I’ve spent this week as a fly on the wall at the production offices of Shujaaz, a Kenyan graphic magazine committed to serving up bright ideas to the underserved youth media market. A bit of background from 2009:
In Africa’s patriarchal societies old men rule and young people keep quiet. They are ignored and told little about their rights or how to counter the stoking of ethnic divisions by venal politicians.
Shujaaz, meaning heroes, aims to break the old rules and address these contentious subjects head on. Among the topics highlighted are the problems of having enough to live on, what citizens can demand of government and how different people can live together.
The challenge was finding a way of giving teenagers important life messages without being patronising.
Shujaaz features a pirate radio DJ who asks for and gives his young listeners advice on how to make money and improve their lives. The subject matter might appear to be banal—seed soaking, helping street children, “national cohesion.” But the aesthetic is effortlessly hip, and in the hands of the very capable young illustrators, writers, actors and producers, the ideas come alive. What’s more, they are having a real impact.
How does Shujaaz know it’s having an impact? Circulation is at 600,000 monthly, but the project reaches some 10 million in Kenya. How? The other remarkable thing about the magazine (run by the communications firm Well Told Story) is its clever 360-degree approach to connecting with its audience. The fictional radio station is also a daily broadcast featuring some of the same material in the comic strip. Shujaaz is adamant that all of its storylines have some basis in a real, local case study. The main protagonist, “DJ B,” maintains a highly-trafficked Facebook page that has also been used in soliciting story material. Their SMS shortcode is also a repository for ideas and feedback—often printed in later issues. This dance between realism and fantasy can be confusing; listeners have called the Well Told Story offices asking for “DJ B.” There’s no doubt, however, that the creative team understands how to fade the line between education and entertainment.
I love this story for about a million reasons, not least the total faith the creative team puts in “old media” models such as radio and print magazines—which still reach far into Africa. This isn’t to say the team shuns advanced technology—the illustrators paint the world of Shujaaz using cutting-edge software on an enormous desktop known as “the Big Mac.”
As I follow the May issue through production, you’ll hear more about how and why this works.