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Kenya uses a soap opera to preach population control

By
PHILIP WILLIAMS

NAIROBI, Kenya -- Esther and Dennis are in love but come from different tribes and her parents don't approve of the match. He urges her to be brave and, as the music climaxes, seizes her hand in a fit of passion.

Cut.

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This is soap opera Kenya style. Hardly 'Dallas' -- not a cleavage in view, not a mention of incest and nobody is going insane. But in its way, 'Tushauriane' is something of a Kenyan sensation.

As the world population clicks toward 5 billion, the U.S.-funded 'Tushauriane' ('Let's Talk') project aims to put soap opera in the struggle to flatten Kenya's soaring birth curve.

The project was encouraged by the U.N. affiliate agency Center for Population Development Internationalafter the success of a similar scheme in Mexico.

Now nine episodes of 198 are in the can in a pilot scheme funded by $100,000 from the U.S. government's Agency for International Development. The agency probably will offer to finance the rest of the 18-month schedule and contribute a further $300,000 or so to the state-run Voice of Kenya television and radio station.

Kenya's 20 million population is a runaway problem. That total will almost double on present trends before the year 2000, reach 50 million before 2010 and peak at 100 million in 2025.

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The average Kenyan family raises eight children, 25 percent of all families are polygamous and the average population growth rate is 4.1 percent -- higher in western Kenya, which probably has the highest growth rate in the world.

''Tushauriane' is an attempt to address this urgent national problem combining high quality and attractive drama with a message that families should be smaller,' said Kenyan scriptwriter Felix Osodo.

Osodo and director Gregg Adambo have had to tread wearily in making the pilot programs. A similar Voice of Kenya project to promote contraception through television drama was canceled last year on presidential order.

Rural Kenyans, who can often combine a conservative prudery with lusty fertility, were deeply offended by scenes in which young couples sat fully clothed on beds discussing baby spacing.

Adambo's strategy is to build an audience before any heavy messages are pushed, mostly through bad luck and punishments befalling characters who do not accept a 'modern,' non-traditional approach to marriage, children and the home.

'The message will be communicated through the plot, through what happens to people. But it will be unmistakable,' he said.

But that is not to say the soap, if light on sexual contact, is not raw in other ways.

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By Kenyan standards, the first 30-minute episode touched on a surprisingly large number of controversial issues: family land disputes leading to threatened murder, inter-tribal marriage and the choice of a wife, school absenteeism, tangled love and a 16-year-old girl married to and pregnant by a man old enough to be her grandfather.

Adambo says he will switch locations regularly within each thrice-weekly episode to give the widest geographical identity appeal to the series, which will link the destinies of a large number of differing, representative families.

'Tushauriane' is in Swahili, not English, in the attempt to reach a bigger, less educated audience. But the number of television receivers in Kenya is small -- 220,000. An average of seven people see each set regularly, giving a potential audience for the series of only 1.54 million.

To compensate, a parallel radio series is being prepared on similar lines. It will be much cheaper to produce since it can all be recorded in Voice of Kenya's Nairobi studio. About 80 percent of Kenyans are thought to have at least occasional access to a radio set.

The series gained early praise from previewers. Three newspaper critics were near ecstatic.

'VoK has never produced anything like this in two decades,' wrote one. ''Tushauriane' is proof that VoK's Outside Broadcasting can do a terrific job when it sets its mind to it.'

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But then, all three newspapers were fairly warm about the abortive predecessor and that lasted all of three turbulent episodes.

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