Posted on 2nd Feb 2022
The first six episodes of HEART AND SOUL were broadcast almost 20 years ago in July and August 2002. Prior to these six half-hour programmes, two other experimental pilots episodes had been filmed in 2000 and 2001.
The very first pilot was called “Noah Meli’s Heart & Soul” made up of twelve, 3 minute shorts which were broadcast around the World Cup match broadcasts.
The six episodes were designed to test public reaction to the stories and the behaviour-change concept before the first full series of twenty-six episodes was produced.
The research company Consumer Insight conducted countrywide audience research, which identified a very positive reaction to the series, with a clear public understanding that HIV/AIDS and family conflict were key issues in the plot. The series was also successful in reaching viewers in lower income areas as well as the suburban middle class.
According to the research, 76% of all those who had ever watched Heart and Soul expressed interest in watching again. That such enthusiasm was generated after only six half-hour episodes was ample testament to the effectiveness of the concept.
A large part of the budget went into the research. The main partner, the United Nations (UN) really needed to know that this communication strategy would work to promote positive changes in behaviour in their chosen subjects, namely:
HIV/AIDS and Health Human Rights
Governance Gender Issues
Poverty Eradication Care for the environment
HIV/AIDS was given greater prominence as the series began: the project’s intention was to create an environment where previously taboo subjects in this area could be discussed at family and community level, empowering audiences to protect themselves using the information provided.
Regular education programmes weren’t really making a dent in the spread of AIDS, so the UN allowed itself to be convinced that soap opera might be the way to go. This followed two very successful music videos on the subject of drug abuse prevention. The hope was that with the wider reach of serialised drama the audience would take the characters’ messages on board “without feeling they are being mugged by propaganda”. By using the edutainment possibilities of television drama, the attitudes and prejudices of the family, community, employers and work colleagues toward the character, would be explored and underlying perspectives positively examined.
The man behind the idea, Clive Haines, spent six years persuading the money people, the politicians, UN bureaucrats and Africa’s broadcasters that the idea would work.
Once Tore Brevik, the director of UN’s Information Office was convinced, he was invaluable to bringing the UN family on board. The project was also a showcase for the then Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s desire for less duplication of roles and activities and more joint programmes within the UN family. According to Brevik, the endless meetings it took to have the 24 agencies agree on the usefulness of the project was “like pulling teeth”, but eventually from New York Headquarters came word that Annan had said he was all for it: “It seems like an excellent venture and a valuable vehicle by which to raise awareness about issues such as HIV/ADS”, he was quoted as saying, as he urged his agencies to find the money to fund the project.
For the creative team, it was extremely important that there was an effective transfer of skills, not only on the technological side but also in creativity, written and visual storytelling, leadership, and communication. An indirect benefit of Heart and Soul is the contribution the project made to the development of creative and production talent in Kenya. By demonstrating the ability to deliver programme output to high internationally recognised quality standards, it was hoped the private sector would be encouraged to support other local programming initiatives.
Unfortunately these ideas didn’t always find resonance in the community, partly because of the fractured and individual efforts that the industry makes, often without collaboration or conversation about synergies and overlaps. Kenya Broadcasting Corporation had committed show the first pilot during the World Cup, but they used them like fillers, so they were broadcast inconsistently, which meant they kind of lost their impact.
While it’s traditional to see the international film productions which serve as powerful promotional vehicles for Kenya’s tourism sector, ordinary Kenyans haven’t been considered in Kenya’s tourism policies, resulting in some kind of disconnect between the creative industry and tourism.
As producers we were aware of the history of foreign-made films using Kenya as a beautiful location and casting local actors for background shots with few speaking roles, and with no real long-term returns on investment by the production company. We were also keenly aware of how rarely actors get paid a living wage. So the longevity of this project aimed to address this. Local talent in starring roles with proper salaries was the long-term vision.
So we set about making sure that all departments received some kind of training: the script-writers, story liners, and script editors; the actors, who up until then had had very little in the way of training for screen acting; the lighting, electrical and sound crews. The first two pilots as well as the final six programmes were produced with students from the Mohamed Amin Foundation’s Film School, and having an actual project to work on must have pushed their skills enormously.
