Shujaaz: Kenyan comics for youth

This isn’t our usual mode, but I read about this project on Twitter last year some time, and just thought it was so cool and interesting, I wanted to pass it on.

Shujaaz is a monthly comics magazine plus radio show that launched in Kenya in February 2010, and won an International Digital Emmy Award just this April.  Shujaaz (which means “heroes” in Kiswahili) involves print, radio, and sms media to get educational and empowering messages out to the youth of Kenya. Rob Burnet, the social entrepreneur of Shujaaz, says, “We use multiple-media communications to inspire and motivate an audience of some 5 million young Kenyans to take action to improve their lives and engage with urgent issues that shape their future. This is done through stories following the lives of four fictional young Kenyans.”

The lead character is Boyie, a 19 year old who finished secondary school but couldn’t find a job (neither could any of his friends) and is left wondering what to do.  Boyie has a secret, and that’s the fact that he has an FM radio station in his bedroom, where he hacks into the frequencies of other radio stations and broadcasts his show, Shujaaz FM, as DJ B.  His radio show is all about what it means to be a hero, encouraging people to step up and think about what they can do.  The other characters in the Shujaaz comic are listeners of his show.

What I love about this project is how 4th-wall-breaking it is: the radio show in the comic exists in real life. Shujaaz FM is syndicated across 25 FM stations across Kenya, and very often, people call into the stations and ask for DJ B, who is a fictional character.  DJ B has thousands of fans on various social media, who communicate with DJ B and each other about their lives and what’s happening in Kenya. There’s something really interesting about a comic that crosses the line into readers’ real lives in some way, and, possibly because of that crossover, the positive messages in the comics seem to have a lot of concrete impact. I’d also be interested to find out how much greater reach the project has because it’s not dependent on access to print magazines, or, for that matter, a computer for internet access. The radio is pretty democratizing. In fact, in trying to put this post together I kept getting stuck on what this thing is: is it a comic? A show? A movement? An online community? Still don’t know. I’d love to see this kind of thing being done elsewhere.

Shujaaz started because the creators felt that there was a lack of positive, youth-focused media or a platform for young people to share their ideas with each other. They wanted to create a world that was very much like the real world, a place that the readers could identify and connect with.

Here’s a snippet of a recent article written by Rob Burnet for The Kernel about the project:

By partnering with experts and researchers, scientists and innovators, we make sure Shujaaz delivers proven and practical ideas that can really make a difference to our audience. In this way, Shujaaz is working constantly to nudge a vast and vital community towards new ways of working, thinking and acting.

But do the Shujaaz stories deliver real change to the audience? In a recent independent Kenya-wide survey of secondary school students, 62 per cent said they follow Shujaaz every month. We have an audited regular audience of over more than five million.  More than 30 per cent of the audience report having taken action based on stories they found in Shujaaz. A similar number talked about Shujaaz ideas with friends—further widening and deepening the reach.

You can learn more about the project by watching this video: Shujaaz: Empowering Kenyan Youth


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