Mission agencies have long been confronted with the tension between proclaiming God’s authority and contextualizing the meaning of Christ’s good news in cultural communities. This tension often influences the structures and cultures of media production. In some cases communicative agencies have radically decentralized for participatory media. In other cases agencies have retained an international hierarchy not dissimilar to colonial structures. This study describes some of Kenya’s church related televisual media and notes the particular challenges facing media which seeks to be a part of the religious and cultural dialogue in that country.
Christian organizations around the world have recognized the narrative power of televisual stories and have use film and television to relate Christian stories to indigenous peoples around the globe. These stories proclaiming Christian witness were seen as eloquent and effective and were supported readily by European and American mission-minded congregations. However, as powerful introductory devices they were not seen as necessarily connected to the ongoing religious discussions of everyday life. In many cases, this meant creating a distribution infrastructure to disseminate programming created in Westernized countries and redubbed into local languages. Occasionally, training and resources were brought into a modernizing country and televisual narratives with high production values proclaiming the Christian message were produced locally. This later stage was just beginning to occur in Kenya when international interest in subsidizing Christian proclamation narratives shifted from East Africa to other regions of the globe.
Demise of' 'feature' level media production
When church related media agencies were run by mission groups, the majority of production revenue was generated outside the country. Producer Paul Nduoti, the sole remnant of Afromedia Christian Productions, notes the difficulty of continuing productions on the former scale after missionary staff cutbacks and retirements. 'We are finding it very difficult because before we did it from our own [mission] resources.' Afromedia was originally the partnership of four agencies including African Inland Mission, World Gospel Mission, Baptist Communications Centre and Emmaus Bible School. It produced one major film Checkpoint, in addition to a sustained effort in television programming for Kenyan children.
This ecumenical effort was somewhat short-lived and eventually the agency was turned over to a self-perpetuating board who without strong foreign support have struggled maintaining any original production.1 As the mission agencies saw the task of proclamation being completed they began to dissipate with the media arm - often the first appendage to shrivel and die. As this happened, the ecumenical pool of financial and human televisual resources began drying up and the ability to assert a popular or broadcast Christian voice was lost.
Media’s Shift From Proclamation to Education
The loss of high budget and high value televisual productions does not imply that church-related media productions have disappeared altogether in East Africa. The spirit of independence generated by 1960’s national politics swept into Kenya’s churches and encouraged national leaders and congregations to express their own needs. Recognizing the value that education played in political self-governance, church leadership expressed a desire further educational training. Dr Orville Boyd Jenkins, now with the Interfaith Research Centre, noted that the Baptist Media Commission shifted its emphasis from Christian outreach to internal training after a needs assessment took into account national pastors’ and lay leaders’ desires. 'The major change we've seen in the resulting reorganization of media is the shift from evangelism to ministry support media.'
The Africans’ perceived need for education and training gave media agencies both a glimmer of economic hope and a new spiritual calling. In some senses this shift from proclaiming a Christian witness to educating a church audience proved advantageous to media producers. First, it avoids the growing contextualization difficulties of Christian proclamation, and second it provides a unified cultural audience for educational programmes. The task of contextualizing to a particular group has become increasingly complex as village people flock to urban areas. The choices of how to contextualize the gospel message to an urbanite who assumes city ways but still lives in a language group enclave are considerable.
Unlike the potential urban converts who were increasingly difficult to pin down, media producers found as they shifted to educational programming that the new target audience was already converted - converted, that is, to the idea that educational improvement is highly desirable. By shifting to the educational arena in their programme production, church related media producers found a more homogenous audience in that the vast majority of Kenyans have a thorough understanding of educational culture. The media producer who calls upon the person’s 'educated identity' takes advantage of a country-wide educational uniformity and reaches most church members regardless of tribal affiliation. Thus, this new educated audience aligned itself media technologies’ seeming need to be efficient in terms of reaching large audiences.
Additionally, educational media carries lower production value expectations and allows down-scaling production costs thus helping media ministries to cope with declining outside support. However, a total readjustment to the scale of local church economies for televisual media has seemed impossible. Media agencies have invented various entrepreneurial coping strategies to raise the level of revenues beyond that which could be generated from solely within the local church. One company added the sideline of computer configuration and repair services as a means of subsidizing office space to continue its calling in media production. Cinema Leo, a mobile Christian cinema, after establishing a policy on what pro-social products it would advertise, has taken to showing commercials alongside its feature presentations. Sometimes unable to exist at local economic scales church media agencies capitalized on programme grants focused on pro-social issues.2 In spite of these various efforts, the fact is that few Christian production ministries have been able to sustain a long-term presence.
Consequences of shifting to low value educational televisual media
Televisual church media’s forced retreat to educational programming ignores several pressing issues. First, the position assumes that local education is adequate to offset the agenda setting function of popular media. Second, this approach hopes that a sufficient agenda setting voice in urban cultural dialogue can be adequately articulated by Christian imports. These assumptions and hopes seem naive at best, ignoring the fact that foreign imports often negatively impact media ministries trying to operate within local economies. Additionally, although the local economic diet has trimmed church related televisual media into the lean appearance of community media, its mode of operation has yet to adapt in ways that take advantage of indigenous creativity and local perspectives.