While not privy to the way the money was being spent, or how much was actually raised, it was clear that some of it was spent on the distribution, ensuring the initial series reached as wide an audience as possible on prime time television.
Sixteen writers, twenty-five actors, and six directors benefited from training to make sure that the storylines would stand the test of time. The materials developed, including the character bible, story lines and draft scripts were tested through formative research on rural and urban target audiences in Kenya, and these findings were used by the six pilot series writers to develop and produce six half-hour television and twelve radio scripts.
Looking at the episodes now, decades later, would it be safe to say that we were ahead of our time?
The ground work for creating what the British trainers called “the engine” was thoroughly done = if the money had been found for the 26 and then 52 programmes to be made, we had built the capacity for the kind of speed that would be required to produce an episode every 10 days. This would require several teams of directors, camerapersons, and technical crews, which is how the project worked even before the first episode was aired on television.
The late Wambui wa Murima (who played the role of Mama Stella, had this to say during one of the training sessions)
“We have just been doing acting on television kind of mechanically, particularly for the screen. [As actors] we did not know the reason why we were doing several “takes” and angles of each scene. Now we are getting to understand. And also we are getting to understand we don’t have to shout (project our voices) or throw our hands in the air like we do in stage acting. There’s a lot more body language which is unnecessary on the screen.”
The six programmes were broadcast by KBC to all of Kenya, and by TV Africa (Stellavision) to 11 countries, Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Namibia, Botswana, Lesotho, Zambia, Malawi, Ethiopia, Ghana, Nigeria, and Mozambique. The radio programmes were broadcast to three countries (Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania).
Remember, there was hardly a World Wide Web then. But the producers managed to find as examples, programmes in Mexico, the Philippines and South Africa that were successful in changing behaviour using soap opera. They had been successful at using interesting stories to change lives, and so would we.
Heart and Soul, whose plot revolved around two families, was inspired by the award-winning South African public health communication programme Soul City, which had been running since 1992 and used edutainment techniques. Produced and broadcast in a 13-part series, Soul City stories were mostly public-health related.
Heart and Soul was supposed to start with an episode called Noah Meli’s Heart and Soul, which would give the audience a glimpse of the family’s backstory. Meli is dying and during his final days, he shares the wisdom of his lifelong experience to his grandson Martin.
There were recognised weaknesses in the project’s media model, particularly with respect to the promotion of the radio execution and panAfrican distribution. However, there was a lot of criticism from the public, led mainly by the media, who (strangely) never asked questions that could have clarified discrepancies in their opinions.
As this programme never went on to its third phase, I think this criticism may have cost the project more dearly than we’ll ever know, as many of the UN programme officers were already doubtful and needed so much convincing of the validity of the project it’s not hard to assume that they might have read doom in the journalists’ critiques.
For example, the number of times the journalists said that the show didn’t depict Africa, or that the fictionalised characters weren’t like real people because the acted in a scene where they quote: didn’t bury their dead like Africans :unquote – I kept wanting to ask, “you mean like when we used to throw our dead into the forest for the hyenas to dispose of?” It was quite exhausting opening a newspaper in those days – the allies were so few.
Another possibly unforeseen problem with the project’s longevity is the fact that all 24 UN bodies have different funding cycles and different reporting schedules, which made it difficult to plan for funds or to write reports. Apart from that, programme officers had short-term contracts resulting in changes in personnel on an on-going process throughout the project’s lifespan. Once Tore Brevik left, his successor as the Director of the Information Centre took too long to buy in to the project.
The Steering Committee of the project was comprised only of the “money people” from the United Nations, and they had strong opinions and objections about the creative process, which was critical to the characters’ journeys in the story.
Although we didn’t have all the ingredients for this ambitious dish, it still turned out quite edible. Twenty years later, almost everyone who worked on Heart and Soul went on to successful careers in television and film, as crew or cast or directors and producers.
Plots and characters
The main objective of the pilot series was to establish the programme’s characters and story lines and deliver high quality, culturally relevant and entertaining programming. Whilst the programme’s potential value for social communication clearly had also to be demonstrated, this was a secondary objective for the pilot, with issues introduced and referenced for future series rather than examined in great depth.
