In the mid-1990s, the global education community turned away from measuring inputs (spending on schools, for example) to measuring outputs (student performance). Unfortunately, the development community did not adopt similar best practices. The Millenium Development Goal 3 flagged enrollment as the way to measure progress. Thus, since 2000, African schools are increasingly well attended. Free schooling schemes swept the continent in the early part of the millennium. Between 2002 and 2007, 2.1 million children flooded classrooms in Kenya. Sub-Saharan enrollment leaped from 58 percent in 1999 to 76 percent by 2010. Today, Togo, Malawi, Madagascar, Uganda, and Rwanda are at near-universal enrollment in primary school.
But enrollment doesn’t mean education. Malawi enacted its free school reforms in 1994, well before the rest of the continent—and promptly felt the pain of overcrowding. The average first-grade classroom size in Malawi is one hundred students, and only three in ten students will complete primary school. Overcrowding can lead to less personal attention, and less absorption of material. To wit: About three in ten Kenyan third-graders cannot read a second-grade-level story. In Ghana, only one in four fifteen- to nineteen-year-olds scored over 50 percent on a test of one- and two-digit math problems. Not one student passed the 2013 entrance examination for Liberia’s flagship public university.
Jonathan Starr, who cofounded and ran Abaarso Tech, an independent high school in Somaliland, says the smartest eleventh-grade girls in his school are taking calculus but also working on long division from a fourth-grade math textbook. “They’re doing both because they still need to fill in all these other holes,” he says. “You know math, but not some parts of math; you know fractions and you don’t know what a fraction is. There is no handbook that says what you should do.”
But there is Shujaaz. It’s neither school nor teacher. It’s a comic book. The Kenyan magazine stars Boyie, a high school graduate who, in kanju style, has built an FM radio station in his mother’s basement. Broadcasting in secret, “DJ B” befriends a diverse crew of youth, with whom he trades advice on how to make money and improve their lives. Malkia is a punkish teen living in an unnamed city on the coast, drawn in a slashing anime style. Charlie Pele is a football-obsessed boy living in an unidentified slum area in central Kenya. Maria Kim is a sensible, studious teen taking care of her younger brother. Their surnames and cities are purposely vague; fans are free to project their reality (and tribe) onto the characters.
Shujaaz means “heroes.” Instead of battling traditional baddies with superpowers, the kids deploy common sense and homegrown innovations to win moral victories and sometimes cash. The first issue of Shujaaz urged readers to dye their chickens pink. The practice, piloted in west Africa, prevents baby chicks from being taken by birds of prey. As it turns out, between 50 and 80 percent of chickens are snatched by hawks while they are running around the farm. The bright dye confuses the predators and helps farmers to keep their investment. In the comic, Charlie Pele’s mischievous brother dyes the family poultry—but when the hawks show up, his angry father has to acknowledge the benefit.
These and similar stories are simple and splashy, told in a pitch-perfect fusion of Swahili and English known only to the young as Sheng. The subject matter might appear to be banal—seed soaking, alcoholism, “national cohesion”—and the mandate a bit sentimental. But the aesthetic is effortlessly hip, and in the hands of the very capable young illustrators, writers, actors, and producers, the ideas come alive.
Some of its most daring issues urged young voters not to be intimidated during the 2010 referendum on Kenya’s new constitution. They’ve taken on corruption: Shujaaz producers profiled a man from Kisumu, a town on Kenya’s western border with Lake Victoria, who had uncovered theft and injustice within a government program seeking to help parents cover secondary school fees. “We pointed people at a website where you could find out more information,” says Bridget Deacon, head of production. The story went live on a Saturday, and four days later, twelve thousand people had clicked on the link—many times the normal traffic for an obscure government website.
“You’d think [readers] would go ‘Boooooring,’ ” says Fatimah, the twenty-six-year-old director of art at Shujaaz. “But they like that they’re all just practical, responsible, moral, constructive, proactive citizens. Maria Kim is a no-nonsense young girl with practically no social life as such, and she’s our most popular character.”