Adequacy of education: The assumption that quality church education will adequately counteract other dimensions of life is one born of Western individualism and its fragmentation of religious and secular lives. Even if this philosophy of creating a dominant Christian identity among multiple selves were accurate, it is somewhat doubtful that Christian education efforts are adequate to the task. The 1988 Daystar survey on media use revealed that more Kenyan Christians read the newspaper than read the Bible. If one assumes that today similar percentages might be found between those who view televisual 'entertainment' and those who make the effort to attend Christian training seminars displayed via videotape, the hope that Christian educational media will counteract popular culture is a fantasy.
Cultural agenda setting: In a country that some have estimated to be as high as 85% Christian, the proclamation mindset questions the need for Christians to participate actively in ongoing popular media arenas. However, agenda setting seems particularly important where the World Bank has forced broadcast deregulation opening the airwaves to floods of Western imports, and in a country where a number of nominal Christians are converting to Islam.
Bob Satoris of Good News Productions International in Nairobi notes that since the deregulation there has been a proliferation of 'popular' media imports with potentially damaging agenda impacts:
My fear, however, is that the government’s move to de-regulate broadcast licensing is about to open up a Pandora's box of problems. [In the past] with the government professing to be Christian, there were strict guidelines as to what could be shown. Now there doesn’t seem to be any censoring (31 January 1997).
In addition to the wave of Western imports, Kenyan Christians have long had to negotiate with traditional Islamic influence because of their geographic location. Kenya and other Sub-Saharan countries have been specifically targeted for Islamic activism. Maintaining a strong Christian presence in the popular marketplace will be an important factor in not only maintaining Christian orthodoxy but declaring Christian legitimacy to Kenya’s Islamic neighbours. An example of the effectiveness of a popular Christian witness is found in the 1988 study of Cinema Leo’s Coast Circuit, and its revelation that 55% of Muslims surveyed noted that viewing Christian cinema 'helped them live better lives' (p. 50).
Pro-Christian media have the potential, therefore, to counterbalance both the consumer cultures of foreign media and the high-profile masques filling the horizons around the country. Dan Henrich, of Media Technology Resources, frames the question in terms of using media in a 'strategic approach' to building the Church as opposed to using it solely as an 'evangelistic approach'. The question becomes one of what role 'popular' televisual media should play in a 'strategic' plan.3
Creating such a strategic plan in Kenya, while offering its own unique challenges, does not face the same sort of governmental religious antagonism as found in the United States. With Kenyan stations theoretically reserving up to 20 hours per week for religious programming, Paul Nduoti believes it negligent not to take advantage of the opportunity that is available for the asking. With deregulation in process it is critical for Christian media producers to re-establish a claim to airtime before available slots are committed to international entrepreneurs.
Currently, the main way Kenyan Christians are avoiding totally giving up these time-slots is through a reliance on foreign imports. Pat Robertson’s 700 Club is a highly watched programme with many loyal followers and other CBN programmes air regularly as well. However, Christian international imports, and the process of airing them, sometimes create problems. Inherent problems with media imports include a tendency of imports to drive up the cost of air time on the newer commercial stations4 and an inability to connect with less educated and more rural audiences.5
In addition to having the language problems with rural audiences, an imported programme's tone, point-of-view, visual style of portrayal, and even theology may be askew of local sensibilities. John Mbiti Chabari, professor at Kima International School of Theology, argues that African theology needs to be 'done' in Africa. Similar channels of thinking are endorsed by Cinema Leo Director, Andrew Anami. As head of an agency that reaches nearly a quarter million viewers each month, Anami notes the most effective films are the ones that sit with the people. He says that while the Jesus film is effective in convincing villagers that they have actually seen Christ, the most effective films in terms of motivating people to change are Pilgrims Progress, 'because it addresses Satanic activity and demonic possession,' and Sabina's Encounter because, 'It is African.' The African oral tradition if explored and developed into a televisual style, would not only be more effective with local peoples, but may well be endowed with unique abilities to express spiritual truths.6
Media in no-man’s land
As Kenyan Church related televisual media have moved through the proclamation and then the education phases, it has found itself floundering in a no-man’s-land. The initial effort at creating local resources to produce programming that could compete at the popular level fell short as ecumenical tolerance failed and various agencies went their separate ways. The shift to the educational phase of televisual production saw production values approach a 'community media' level yet retain the hierarchical structure of former organizations. So although there are hints that community televisual dramas might be an effective tool,7 the organizational structures of parachurch media organizations don’t readily support the concept.
