILLI MUGADI: My dream for my country is for Kenyans to think as one, for Kenyans to realize that tribalism is not the problem that we are facing. The problems we are facing are tribalism, illiteracy and bad governance and we can have a good governance and that is what we need.

BRANCACCIO: What do you think of pop culture and TV as a force for good...navigate to our feed back forum. The starting point is pbs.org. And that's it for NOW. From New York, I'm David Brancaccio. We'll see you next week.

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