Shujaaz is not the first media project to use entertainment to get audiences to eat their figurative vegetables. In addition to Smallholders Radio in Nigeria, soap operas that sprinkle in life lessons are common in Africa. More than thirty-four million South Africans watch the local soap Soul City. It’s as popular as Coca-Cola among black South Africans, and regular viewers are almost four times as likely to use condoms as non-watchers. Deacon and Rob Burnet, another director, are alumni of Makutano Junction, a telenovela that also dramatizes social issues in Kenya. There, they discovered the authentic imprint is key. “If you give people a choice between a very high-quality imported program and a low-quality local program, they’ll still watch the very low-quality local program,” says Burnet.
Nollywood proves that point. But few media incumbents are exclusively targeting young people. In fact, youth media in Africa consists of little more than brow-raising music videos. And, aside from scarce textbooks, reading material is hard to come by. According to Starr, his Somali students tackled To Kill a Mockingbird but with little preparation. “If you’re reading on a second-grade level and you pick up a book that’s a high school book, you’re going to understand half the words—that’s torture. No human being can deal with that. And if they read Go Dog Go, it’s like, ‘That’s beneath me.’ What you need is something that very clearly progresses you.”
A graphic novel is an ideal solution. Shujaaz can be shared until it falls apart, pinned on a wall, passed around a schoolyard, read and reread for its gorgeous drawings and its boring informatics. And, adds Burnet, “it is an enormous amount cheaper to produce than these very expensive television shows which are gone in an instant.”
The potential to get sound moneymaking advice to millions of children is tantalizing. On a patio just off the Shujaaz war room, Burnet did some cocktail napkin math on the pink-chicken solution. “You start adding up the value of a chicken which isn’t taken: three hundred shillings, one hen at home, thirty-six eggs a year, of which eighteen, maybe sixteen eggs are taken by birds of prey. Each egg is worth five dollars if it grows up to be a full chicken. That’s eighty bucks per chicken.” If only 1 percent of the comic’s five million readers take the advice, it is worth about $4 million. “That was one of our key objectives—it’s got to be massive. We cannot muck about with another micro-project.”
Circulation for Shujaaz (supported by philanthropic funding) is at 600,000 monthly, but the project reaches 10 million with its clever, 360-degree approach to connecting with its audience. DJ B’s fictional radio show is also a real-life broadcast featuring some of the same material as in the comic strip, as well as interviews and bonus tips. The live show, aired every day on twenty-six stations in Kenya, follows the form of the fiction: “DJ B,” played by a twenty-five-year-old actor, will greet listeners and then say, “I got a text from my girl Maria Kim—I’m going to call her; she had an amazing story to tell me … ” Then the drama begins.
A live SMS interface and well-trafficked Facebook and Twitter accounts—which are sometimes used to solicit material for future print issues—also maintain the elaborate fiction. This dance between reality and fantasy can be confusing; listeners have called the Well Told Story offices asking for the real DJ B. “Once a week,” says Deacon, “we get a call saying, ‘Can I have Maria Kim’s telephone number?’”
Shujaaz, which won an Emmy Award in 2012, makes an important educational intervention into the sixteen-to-twenty-six-year-old demographic that is more likely to be out of school than in it. Many countries in the region suffer dropout rates to spin your head. Ghana serves 5.4 million kids in 14,000 primary schools, 1.34 million kids in 8,000 junior high schools, and only 730,000 students in 510 public senior high schools. In South Africa, 66 percent of first-graders in 2001 didn’t make it to their high school certification in 2012. And only 12 percent of those who made it tested well enough to try for a university degree. Few official statistics exist, but at crucial inflection points—between primary and secondary school, and then again on the road to college—millions of African schoolchildren are left behind. By blurring the lines between education and media, Shujaaz offers a continuum of learning for those who need it. By putting the classroom in the popular press and on air, says Burnet, “we ignore the local education system completely.”
Excerpt from THE BRIGHT CONTINENT by Dayo Olopade. Copyright © 2014 by Dayo Olopade. Used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.