- Even if the Church’s televisual efforts were able to take advantage of community media structures in establishing a strong grassroots televisual media, the problem of recreating a complementary popular Christian televisual programme to be broadcast in urban centres remains monumental. The ability to build and maintain an ecumenical tolerance in a televisual production collective is key. Good News Productions International has recently completed a broadcast level studio facility in the Nairobi suburbs. However, utilizing the facility to anywhere near it’s full potential will require co-operative production efforts among various Christian groups. A key link that must be made is between those experienced in participatory televisual creation and those with expertise in broadcast standards and expectations. A trickle-up economy of televisual resources needs to be established and cultivated. Secondly, new educational modes of energizing latent Kenyan creativity need to be found. Educational rote memorization, a cultural system of respectful patronage, and ritualized job roles in the televisual industry have each inhibited Kenya’s creative dramatists from emerging.
- There are no easy fixes as to how to invigorate a community level of televisual media while at the same time cultivating ecumenical expertise that will allow an eloquent Christian broadcast voice to help set a national religious agenda on the airwaves. However, it is certainly time for both the international Christian agencies to reconsider their policy of using media solely for introductory proclamations and for present Kenyan televisual ministries to reassess their comfortable subsistence in televisual education.
1. Ecumenical media ministries seemed particularly tortured by what Ted Teasdale calls 'conflicts between strong creative personalities.' Orville Boyd Jenkins notes that Afromedia’s major film was marked by disagreements between the agencies over distribution rights. Paul Nduoti notes that, 'a clash of personalities caused the demise of the large vision and Maturity Audio-Visual.
2. Chris Kabwato of Media for Development Trust lamented the narrowing of the African cinematic vision by donor oversight: 'We cannot build commercial cinema because of the nature of the themes prescribed by donors who are quite different from our dreams... The Zimbabwean film makers have to become an overnight expert in whatever issue donors place in vogue. Last year it was gender, this year its environment, next year it could be vegetarianism... (Mail & Guardian Vol, 12, No. 40 Oct. 1996).
3. Television has the potential to set the agenda in rural areas as well as urban since television is reaching even rural non-electrified homes in Kenya’s Western Providence. Joshia Kisia family in Vihiga, thought it proper to honour me as their guest by sending his son hiking into town for a recharge on the 12 volt car battery on which they ran their B&W television. Kirk Hayes, with GNPI, who lived in Kitale for eight years, confirmed that this was a common practice there as well.
4. Deregulation of Kenya’s government held stations has created new management teams who are out hustling for commercial subsidizes to replace former government handouts. This has created a volatile game in which international Christian agencies are often major players. The danger of this international game lies in its potential side-lining of local media ministries. Blind enthusiasm by international players who see an opportunity to get 'cheap airtime' can easily escalate the cost of broadcast time unnecessarily and quash ministries that are trying to operate within a local economic scale.
5. Many of the other Christian programmes aired are Western productions that are imported directly with few if any modifications including language dubbing. The assumption is that Kenya is trilingual with nearly everyone having some grasp of English. A 1988 study on the effectiveness of Cinema Leo, a travelling evangelistic out-door cinema, showed that as one moved out from the urban to rural circuits, English comprehension dropped dramatically. The study reveals that people of the urban centres of Nairobi (83%) and Mombasa (86%) felt they understood the English language films quite well. However, in the more rural Mount Kenya circuit, only 44% of English language films.
6. Julie Dash’s film, Daughters of the Dust, explores the African oral griot’s method of telling a narrative in which the spiritual realm transforms the natural in ways that defy empirical science. While this particular story may not be systematically compatible with Christian belief, it does point out that Western narrative traditions and their causal chain of events may not be the best narrative methods for expressing spiritual truths.
7. Orville Boyd Jenkins and Southern Baptists have utilized a concept they label 'drama implementation' where nationals create drama as a group. Essentially, this programme uses improvisational situations to create group learning. Jenkins says, 'Once they act it out, it really becomes theirs.' Another positive improvisational experiment was experienced by Bob Satoris of Good News Productions International. An initial lack of funding, combined with a decision to postpone equipment purchases until they could go fully digital in their editing system, Satoris had to reconsider his early production plans. Rather than do nothing, Satoris decided to make do with some lower-end equipment to produce some improvisational dramas. Letting the village people 'put it together' around a basic narrative idea elicited such positive responses from pastors that these dramas, originally recorded in Kalenjin (Nandi), are now being dubbed over into Swahili.
8. The colonial education system's emphasis on rote memorization has over the years merged with East Africa’s cultural system of respectful patronage in creating an educational system most effective in its ability to produce students who can marshal information. However, it remains creatively sterile and labours to create new information or perform self critique. Even programmes at university level utilize modes of operation where students dutifully write down what the professor inscribes on the chalkboard. Dan Henrich, who leads media writing workshops throughout East Africa, notes that even some graduate students haven’t written anything on their own. Ritualized learning also can hinder creativity in the production process. Louise Bourgault cites John Chernoff’s notion, in African Rhythm and African Sensibility: Aesthetic and Social Action in African Musical Idioms, that ritualized procedures and roles are important to oral Africans in that they 'provide a framework and help them to know what is happening and get into it' (p. 161).
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