Last week, on “The Tonight Show,” US President Barack Obama joked that his combative relationship with rightwing businessman Donald Trump (who claims Obama wasn’t born in the United States) goes back to their time playing football together in Kenya. In what is not a joke: A play on Trump’s brand of reality show is now heading to Kenya.
Uongozi (Swahili for Leadership; the link is to their Facebook page and that’s the trailer above) is an upcoming Kenyan reality TV show that seeks to identify the next generation of young leaders “by challenging the values with which we choose our leaders.” It is sort of like “So you think you can dance” meets Trump’s “The Apprentice.” Uongozi will select 48 “candidates” to face weekly “location and studio-based challenges to test their leadership qualities and skills.” Candidates will be polled and eliminated through viewer text messaging, and the final three will face each other in a presidential-style debate before a mock election. The show’s winner “will receive funding for a social project, a scholarship for an internationally recognized leadership course, and/or the opportunity to meet prominent African/International leaders.”
Uongozi is a crash course on leadership and it has some big donors, among them USAID, UKAID, the Swiss and Japanese embassies in Kenya and other local organizations including The Nation Media Group. But why a television show? According to Uongozi, the show seeks to promote and simulate the healthy democratic discussions about leadership that will deter a repeat of electoral violence in the run up to the 2013 ballot. Again, according to the show’s site:
In the lead up to the 2013 elections, UONGOZI is responding to this need by inspiring and empowering Kenyans to positively engage in the democratic process. The Campaign will embrace the notion of Ni Sisi!—(It is Us!) and up to us, the Kenyan people, to address the nation’s problems, and communicate that elections provide wananchi (citizens) the opportunity to do so by standing for office, carefully considering candidates and voting for competent leaders who campaign on issues of concern to the average Kenyan.
As lofty as the show’s objectives sound, Uongozi is one of many narratives to come out of the post-election violence of December 2007 through February 2008. We’ve previously been told that the problem with Kenyans is that we do not “know” each other. We’ve also been told the root of our troubles is “negative ethnicity”—whatever that means. We have run campaigns to remind ourselves that we are Kenyan first before our various particular ethnicities, not the other way around. These narratives have spawned all sorts of government, private sector, marketing and civil society initiatives. Although this reality TV show presents a new way of running a civic engagement campaign, Uongozi’s narrative is a familiar one: the problem with Kenya is its old guard politicians.
Following Uongozi, what Kenya is missing is good young leaders. The idea here is demystification: once the youth learn how things “really work” politically, then this will lead to progressive action. This notion, of course, runs into several problems, the first of which is that “youth” as a category in Kenyan political discourse means too much and not enough—it calls to mind no legible categories, no definitive age ranges, and, most importantly, no political ideologies. And yet it is clear that young people have historically been marginalized in Kenya, but they lack a forceful social movement in part because the arguments made against their inequity do not galvanize them into a legible community. The discourse regarding youth marginalization usually tends to focus on unemployment and a general condemnation of corruption, both of which are ideologically neutral critiques.
In fact, most of the solutions provided for combating youth marginalization do not present ideologically grounded oppositions. These solutions often take the form of “personal empowerment” or “personal responsibility,” thereby indulging in the fantasy that marginalization is a chosen state which one can will oneself out of. Additionally, the rhetoric of personal responsibility neither questions the role of actors such as the state and the private sector nor critically analyzes the conditions of power that produce marginalization—and therefore does not create much space or momentum for organizing against oppression.
But why spill so much ink over a “political” reality TV show which hasn’t even aired its first episode? Perhaps it will have intrigue—this is Kenya we’re talking about after all. One can only imagine the sort of juicy talking points the “candidates” will let on in the confession booth. On a more serious note, if there is something commendable that can be said about Uongozi even before the show starts, it is that the show holds the potential to buck what has so far been the success of the Kenyan political class: the shutting out of mostly young and progressive people by making politics so unpalatable that these people choose either the private sector or the civil society over and above public service. Perhaps lights, camera, action and people playing themselves—as they do on reality TV—might also play a role in countering youth marginalization, even if we have to turn all of Kenya into The Truman Show.