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Kenyans in Dilemma Over TV's Bad Influence Over Youth

By Tervil Okoko, Panafrican News Agency, 14 October 2000

Nairobi, Kenya - The news that an eight-year-old Kenyan boy had battered a school mate to death while re-enacting the US World Wrestling Federation TV series, hit Kenyans like a sledge-hammer.

The tragedy consequently galvanised the people into reviewing their relations with the television set, that glamorous entertainment box in the living room, which shows that the family owning it is "with it".

Four eight-year-old boys from Ogosa lower primary school in western Kenya - Tom, Eric, William and Elisha - had broken away from the rest of the class during the morning break and dashed to a secluded place behind the classroom block, one of the boys, Tom, later told the police.

They then divide into two groups. And while two of them, one from either side, stood aside, the other two got into a vicious fight.

With blows and kicks on whatever part of the body, Eric and Elisha pounded each other as the other two cheered and hollered in appreciation of his mate's performance.

Within seconds, Elisha fell on the dusty ground bleeding profusely at the mouth and the nose.

But, undeterred, Eric leaped from an imaginary ring rope and landed full force on his helpless victim's chest.

It was this last blow that sent Elisha dead silent as William roared in appreciation.

"As this was not enough, Eric left his victim and strutted to William, whose waiting hands he patted with both hands.

"And while Eric cheered, William leaped high into the air before landing full force on the seemingly lifeless body on the ground.

"In the meantime, I yelled to 'sissy' Elisha to get up and fight, but to no avail," a tearful Tom narrated.

But the victorious pair's celebration was short-lived as Tom's effort to comfort and get his colleague to get up came to naught. Not even a whimper from the prostrate boy.

It then dawned on them that something seriously amiss had happened. Elisha was dead, and, in panic, they each went their own ways, for fear of the class teacher's wrath.

She had on numerous occasions warned the class never to play wrestling as "it is extremely dangerous."

Of course, the four children involved in the tragedy had been watching the World Wrestling Federation (WWF) matches on TV.

They were trying to outdo the likes of Shan Michaels, the British Bulldog, the Undertaker and Yokozuna in the crude form in which the WWF films are imported and shown to Kenyans during peak hours.

The TV is a fairly recent phenomenon in Kenya. Until the 1970s, only a few very well-to-do Kenyans owned a set.

But now, thanks to western influence and wrong priorities in the face of endemic poverty, it is estimated that one in every 1,000 Kenyans owns a set. It is also estimated that over five million of the about 30 million Kenyans have access to television.

Kenyan parents are worried sick about the entertainment repertoire the state-owned Kenya Broadcasting Corporation (KBC) and over half a dozen private stations offer to the viewers.

They are concerned about the effects of western civilisation on the moral fabric on the youth, especially owing to the rather liberal helping of violence and sex in the movies from the west.

The Kenyan consumers, especially the youth, are oblivious of the fact that the wrestling matches are pure acting, make-believe affairs meant to entertain just theatrical plays on stage do.

The school tragedy caused such uproar that Johnstone Makau, the then information and broadcasting minister, remarked: "It's about time we reviewed our position on the kind of films we expose our children to.

"From now on, all the films arriving here from overseas will have to be vetted by the government's censorship board before they are shown in the cinema halls or on TV."

The minister was reacting to complaints from parents who had been noticing a steady decline in the moral quality of the soap operas and movies aired by the stations, especially the KBC, the only station with a countrywide transmission network.

The parents have been fighting a losing battle with their children on whether the set should be out of bounds to the young ones during certain times of transmission, especially when the stations air programmes that do not conform to the African traditional norms.

Laments Joan Gichuru, a mother of three teenage children: "Sometimes I get so embarrassed and frustrated having to watch bedroom scenes with the kids that I feel like disappearing into the kitchen.

"But what do I do? I must watch on, or they will call me fallah (Swahili for backward), or primitive and behind the times."

Luke Oyoo, a social worker in Kisumu, 218 miles west of capital Nairobi, says "the problem is that Kenyans in particular, and Africans in general, are people in the corridor. We would like to appear as modernised as possible, yet we have not quite discarded our traditions and cultures."

President Daniel arap Moi is always grousing publicly about the TV's negative effects on the people's moral well-being.

What worries the president is what he calls the importation of foreign customs and traditions and ideologies and imposing them on the people.

The TV is also being blamed for its retrogressive effects on the children's education.

Says wealthy farmer Noah Okech: "I have always had a good mind of getting rid of that box altogether, particularly just before the national examinations. But I fear the wrath of the children and their mother."

Okech, whose son failed the Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education examination (KCSE) last year, gripes of his children: "The only thing these brats seem to do is watch the telly all evening during the weekdays and the whole day long on weekends.

"But with my station in society, that monstrosity must remain in my living room, if only to show my neighbours and visitors that I'm a modern man."

Mary Juma, a Nairobi bank executive, complains that despite her firmness and the rather iron-handed manner in which she handles her children, some of them teenaged, they always dress shabbily after the fashion of their American counterparts they see in TV soaps.

She adds: "My 17-year-old son Joseph and younger one David have for a long time been wearing the punk, or box, hairstyle, but now they have changed to the Michael Jordan skin-head trade mark. And all this is a legacy of the TV."

But Kenyans have not lost sight of the TV's contribution to sport in general, besides many other social, political and economic gains.

For instance, while the youths may ape Jordan's egg-head, boxer Mike Tyson's swashbuckling manners, Yokozuna's debilitating falls and rapper M.C. Hammer's dancing style, the TV's contribution to sports like football, basketball, cricket and athletics cannot be over-emphasised.

For example, Air Jordan's scoring skills, Ervin "Magic" Johnson's blind passes and Shaquil O'Neal's menacing bursts of speed have seen great strides made in basketball in Kenya since the introduction of the National Basketball Association series on TV about a decade ago.

All this and the entertainment, education and information package make the television set a necessary evil that must remain in the living room.