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Reinventing Dickens for youngsters in Kenya

In Kenya, Shujaaz is a monthly comic and daily radio show aimed at young people. It is designed as a fun vehicle to carry educational and inspirational messages for its target audience, who are mostly aged between 16 and 25 years.

Distributed free of charge since its inception in 2010, Shujaaz has a monthly issue of 500,000 comics and is the most widely-circulated publication in the country. With at least 10 people reading each issue and the accompanying radio programme and online community, its messages are estimated to reach at least 5 million Kenyan youngsters.

‘Shujaaz’ means ‘heroes’ in Sheng, a new urban language which mixes English, Swahili and local mother tongues. The comic follows the lives of young, poor Kenyans. Its main character, DJ Boyie, is a 19 year-old boy who can’t find work and runs a pirate radio station from his bedroom. His friends include a farmer’s son and Maria Kim, an orphan girl living in a slum and raising her brother, while trying to study and keep out of trouble. These characters come alive through actors on the radio and also have thousands of friends on Facebook.

This youth initiative is funded through corporate sponsorship and by international donors and has been used to carry important educational messages, such as how youngsters should protect themselves against HIV/AIDS. However, the director of the company behind the project, Well Told Story, says the first goal of Shujaaz is “to entertain our audience and be cool and fun”. Shujaaz also aims to address poor youngsters who “need access to bright ideas and inspiration.” Stories centre around subjects such as farming and ways to make money, as well as featuring topics such as human rights, drink and drugs and legal matters.

Storylines represent closely what the lives of many young people in Kenya are really like and how young people survive in harsh communities such as the slums. As well as developing a TV version of Shujaaz, the creators will soon be introducing a new character, called Titus Twist. This young apprentice to a coffin-maker lives in the urban jungle of Nairobi’s slums and takes inspiration from Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist. Like Oliver, Titus will no doubt be surrounded by prostitutes and thieves, since in modern-day Nairobi, as in the London of Charles Dickens’ time, prostitution and pick-pocketing are seen by many poor Kenyans as the only realistic ways to make money. It will be interesting to see how the experiences of Titus Twist will try to show Shujaaz readers there are other ways to earn a reliable living in today’s Kenya.

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