The Samaritans is hardly the first half-hour mockumentary TV show, but it's the first one made in Kenya. It's also the first one made about an NGO — and while offering aid to people in desperate need of it doesn't necessarily sound like a hilarious premise for a show, that's not what The Samaritans is about. After all, the name of the fictional NGO in the show is Aid For Aid. In other words, no one is actually helping anyone.
The show is the brainchild of Hussein Kurji, a Kenyan filmmaker who, along with his business partner Salim Keshavjee, independently funded a trailer for the show, then used Kickstarter to raise $10,000 to make the full pilot. That, plus some additional money from, yes, an actual NGO, allowed them to put together the first two half-hour episodes, which are available online to watch for a fee.
The pilot episode of The Samaritans sees Aid for Aid hire a new country director in the form of the self-important Scott Bartley, who lands the job thanks to nepotism. Bartley spends the first season coming up with new and maddening ways to waste money and resources.
VICE News asked Kurji about breaking new ground in Kenyan culture and politics, and whether he thinks the show could any effect on the seemingly countless numbers of NGOs that operate in his country.
VICE News: Were you worried about pissing off NGOs by making a show that mocks them?
Hussein Kurji: No — and our biggest fans have been aid workers. We were filmmakers looking for a new world to explore, and because Kenya is so big on development, it was prime subject matter. There are volunteers who do excellent work in remote parts of the country, but then there are others who are caught up in the international lifestyle and glamour, which is how we’ve portrayed Scott — he’s never been in the field. People can’t “save Africa” from behind their desks.
Did you worry knowing that you were doing something no one had done before in Kenya?
Celebrity culture in Kenya, unlike the West, revolves around our politicians. They get ripped by the media all the time. People here have fought really hard for freedom of expression and freedom of media. If people stopped creating content because they were worried about backlash, then we’d never have any artistic expression.
What is the country's collective sense of humor like in comparison to other parts of the world?
It's a mixed bag; we were a British colony, so there are elements of British sarcasm and wit, but then we also get a lot of American media here. We took the sensibilities of American humor and British humor — Jim Longmore, who's one of the writers, is a British guy who wrote from Texas. We had months and months of Skype calls drafting the first episodes.
What's the worst and/or dumbest story about NGOs you came across while doing research for the show?
There was a story — it didn’t happen in Kenya, but in a neighboring country — about a local staff member who had a tiff with his boss. I don’t know what the tiff was about, but the staff member tried to run over his boss with his truck. There were numerous witnesses to the event. What the NGO did was bring the staff member to the head office in Kenya to give him a psychiatric evaluation. But because he was now in a different country, he was technically an expat — so they tripled his pay and gave him per diems and sick leave. That’s just one of many absurd stories.
Let's hope that's just a joke. Do you think the show could have an effect on the way people think of not just NGOs, but of Kenya in general?
Yes. Even Kenyans have said, “Is this Kenyan?” because we have such a diverse cast (Asian, African, European). Africa is not just slums and guns. Here is a platform that shows, beyond the NGO and the the comedy, a middle class people, a bustling city, where Gucci handbags and expensive cars and five-star dining are available. We don’t all sleep with torn clothes in huts. I mean, I’m not mocking that, it’s incredibly sad — but there are other sides to Kenya.
Is there a general feeling in Kenya toward NGOs?
I think some people of course regard them as positive, because of the nature of a particular NGO’s work — grassroots organizations and what have you. Ones that look at Africa as more of an investment than being in need of a handout. But then you have the other spectrum of NGOs, which is what we highlight. So there is a balance of sorts.
Many people believe NGOs should give more decision-making power to the people they're trying to help. Do you agree?
Yes. All you need to do is look at the NGOs that have been successful. They’re the ones that work really well with the stakeholders.
Did you hope the show would begin a larger conversation about the role of NGOs?
We knew that when we did this there would be some talk, but we're not experts in the field, and it's not a new conversation — it's been going on since about the 1980s. It's the comedy that's new. So maybe if we put it on television in a comedy context you reach a wider audience that allows people to understand a little more. If things change as a result for the better, for both the NGO sector and the citizens that aid affects, then all the better — but I don’t expect anything.