Soccer Soap Opera

Who are the Kenyans who needed a soap opera as an impetus to change their attitudes about political violence and why did they need it?

From the poster for "The Team."

Soap operas, soccer, social change – could it get better than that? “The Team,” a documentary by Patrick Reed and White Pine Productions, about the making of a soap opera featuring a ‘mixed’ football team in Nairobi focuses on a group of young Kenyans who auditioned to take part in the soap opera and follows them through production and – all too briefly – a post-production tour to show off the series. This soap opera had a specific goal to bring reconciliation to Kenya after the post-election violence in 2007. “The Team,” sadly, reveals very little about the plot of the soap opera after which it is named.

Key characters in the documentary include Waihiga Mwaura (above), a Kikuyu from a relatively wealthy family who wants to be seen as his own person and not successful because of his tribe; Wayan Mwita, a Luo struggling to make his own way and move out of his mother’s home in the face of Kikuyu landlords who do not want to rent to him; and a young women with a mixed ancestry, Millicent Wambui, who uses her different backgrounds to negotiate multiple encounters in the city.

“The Team” is an intriguing window into the lives of a diverse and engaged group of young Kenyans as they form close relationships, learn to become professional actors and passionately debate politics and social issues. These debates extended to a wider audience when some of the actors took the show on the road to viewing parties for the ultimately successful series. The film presents this tour as resulting from the tragic shooting of Wayan just as left his new home to pick up his girlfriend so she could watch the soap with him.

It is impossible to know what impact this soap opera may have had since all the voices in the film suggest that Kenyans seemed to understand the need for better inter-tribal relations. In fact the brief audience discussion we see revolves on how the violence was a result of political and economic disparities expressed tribally rather than the other way around. The film ultimately treads the path written by the soap opera itself – let’s bring young Kenyans of different tribes together to create a winning soccer team or a successful soap opera and show that their differences don’t count.

The Team tells a single story about Kenya offering no dissenting, voices, other than news images of the post-election violence, to explain how such violence arose or why it might happen again. In fact it seems that everybody in the film understands that tribal differences are not important in human relationships. Who then are the Kenyans who needed the soap opera as an impetus to change their attitude and why did they need it?

In failing to ask that question, “The Team” also tells a Single Story about Africa in Chimamanda Adichie’s words. Once again, despite the fabulous opportunity offered by soap operas, soccer and smart and insightful young people, “The Team” tells the same old story about tribal enmity and a simple solution based on just learning to get along. I knew as much as I did about Kenyan history, politics and people or the possible causes of the violence beyond primeval tribal enmities leaving the film as I did going into it. I certainly learnt nothing about the role of soap operas in Kenya generally or what power they have to change the way people think. The documentary assumed that the viewers understood the popularity of soccer in Kenya and that watching television was a communal event. In the last few minutes the documentary went on the road with some of the actors as they hosted post viewing discussions that only highlighted how much more interesting it might have been. Footage of viewing parties with Kenyans who resisted the soap opera’s message (surely there must have been), might have suggested more complex reasons for the post-election violence and for the fear felt by many of the characters for the 2012 elections.

“The Team” is part of a larger project by Common Ground Productions that has initiated a program to make soap operas about soccer teams with the goal to foster “tolerance, cooperation and national unity in societies traditionally wracked by conflict.” But the documentary makes no effort to either observe or question the impact of the series on its viewers. It does not step back from the goals of the soap itself to explore the implications of developing solutions to a problem defined only in its simplest terms. If the violence in Kenya is a result purely of long and closely held beliefs about tribal characteristics then maybe a positive message about how these groups can all get along is enough. It was enough for the soap opera project, but not for the documentary. If the issues in Kenya are more complex, as I believe they are, I want a documentary to question what is at stake in telling this single story once again.

Further Reading

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