RADIO / Outside Edge: Jasper Rees on Ndingo Nacio, the Kenyan soap Opera

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The Independent Culture
The best way to simulate the sound of a lamb's birth is to squelch the hands in yoghurt and chuck wet tea-towels on to a bed of straw. Trade secrets like this one have been passed on from The Archers to its Kenyan equivalent, a new show called Ndingo Nacio.

In Kimeru dialect, the title translates as 'Come on out with it, you can tell me.' It is the dream of David 'Thump' Campbell, who arrived in Kenya 15 years ago, having spent the late 1960s and 1970s producing huge open-air rock concerts at Reading and Knebworth.

He brought with him lots of Archers' scripts. 'I just thought it was brilliant,' he says, 'with a simple story which would work well in this environment. Soap can contain valuable messages.'

He has been proved right. The producers of Ndingo Nacio have been amazed by the response. In a country twice the size of Britain but with a population of only 26 million, the audience is up to two million. 'We sometimes have 70 letters a day,' says the executive producer, Kate Lloyd Morgan. 'Some from grandmothers overcome with gratitude that we've opened up a debate.'

Like The Archers, the series is set in a fictitious market town, called Kimantu. Accurate research is vital to its success.

The production team send out 'technical assistants' all over the country. 'I thought they wanted to learn about millet,' says the producer, Jared Mukarebi, 'but that was the last thing on their minds. The women were totally outspoken in what they wanted - mainly to stop the men drinking and being promiscuous.'

Vanessa Whitburn, the producer of The Archers, went out to help last year and was 'very impressed by the energy, facilities and techniques'. The prominence of community theatre had produced actors and writers of some ability. 'We just fleshed out the characters and worked out the storyline over the year. They're doing it in Archers style, a short- term meeting every month, long- term twice a year.'

The point of the programme is to educate and entertain, so it was important that big issues be carefully woven into the storyline. 'One of the great dramas was the distribution of contraception by aid agencies and missions,' says Whitburn. 'Another was the custom of female circumcision, which even the old think is wrong.'

The importance of contraception is a familiar storyline. The word 'condom' has only just been allowed to appear. In dialect the actors talk about 'socks' and 'mud boots', and a familiar complaint from the macho characters is of not wanting to 'eat their sweets with their socks on'. But the very fact that such themes are being discussed on air is remarkable in itself.