A Kenyan comic,Shujaaz, tells the tale of a modern-day Oliver Twist
AFRICAN cities have no Victorian poor laws or workhouses, yet their mix of cruelty and vibrancy smacks of Charles Dickens, 200 years after his birth. By some counts, Africa has 75m orphans, many of them exploited in ways described by Dickens. A Kenyan comic, called Shujaaz, is soon to tell the tale of a modern-day Oliver Twist. To be known as Titus Twist, he is an apprentice to a coffin-maker and survives against all odds in an urban jungle akin to the vast slums of Nairobi, Kenya’s capital.
How would Dickens’s Artful Dodger, the pickpocket friend of Oliver/Titus, handle the venality of Kenya’s modern politicians, the hypocrisy of its churchmen or the sanctimony of foreign charity-dispensing NGOs? If Titus stole as brazenly as Oliver did for Fagin, he might be stoned or “necklaced” with a burning tyre by a mob. “The Dodger would have a kiosk run by one of his girlfriends, be a rapper, go to church,” reckons a Shujaaz producer.
Since 2010, 11m copies of Shujaaz have been distributed free, making it Kenya’s highest-circulation publication. Its aim is to empower the young with fresh ideas. It puts the story of young Kenyans, some of them very poor, into monthly print, as Dickens did for down-at-heel Londoners. The characters include DJ Boyie, a lad who runs a pirate radio station from his bedroom, and a lively orphan girl who is raising her brother in a slum while studying and fending off pimps. The tale is told in Sheng, a new city language that mixes English, Swahili (the regional lingua franca) and a bunch of tribal tongues. Shujaaz regales its readers, mostly aged 16-25, with life in tin-shack alleys. It is also brought to life in radio shows, a medium Dickens would have appreciated.
AIDS is one of the issues the comic tackles. Its world looks like Rongai, a sprawling dormitory community near Nairobi. An AIDS clinic there treats 1,800 prostitutes in a population of less than 100,000. The settlement is a mix of tribes, with people drawn from the countryside by the lure of such money-spinners as work in call-centres. But getting the cash is a battle. The rent for a room in Rongai has risen from $5 to $50 a month since 2007. Like many of Dickens’s characters, Rongai’s people, living in fumes and squalor, often yearn for the countryside and its solid tribal values. Lacking a parish church, Rongai’s dead are carried back to their home villages to be buried among maize and cassava.
A group of Rongai youths cannot think of any classmates who have been successful, except thieves. It would be a success, modestly defined, to become a tout on one of the minibuses that stream into Nairobi, a supermarket cashier, a soldier or a policeman. Or a Titus Twist.