A new story for Kenya’s media

Decolonizing Africa’s media means interrogating its form as well as its content. Patrick Gathara examines an initiative that tells narrative stories through live performance in Kenya, and asks what lessons it holds for the continent at large.
Author Lutivini Majanja performs her story ‘Home’ at the Story Sosa event in Nairobi, a new Kenyan media initiative hosted by Baraza Media Lab on 23 July 2023. SLUMIDIA/STORY SOSA
Author Lutivini Majanja performs her story ‘Home’ at the Story Sosa event in Nairobi, a new Kenyan media initiative hosted by Baraza Media Lab on 23 July 2023. SLUMIDIA/STORY SOSA

One Saturday in late July, I attended a show called Story Sosa, at the National Museum in Nairobi. Billed as ‘an experiment in live storytelling’, the event consisted of five stories with themes including the racial construction of artificial intelligence, the dynamics of lynchings in Kenya and the significance of everyday objects. They explored what women’s hairstyles can tell us about Kenya’s post-colonial history, and offered a fascinating glimpse into the Asian experience in East Africa through the eyes of three generations of a family folding and frying samosas.

Each story had been researched and written like a traditional print magazine story. The authors were Kenyans already distinguished on the international stage as journalists, artists, writers, poets and performers. They presented them to us through a captivating and entertaining mix of recitation, video, animations, and music. It not only felt like the tales came alive as they were told, but that the storytellers had shared with us an intimate portrait of a part of the world and of themselves, and afforded the audience a chance to experience it. It was everything journalism aspires to be: not just a set of facts on a page, but living, breathing stories that fire the imagination and speak to the heart as well as to the head.

The project was the brainchild of Christine Mungai, the Curator at the Baraza Media Lab, which supports creative public-interest storytelling through encouraging cross-media collaborations, offering journalism fellowships and organizing events such as the Africa Media Festival. The festival held its inaugural session in February, attracting participants from across the continent to discuss the challenges and opportunities facing African media in the digital age. Baraza was established in 2019. It followed research by Luminate, a philanthropic venture by eBay founder and billionaire Pierre Omidyar that supports independent media around the world, and had proposed the creation of ‘a space for media actors to experiment and prototype new models of storytelling – especially alongside filmmakers, artists, social media experts, technologists, and other cross-disciplinary collaborators’.

International ≠ Western

Mungai sees shows like Story Sosa as part of the effort to decolonize African media both in form and content and defines this as ‘decentering Western perspectives in journalism, media and storytelling’. She adds: ‘It is assumed a lot of times that what is important to Western audiences is what is important globally, and sometimes there is that conflation that international means Western.’

This conflation doesn’t just happen in the West. The late Zambian journalist and academic Francis Kasoma argued that in newsrooms across Africa, ‘the continent’s journalists have closely imitated the professional norms of the [West] which they see as the epitome of good journalism, [and] refuse to listen to any suggestions that journalism can have African ethical roots and still maintain its global validity and appeal’.

Kasoma’s push for ‘Afriethics’ – which grows from conceptions of how stereotypical Africans supposedly distinguish ‘good from bad behaviour, a good person from a bad one’ – has been criticized for its reductive assumption that the continent’s myriad cultures, religions and languages shared a uniform set of social and cultural ‘African values’. The concept has also been said to construct a romanticized pre-colonial past. But Kasoma’s wider point is shared by Michael Traber of Michigan University, who a few years earlier had opined that African media organizations were ‘foreign bodies in the cultural fabric’ of the societies in which they operate.

Part of this is because the media scene across much of Africa reflects the industry’s history. In Kenya, for example, the first media enterprises were initially established to serve the interests of white settler colonists, administrators and missionaries. Later on in the colonial period, other groups, including South East Asian immigrant workers, local activists and nationalists like Harry Thuku and later Jomo Kenyatta, established their own short-lived publications.

It was everything journalism aspires to be: not just a set of facts on a page, but living, breathing stories that speak to the heart as well as to the head

In fact, with the exception of The East African Standard, most of the publications established in the colonial era did not survive, due to a mixture of commercial pressures and suppression by the colonial state. In the immediate post-independence period, the media landscape was dominated by the state broadcaster: radio was still by far the most important source of news. No independent broadcasters were allowed, and though a few independent newspapers were established, their reach was limited to a tiny urban elite in a largely rural country. And even these publications were recruited into the nation-building project, becoming more a mouthpiece for an authoritarian state rather than a space for popular expression.

The media was removed from society not just in content, but in form too. As Kasoma noted, media enterprises copied and reflected the formats and ethics they saw in the West. Local traditions of oral storytelling and visual performance were seen as, at best, distractions from the hard-nosed business of journalism.

Reading about the death of Queen Elizabeth II in Nairobi, Kenya, on 9 September 2022. BILLY MUTAI/ANADOLU AGENCY VIA GETTY IMAGES
Reading about the death of Queen Elizabeth II in Nairobi, Kenya, on 9 September 2022. BILLY MUTAI/ANADOLU AGENCY VIA GETTY IMAGES

Cultural exchange

It is this history that the Baraza Media Lab has set out to challenge through initiatives such as Story Sosa. ‘Writing for the stage,’ Mungai says, ‘felt very natural for an African audience. Because our culture is word of mouth.’ One criticism would be that the concept of the show borrows heavily, as Mungai readily admits, from Pop-Up Magazine, a ‘live magazine’ show performed on stage, and founded in the US in 2009.

It could be said that rather than challenging Western models of journalism, Story Sosa is simply replicating new ones. Such critiques are reinforced by the fact that Baraza itself is the product of research and financing from a US billionaire (although they have been diversifying, increasing the number of donors as well as developing independent sources of income).

With media around the world under pressure from shrinking revenues, philanthropists and foundations have become an increasingly important source of funding, especially for small independent organizations.

This can pose risks, as donor interests could compromise the editorial integrity and independence of publications. However, as Martin Scott, one of the authors of a 2020 study into foundation funding for journalism notes, those that support news outlets simply because they believe in the value of independent journalism pose few concerns regarding autonomy. Other studies have highlighted the vital importance of journalistic integrity and individual values in protecting against undue donor influence.

Further, we should not ignore the fact that decolonization is not just, or even primarily, about rediscovering ancient ‘African’ ways of journalism. Rather it is about making journalism relevant to the concerns of local audiences, and reflective of their perspectives. Cultural exchanges are age-old mechanisms of learning that only evolve into colonialism when they go one way, or when what is borrowed is not domesticated and made relevant for the audience.

The hope for Story Sosa is that Baraza and other organizations take what they have seen elsewhere and develop that into a form of local cultural and journalistic production that reflects the local experience. One of the things that stood out for me watching Story Sosa was that, through performance and the almost conspiratorial engagement with the audience, a space was created where a common reality, in this case Kenya, emerged: a reality that demanded recognition and acknowledgment, rather than explanation.

Baraza is one of a crop of new, independent and small Nairobi-based media organizations such as Africa Stream, DeBunk Media, Africa Uncensored, and The Elephant (where I was the founding curator) that are experimenting with formats and content. In doing so, they challenge the accepted wisdom that conceptualizes Kenyan and African media. There are similar initiatives all across the continent that are helping citizens reclaim journalism in the public interest. And what Mungai says about the Baraza Media Lab could be true of any of them: ‘Baraza is a space to reimagine what could be possible… Not that Baraza is the solution, but it is a place where the solution could emerge.’

This project was funded by the European Journalism Centre through the Solutions Journalism Accelerator. This fund is supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.