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Big Brother is watching: With 200,000 views per episode, the Nairobi Nest Collective's subversive online TV show, Tuko Macho suggests that innovative low-budget initiatives have a ready audience despite the censors' best efforts.

The Nest Collective bills itself as "a small army of thinkers, makers and believers [who] create work together using film, visual arts, music and fashion--dissecting and subverting the layers of how Africans are seen and unseen." Jim Chuchu, one of the founding members, first came to prominence as a member of Just A Band nearly 10 years ago. With their fusion of electronic music, art and emerging technology, they created Kenya's first internet meme with their viral music video "Ha-He". The video introduced the world to the antihero Makmende, who in the fashion of a "Chuck Norris is the ultimate badass" meme, took on Nairobi's worst criminals with kung-fu, a big Afro and stylish bellbottoms. Chuchu left Just A Band to found the Nest Collective. The films he's directed include 2014's Stories of Our Lives, an exploration of LGBT lives in Kenya, which was subsequently banned by the Kenya Film Classification Board.

The Nest's newest series, Tuko Macho (We are Watching), involves a continuation of early music video themes. In a trailer that sets out the series premise, the protagonist, Jonah, states there are two types of people in Kenya: those wno cheat, steal and kill with impunity and those who, like him, spend their lives paying for one mistake. To right this imbalance, Jonah forms the vigilante group Tuko Macho.

The series opens with a typical Nairobi scene: a driver hooting at his gate late one night, enduring the wait for it to open, nervously peering out at the night and the perils it may hold. His worst fears come true as a gun is cocked outside and the window rolls down to reveal a notorious carjacker--Charlo.

Charlo toys with his victim, engaging him in banter that is all the more menacing for its banality, and asking him what's wrong. The tables turn when the carjacker is ambushed and disarmed by masked men. Charlo asks if it is the police but is clear as the three men blindfold and drag him into a grim subterranean hideout that something else is going on.

The underground world that Jonah and the Tuko Macho crew inhabit is dark, grungy and brought to life by the cold, blue-toned cinematography. The judgement and execution scenes depicted are jumpy and nerve-wracking. Charlo is defiant to the end, spitting on his captors. His last words are a compelling case for himself and the millions left behind by 10% economic growth projections and Vision 2030 superhighways, seven-star hotels and shiny things on shopping malls that are the illusion of progress. But the "reality show" public votes for his execution. This public, weary of a police force that always has its palm out or is in cahoots with thugs, has reactions ranging from apathy to glee.

A detective named Salat is now on the case and the Tuko Macho crew take on their second target--a predatory preacher named Pastor Kangai. We see her as she exits her church. "We need to stomp the devil," she says. "Pray very hard."

Once in her SUV, Pastor Kangai transitions from her pious public persona to a private one, where the transactional nature of her ministry becomes apparent. She orders the driver to take her to the bank, then complains about a mobile money transaction that is yet to materialise. "Media people cannot harass me," Pastor Kangai brags. "Just give them a few days and they'll forget."

But it is soon apparent that her regular driver has been ambushed and she is not going to make it home today. It is instructive that the Tuko Macho crew executes Charlo for being a carjacker, then turns around and carjacks Pastor Kangai the very next day. Such is the irony of vigilantism--to clean the city, the Tuko Macho crew resort to the very actions they claim to be against.

The stories dominating the news cycle in Kenya are of epic corruption--the Ksh5.3bn ($51m) Afya House scandal which misappropriated funds meant to provide healthcare for millions of Kenyans, and the $15.3m National Youth Service payment system manipulation. President Uhuru Kenyatta's statement: "Corruption is frustrating me. The pressure is on me to do something about it." A recent anti-corruption protest was scuttled by riot police lobbing teargas at peaceful demonstrators.

With this as context, it is no surprise the Tuko Macho series has found such a large audience. According to Dr. Njoki Ngumi, a member of the collective, the project's genesis was their interest in creating a deconstructed superhero narrative relevant to Kenya--with a hero who, unlike the kitted and gadget-heavy Batman types, would fit in. They were also interested in how Kenyans interact online, and that comes out in the storytelling devices used: the fanfare around voting, the judgement at the click of a button, the disconnectedness of action happening on screens, the collective amnesia and the ubiquity of vox pops. Grounding the project in Nairobi, with the gorgeously shot cityscapes and backstreets, means the series is richly layered with nuances and meaning.

As the series progresses, Jonah's backstory is revealed--his past as the election fraud whistleblower Biko Nzomo, who was left for dead by the political operative Bernadette Kadhu, which leads to one of the most memorable scenes of the show. Kadhu, played with sublime menace by Marriane Nungo Akinyi, demonstrates to Jonah just how powerless he is.

Her speech resonates deeply in a country that routinely discards and punishes its best, then turns the tables by putting her life in Biko's hands. The series is utterly subversive in its bold depiction of hitherto taboo scenarios, with the weak taking back power and the strong trembling before them.

Response to the series has been huge, with episodes averaging 200,000 views. The collective chose Facebook as the platform to release the series following an audit of their social media activity. They found that Kenyans in general interacted with them mainly through the platform. Because of its sign-up configuration, it also offered a way of having meaningful dialogue about the themes explored in the series, as opposed to the anonymity of viewers on other platforms where things could quickly devolve into trolling. The project was undertaken in partnership with Forum Syd's Wajibu Wetu initiative, which funds creative CSOs dealing with governance issues.

Tuko Macho represents what Kenyan television can be challenging storytelling that is reflective of its time. It is clear that Kenyans are ready for such stories. But production is not cheap and local broadcasters are notorious for the low prices they pay, averaging $2,000 for a half-hour drama, which severely limits the nature of the dramas that can be produced locally. Local productions also have to compete with cheap Mexican soaps that have already had their production costs met at home and can be sold abroad for a song.

This is despite total advertising spending of $816m a year, $400m of which goes to TV. There is new legislation that aims to fix matters by requiring local broadcasters to carry 60% local content, but it needs to go further and define local content as content from independent producers as well as set fair minimums, so broadcasters don't fill their slots with news programmes and music videos.

Censorship is also a threat to the industry, with the overzealous Kenya Film and Classification Board putting forward a proposal that would strengthen the draconian Cap 222 and give them powers to censor everything from books and plays to social media posts, and impose hefty fines.

In a new development, Kenyan broadcaster NTV picked up the show for broadcast in November due to its enormous popularity. It is shown at 10pm on Wednesdays, outside the watershed hours, thus escaping KFCB's stifling censorship.

Creative talent in Kenya has evolved--there is no lack of imaginative projects posted online, but the regulatory environment to create a strong ecosystem is lacking. If talent were able to connect with broadcast audiences and advertising revenue, the cultural space could grow to its full potential and create employment and meaningful work.

A strong ecosystem is one where people are duly compensated for their work, have time to hone their craft, and where a new generation of storytellers is nurtured. In such a space, series like Tuko Macho could be the norm. Let's hope that the promise revealed by the series, and by the entire sector, is fulfilled.

Caption: A blue-toned cinematic style lends a dark, menacing air to the vigilante storyline of Tuko Macho

Caption: Top: Kadhu's menace is palpable as she confronts Jonah
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Title Annotation:Arts SOCIAL MEDIA/TV
Author:Lebo, Jackie
Publication:New African
Geographic Code:6KENY
Date:Jan 1, 2017
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