The script characterisation was centred on and around two families, the rich “Meli” family and the poor “Karani” family. The two families are connected through various characters but, principally, by the Karani matriarch, Salome, who works as a housekeeper for the Meli family. Much of the series narrative involved family conflict, with key story lines revolving around the inheritance of family land in the case of the Melis, and the revelation of a closely kept family secret in the case of the Karanis.
In the language of soap it is known as “The Bible”. Seven pages long, this secret document fleshes out the leading characters of Heart and Soul and details how the writers will weave the six themes the UN want aired into the soap’s plot lines.
Heart and Soul revolves around a trio of tough women and their families, Grace Meli, 62, irascible, imperious and vain, loses her husband in the first episode then watches her sons, 42-year old Manu, the dutiful one, and the older, treacherous Benja, 45 – squabble over their inheritance and what to do with her.
Benja, a bullying, pompous and corrupt civil servant, is the Identikit villain found in all soaps. Manu’s wife, Eva, 45, is a GP, strong-willed, principled but troubled; she doesn’t devote enough time to her children – the spoilt 14-year old, Gracie and the vulnerable 17-year old Martin, who is lured into a cult. Eva confides everything to her long-time housemaid and friend, Salome Karani.
The 36-year old Salome hides a dreadful secret – her father Samuel sexually assaulted her when she was a teenager, and is responsible for her eldest child Titus, who is now 21. Titus doesn’t know who his father is, but he is haunted by a childhood incident when, jealous of his younger brother, Joshua, he did nothing to save the boy when he drowned in a quarry. Meanwhile, Salome’s husband, Simeon, 41, is a feckless, penniless, incurable flirt. The couple have 14-year old twins, Charity and Charles.
Other leading figures in the soap include the town gossip, Mama Stella, 55, who interferes in everyone’s lives and talks endlessly about her hugely successful daughter who apparently works abroad. This daughter, however, doesn’t exist. Mama Stella made up the story to cover the fact that three husbands walked out on her because she could not have children.
Finally, there is Titus’s best friend, Preacher, who lives on his wits and is never far from whatever trouble occurs.
So that’s the story that the first six episodes sought to introduce; the twenty-six episodes that were to be written and broadcast during the following year (2003) would begin to flesh out the stories to bring the subjects of HIV/AIDS, Governance, Environmental Damage, Gender Issues into the homes of millions of Kenyans and Africans in 11 countries.
The programme was not without controversy; there were so many interested parties and the writers and project’s developers found themselves pulled in many directions.
Starting with the organisations with the biggest purse, the UN, their interest was in the message, message, MESSAGE. Plus an almost complete lack of knowledge about how story works – a UN employee asked me “why”, since they’d put money behind the message of drug and alcohol abuse, “does the character in the first episode not have red eyes due to overconsumption of alcohol”. They wanted to see their storyline take precedence over everything. And rightly so; they were spending good money to see that happen.
But it was just as important, if we wanted to change their behaviour, for audiences to fall in love with the characters so the lesson we’re teaching is learned when the character has a challenge that the real person can identify with in their life.
At the Soap Opera Summit organised in June 2003, Drissi Yameogo, the PR officer at Fespaco, Burkina Faso’s biennial Panafrican film and television festival, said the tendency to load too much message had killed the entertainment value in African soaps. Mostly imposed by sponsors, the result is that “it realises the producer’s wish to have a soap, but it doesn’t help to develop an audience.”
It certainly doesn’t.
But we have the six episodes to enjoy and reminisce. They’re on my YouTube Channel and will be broadcast in full after a six-part introduction series called “ATME: Art Through My Eyes with Mũmbi Kaigwa”.
ATME launches on Thursday 3 February 2022, and videos will be uploaded to the channel every Thursday.
Press interviews and reports by
Mukiebe, F., Kenya’s Heart and Soul, Sunday Standard Life Magazine, p2, June 16, 2002
McGrory, D., Dot Cotton Goes To Africa, Sunday Times Magazine, 2002
Njogu, K., Soap Opera Summit Comes to Kenya, Sunday Standard, Literary Forum, June 1 2003