08 February 2011

Local Content: Smart Kenyan Porn Venture

I wrote this for my column in the Star in early December 2010.


Sometimes you really have to wonder, and I wondered twice: First, like everyone else, about the pope’s comment that condoms might be permissible in male gay prostitution. And just as we all thought it was weird, but at least a small step, I wondered again when Cardinal Njue issued a lengthy statement that the pope was quoted out of context (how Kalonzo Musyoka of him), and that ‘the position of the Catholic Church as regards the use of condoms, both as a means of contraception and as a means of addressing the grave issue of HIV/AIDS infection, has not changed and remains as always unacceptable’. Right on, sir – this has the benefit of clarity. No gray areas, no subtleties, no scope for decisions. Just step away from the rubbers and you’ll be right as rain.

However, Njue then also boldly claimed that ‘thankfully prostitution and homosexuality are alien to Kenyan society’. Now make-believe is great – I have an alternative world in my head in which I own a sizeable collection of Prada shoes and am having coffees with Zaha Hadid to discuss the house she’ll design for me. But apart from that, I strive to be a little more empirical.

I do understand that the good cardinal must be very busy with church matters, and probably doesn’t get to hang out much in pubs and bars where you’d encounter prostitutes. Perhaps he doesn’t drive along Kenyatta Avenue past the working ladies in the evening much. Most likely he doesn’t spend much time in the bars where Nairobi’s gay community drinks. Maybe he has no gaydar and just wouldn’t spot them anywhere around him. But both prostitution and homosexuality are very much part of the fabric of society in Kenya as anywhere else in the world. And since the previous US administration has so powerfully demonstrated what an enduring mess you can create with the Bush II approach to reality ("I know what I believe. I will continue to articulate what I believe and what I believe — I believe what I believe is right."), I’m respectfully dedicating today’s column to Mr Njue and the pursuit of facts.

I write about ICT issues quite regularly. Apart from the infrastructure and technical issues, there’s the big area of digital content that interests me: Internet access is growing rapidly, more and more people use their mobile phones to go online, and then there’s the transition from analogue to digital TV. All of this has created vastly more space for digital content, and consequently more demand. The digital space also forces us to rethink categories like local and international: I remember Alex Okosi from MTV explaining that they would promote African content, but not exclusively so since MTV also wanted to be a window the world. I love that I don’t need to be in the UK to read the Sunday Times and have access to the NY Times every day. By the same measure, very local content becomes accessible to the world.

One of the more interesting digital ventures I have come across is a Kenyan adult content website. At first glance, it’s not very sleek at all: The graphic design is a bit basic and haphazard, as is the spelling. The videos they sell are clearly a low-cost production, no exactly super-attractive actors, very basic settings. But here is why I was impressed: Kenyans are a peculiar lot - just remember the stylish Celtel ads and how everyone turned up their noses because the models didn’t ‘look Kenyan’? Not a mistake these guys make. It’s deliberately local content and as with TV series such as Makutano Junction, the audience will identify with it. And then they take the local angle a step further by having tribal smut. Yes, really: they advertise ‘vernacular dirty talk’. They make full use of mobile payment mechanisms: send your payments by M-PESA or Zap (and no sambaza, they warn). They work with whatever technology their clients have: If you have a good internet connection, you can download the videos after payment. If not, you can order DVDs for delivery. The website also has a page with hook ups and one for pre-approved sex workers (and the latter don’t look very alien to me). While they clarify that selling videos is their main focus, this will generate extra revenues and extra traffic.

And, I just noticed, they have a little ‘Be wise – use a condom’ alert on the top left of the website. Sensible people.

It’s a great story – and at the same time common as ugali. Enterprising Kenyans are part of the global smut industry, and like everywhere else, porn uses and drives technological developments. Porn might be illegal in Kenya, but this restriction becomes meaningless in the digital space where there is a deluge of adult content already. It’s a hugely competitive space and the internet has, in fact, been a revenue killer for a large part of the established porn industry. But how many providers of digital vernacular smut do you know? Well played, I think.

I, for one, am not Catholic, so I don’t take reproductive health advice from a celibate man in a dress. But the pope’s word and that of his clerics carries weight with a great many people. So some sort of engagement with reality would be good. I recently laughed when I found the term ‘evidence-based policies’ because it seemed silly – what else would it be based on? I don’t laugh anymore.

5 comments:

  1. For once I wish the Njues of the Catholic Church should just face the hard knock truths about their own inner sanctum and persons who serve in their cloisters. Claiming that prostitution and homosexuality are alien to Kenyan society is saying Kibera Laini Saba and Muthaiga golf club are locations in Timbuktu!

    And as for porn, the call these days is, 'My Body, My Business!' And you know what, they are right!

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  2. Dennis Just coz you av some spot for gays and mayve....does not mean that gayism is commonplace in Kenyan society. Have you heard about gayism in deep rural Kenya? Do they even have a name for it in your mother toungue.?

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  3. Kollo, homosexuality exists everywhere, and yes, even in Kenya.

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  4. So if we do not have a name for something in our mother tongue it does not exist???? Wow!!! whales...the colour purple........WOW!! So no name means no existence. thanks so much for that Kollo!

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  5. I did not follow up on this. Darn! But thanks for Bing!

    Kollo, gay is the new black!

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