Rwandans are hooked on Africa's Ambridge

The everyday story of an African village, inspired by 'The Archers', has captivated the people of Rwanda, and is up for an award in Britain. Claire Soares speaks to the producer behind it
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The Independent Online

Twice a week Rwanda comes to a standstill. Every Tuesday and Thursday evening at sundown, from the dusty, bustling streets of Kigali to the jungle-clad villages perched on volcano slopes, residents huddle around the nearest radio, sometimes 20 to a set. Anticipation mounts until, at 6.45pm, "The Archers" begins.

Forget Ambridge, though. The cattle-tending and the domestic intrigues unfold in the slightly more tropical village location of Nyarurembo, while haunting vocals from ululating women signal the opening credits. This is The Archers, African style. This is Urunana which translates as "Hand in Hand".

While The Archers devotees might be consumed by whether Shula should resign as churchwarden, fans of Urunana are waiting on tenterhooks to discover whether its newest character – the baby of schoolgirl Mugeni and the philandering shopkeeper Muhire – has been born HIV-positive.

Now in its 10th year, Urunana – which is broadcast in Kinyarwanda on the BBC World Service – has the sort of audience share Radio 4 executives can only dream of. An estimated 75 per cent of Rwanda's 10 million people regularly tune in to the show.

These listening figures become even more incredible when you consider the murky role radio played in the genocidal violence of 1994 that brought Rwanda into homes and schools around the world. On the eve of those events, the Radio Milles Collines station took its vicious propaganda to horrific new levels, urging Hutus around the country to rise up and kill the "cockroaches", the rival Rwandan tribe of Tutsis.

Urunana, Rwanda's first soap opera, debuted just five years later, with mistrust still high about radio as a medium for information. "Not everyone understood what we were about," recalls Narcisse Kalisa, the show's first producer who now manages the whole project. "There was no precedent for a soap opera, it was a totally new concept here. And it took a while for things to fall into place, for people to trust us. Now, though, people are addicted, they can't leave us."

While The Archers has inspired spin-offs from Afghanistan to Romania, the Rwandan version has proved especially successful and Urunana's incredible journey over the last 10 years looks set to net it a gong at the One World Media awards in London this week.

The traumatised Rwanda into which Urunana was born a decade ago no doubt influenced the producers' decision to steer clear of the genocide in their initial storylines. Instead they chose to tackle some of its crippling legacies. Many of the country's 30 hospitals and 200 health centres were looted in 1994 and staff either massacred or forced into exile. So, with the backing of London-based aid group Health Unlimited, the radio soap focused on health and social issues, creating plots around HIV and TB, domestic violence and rape for its two 15-minute slots.

"When we addressed sensitive or taboo issues, health centres would tell us they were getting people coming forward for treatment or advice about that complaint so it was clear we were having an impact," Kalisa explains. "But we never lose the entertainment aspect, we don't sacrifice the story and the humour, it's about combining that with the messages."

As the horror has receded, the soap opera has started to touch on the trauma of the genocide. In 2004, to mark the 10th anniversary, they developed a storyline around Agnes, a young girl orphaned by the violence, and her struggle to deal with the trauma.

AIDS has become an ever-present spectre in the show. Rwanda's 3 per cent prevalence levels is on the low side compared to many of its war-ravaged African counterparts, but getting the message out about safe sex and de-stigmatising the disease is crucial to combat new cases. If the audience thinks they're straying off course, the producers soon hear about it. Part of the scriptwriting process involves writers decamping to 12 communities around the mountainous country, known as the "land of a thousand hills", to bounce ideas off the listeners, find out what they liked and disliked, as well as what they think should happen next.

With its goal of education through entertainment, Urunana conjures the early days of The Archers, when producer Godfrey Basely hoped farmers would absorb the storylines but also pick up agricultural messages along the way that would help them to feed a nation still subject to food rationing.

If Urunana has an Eddie Grundy, it is probably the loveable, comical, but slightly odd Bushombe, an impoverished singer who has a finger in every pie, a finger that usually ends up getting burnt. He's the man who wants to sell his flea-ridden dog for some extra cash, but chooses to try at the weekly goat market, to hoots of laughter from the other vendors. Jean-Claude Ayirwanda, the 38-year-old who provides Bushombe's voice is a superstar in Kigali. But he still holds down his day-job, working for the government's health insurance scheme. His queue is always much longer than those of his colleagues, as fans use any excuse to go to see him in the flesh.

The Archers has clearly provided the inspiration. Indeed the main players behind Urunana have visited the BBC studios in Birmingham to pick up tips, and Felicity Finch, who plays Ruth Archer, had a guest appearance in the very first Rwandan broadcast, where she was accused of using her nursing studies as a cover story for visiting her many lovers. But the Rwandan version has taken things to a new level, with cast and crew embarking on their own brand of community outreach.

They regularly go out into rural areas, pulling in crowds of up to 10,000 at a time. "We use this exposure to stage a play and start a discussion. People come to see the actors but then we give them an arena to ask questions," Kalisa explains.

Last Thursday's episode was number 971 and Narcisse Kalisa is confident that with many more plot twists and cliff-hangers in the pipeline, Urunana's popularity is here to stay. "I never thought it would run for 10 years. It's amazing to think that in September we'll be broadcasting our 1,000th episode," he says, before boarding his plane to London. "And if we have the financing, I think we can go for another 50 years. Maybe even more."

Urunana has been nominated in the One World Media Awards, which take place for the 20th year on Thursday, hosted by Jon Snow www.