• Swahili has proven to be popular with the masses locally
• A lot has changed in the recent past with the emergence of Swahili telenovelas
Those of us who grew up watching Swahili soap operas like Tausi, Penzi Hatari and Kisulisuli can agree that the TV industry in Kenya had all the makings of success and domination. These shows had solid actors like Ken Ambani (From a Whisper, Mali) who quickly rose to fame and became household names. We were on the path to greatness, but somewhere along the way, in between proliferation of Nollywood movies and Mexican telenovelas in Kenya, the industry lost its mojo.
A few years later, perhaps in a bid to revamp the TV industry with modern content, storytellers emerged with urbanite TV shows that were predominantly in English. Granted, some of them were worth watching but it seemed like we were running away from Swahili, and by extension our own authentic stories. In the process, the TV industry failed to showcase the true picture of a Kenyan story that we could all relate to.
But a lot has changed in the recent past with the emergence of Swahili telenovelas like Sumu la Penzi, Saida, Nira, Maza, Aziza, Selina and the newest kid on the block – Pete. With the rebirth of this genre, filmmakers like Reuben Odanga are revamping the TV industry in Kenya, one story at a time.
Odanga who is the director and co-founder of Multan Production, the production house behind some of the best Swahili telenovelas to ever come out of Kenya like Nuru, Nira, Saida and Selina says that the importance of language cannot be ignored especially if you know who your target audience is.
“Swahili has proven to be popular with the masses locally and it’s also quite romantic,” he says.
Selina, which is Odanga’s current production commissioned by M-Net’s Maisha Magic East, is an award-winning telenovela that tells the story of the poor girl - rich boy romance between the titular Selina (Celestine Gachuhi) and Nelson (Pascal Tokodi).
An instant hit among Kenyan viewers, Selina won Best TV Drama at the 2018 Kalasha Awards giving Odanga his second Kalasha win for Best TV Drama; the first one was in 2014 with his first TV series Saida.
Another strong contender for Best TV Drama at 2018 Kalasha Awards was Maza – a Swahili telenovela produced by TV Journalist Lulu Hassan and her husband Rashid Abdallah through their production company Jiffy Pictures.
Hassan who has also produced other hits like Aziza, Moyo and Huba says that choosing Swahili as a language in her storytelling is a way for her to create TV shows that the Kenyan audience can relate to and think of as their own.
“I felt that there was a gap in our stories and I knew Maza was that kind of show that the audience wanted to see on air. Just like back in the day when we had Swahili shows like Tausi that people would tune in to watch because they could relate to such stories. Maza is just the beginning; more shows that tell our own stories in the way we want to see them are coming.”
Maza follows Kalasha nominee Angie Magio in the role of Kate, a woman who turns her best friend into a cat just so she can steal her life, bringing to life the supernatural and superstitious intrigues that the coastal city of Mombasa is known for.
Released in August 2017, Maza quickly amassed a huge following among the Kenyan audience - one of those loyal fans who have followed the show from the moment it premiered is Digital Content Creator Shiko Nguru (The Green Calabash).
“Unlike many shows out there, Maza has a strong storyline rooted in things that are culturally familiar to us – how the story unfolds is interesting and relatable at the same time. As a Kenyan, it’s nice to see ourselves represented on the screen,” says Shiko.
She adds that storylines in Swahili telenovelas are more intricate. “I feel like purist Swahili TV shows are so beautiful on their own – they are more poetic and passionate.”
And it’s not just about storylines alone, Shiko points out that the quality of production is improving with each new show, something Odanga reiterates saying, “I’m confident that we have raised the bar in technical aspects of production, not only in storytelling.”
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