Kenyan mockumentary skewers foreign aid

Everyone loves the TV show The Office (Editor’s note: The British version was better). The mockumentary genre has taken on this fictional Pennsylvania paper supply company, rock music in Spinal Tap, an Indiana town’s parks and recreation department and a dog show.

Now the aid sector gets the comedic treatment in The Samaritans.

The Samaritans centers around an NGO in Nairobi that is in the process of applying for a massive grant that will change the organization. The problem is that the grant is so big that nobody really knows what it is for. Based on the reactions to a recent interview* with creator Hussein Kurji published in Africa is a Country, aid workers are pumped to see the new show.

Aid for Aid, as the organization is called, is led by a white American named Scott who has far less experience than his Kenyan colleagues.

The new show came to be thanks, in part, to the 74 backers on Kickstarter. The creators raised $10,702 through the campaign, just beating the project’s $10,000 goal. I spoke with Kurji while he was trying to raise funds for the series, in October 2012**. He described to me his motivation for the show and the challenges to raising money to make his dream a reality.

“There are no systems or initiatives in place to tap into financing,” said Kurji at the time.

It was the opportunity that Hussein Kurji always wanted, but he was not prepared. A conference in South Africa invited attendees to pitch an idea for a television show. Not wanting to waste the opportunity, Kurji turned to notebook where he scribbled down an idea from a few years ago: a dysfunctional NGO.

The native Kenyan went to Australia in order to study digital media. He returned home in 2009, unsure if it was the right decision. Radio dominates as the main media form in Kenya, but television is growing at a rapid pace. A survey in 2011 by Ipsos Synovate found that roughly half of all Kenyans watched television within the past week. The average viewers spent 26 hours a week watching television generally in the evenings to watch the news and soap operas.

Friends would tell Kurji stories about their work at an NGO and oftentimes the main point of conversation centered around office politics. Kurji thought it could make for a good television show, making a small note in a notebook without much thought that it would go anywhere.

A scramble to flesh out his idea led to successful pitch which means the idea of a dysfunctional NGO that does nothing called “Aid for Aid” is becoming a reality.

The premise is drawn from the experiences of a friend. “His organization was excited about a big grant,” explained Kurji,” but they did not really understand what they would do if they got the money.”

While an NGO sits at the center of the story, it is actually the characters that matter most.

“I was inspired by shows like The Office, Parks and Recreation and Modern Family. The side interviews, comedic aspects and attention on characters is what makes them work,” he said.

The show has come a long way since 2012. The early episodes were shot with lower quality equipment and a different cast.

*Do read Caitlin Chandler’s interview with Kurji in Africa is a Country where she talks with him about the goals for the show.

**Significant sections of this piece are reprinted from my previous story on Kurji.

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About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.