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Review: Light and Darkness, Alternative systems of justice in Tuko Macho

In the web series Tuko Macho, a vigilante group sets out to clean up the city of Nairobi. This doesn’t augur well for them because they are now in competition with the police. What is worse, they have no regard for human rights. Will the ‘seekers of justice’ win the hearts of the people or will the police hunt them down?

 

When systems in a society break down or become ineffectual, parallel systems tend to develop, either to replace or to supplement them. This happens in real life and in fiction. When governments collapse, other forms of government spring up. The same applies to justice systems. Although they may be working all right, it is crucial that justice systems be seen to be working. The role of justice systems is to take responsibility for avenging the wronged and for rehabilitating the person who has committed the crime. When the ‘avenging’ role of justice seems not to be working, other avenging channels may open up. This is what happens in The Nest Collective’s latest production, a web series called Tuko Macho. The show is directed by Jim Chuchu and has been airing weekly on Facebook.

The series starts with the driver of a car, played by Morris Mwangi, waiting in the dark of night. Then a gun is cocked and the muzzle taps the car window. The driver lowers his window and the carjacker, who is known as Charlo (Hassan Masika) greets the driver in a relaxed way. With the gun in his hands, he is in control. The driver, on the other hand, is terrified and ends up hooting. At this point, the viewer fears for his life – hooting can get him shot. He is begging for his life as he urges Charlo to take the car and leave him alone. Charlo starts teasing him. He puts the gun to his temple and asks what it feels like, then he ‘requests’ the driver to get into the boot so that they can go and ‘hang out’. It is while the driver gets into the boot that the Tuko Macho (‘we are watching’) members intervene.

 

The Tuko Macho crew get to work

The theme, the setting and the lighting all make this a dark scene. The relaxed way in which Charlo toys with his victim-to-be makes one view him as not worthy of clemency. That Charlo gets disarmed – especially with a catapult when he is armed with a gun – brings a sigh of relief to the viewer. In his confusion, Charlo thinks the intervening men are police officers. He asks, “Kwani wewe ni nani?” This question implies that he has a relationship with the police that makes them look the other way as he goes about his robberies. The answer he gets from Biko (Tim King’oo) unsettles him even further: “Sisi ni wale wageji,” Biko answers. By this time, Charlo knows his goose is cooked. At the end of the first episode, Biko says to Hena, “Toa hii takataka hapa.” This is confirmation that they have no respect for the likes of Charlo.

Tuko Macho is a group that has set up its own justice system to avenge the wronged, not bothering much to rehabilitate the wrongdoer. On their website they stream live videos of the captured offenders and ask the public to pass their judgment through an online voting system. There are only two possible verdicts: guilty or not guilty. The guilty offenders are executed on the live video stream. If found not guilty, they are let go. Charlo is the first to go through this process. His life depends on the voters, but the cards are stacked against him. There is CCTV footage showing his past crimes. In some cases he had not hesitation in killing his victims.

It is not just the violent types who are caught. Next, Biko, who calls himself ‘Jonah’ to his online following, goes after a pastor who has been involved in a hit-and-run accident. In her case, too, there is CCTV footage showing the accident and her decision to speed off. The man dies, but Pastor Kangai denies having done anything wrong. Conveniently for her, the CCTV footage of her crime is ‘lost’.

One begins to question the process set up by Jonah when they catch their third offender, a City Council askari known as Big Show, who has been using his position to extort money from hawkers in Nairobi. This part of the series is chillingly factual. A few weeks ago, in Nairobi, John Allan Namu, an investigative journalist with Africa Uncensored, aired the investigative work he had done on rogue Nairobi City Council officers and their violent behaviour, which always goes unpunished. The exposé ran on Kenyan TV. In fact, Chuchu uses footage supplied by Africa Uncensored, with Namu’s blessing.

In Tuko Macho, the captured City Council official remains defiant even while on video. He tells Jonah, “Hakuna kitu mnaweza nifanyia.” This is an indication of his disconnect from reality. One has the feeling that he was unaware of what happened to the others in his position. There is no sense of remorse, which is perhaps the reason that people vote the way they do in his case, even though the punishment they mete out is probably excessive for his crimes. After Big Show’s execution, Hena is in doubt. She questions their understanding of justice, saying that men like Big Show are only trying to survive; that they understand trouble and life. Biko talks her down, saying all crimes need to be punished. Hena agrees, but the viewer can see uncertainty on her face.

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Doubt sets in

The viewer also begins to question the motivations that drive people like Biko to do what they are doing. There are flashbacks that explain his character. Biko used to be an army officer who took part in transporting election papers. His partner, Stevo, found out that the papers had already been marked in favour of one candidate. Biko wants to go public, but Stevo doesn’t want any trouble. This is an exact parallel with what happens to whistleblowers in Kenya: It is easy to spot the comparison between Biko and David Sadera Munyakei, who blew the whistle on the Goldenberg scandal in Kenya. Before the viewer even watches the flashbacks of how Biko ended up here, you know that corruption is going to fight back, hard. Biko is unable to get a job after leaving the army. Nobody wants to employ honest people, and definitely not whistleblowers.

The last person Biko and his team bring to face judgment is a matatu driver. Biko’s explanation to Mwarabu (Njambi Koikai) is that “he was driving like a madman”. The public vote in this case comes as no surprise. At this point the viewer starts getting the feeling that Biko is running amok now, even though Mwarabu tries to keep him in check. Hena, too, has questions.

Tuko Macho is a group that has set up its own justice system to avenge the wronged, not bothering much to rehabilitate the wrongdoer.

Meeting the team

I went to The Nest’s office in Kileleshwa, Nairobi, to interview the team behind this media phenomenon. Amal Mohamed welcomed me to the lounge. I was 30 minutes early for my appointment with Jim Chuchu, so I looked at the artwork and the books. A painting by Chuchu, titled ‘All Oppression is Connected’, is in a small frame among other bigger works, but it strikes me the most. It was inspired by the Jamaican poet Staceyann Chin. She was at the Southern Sun Mayfair Hotel in Nairobi for a reading back in 2013, an event that had been organised by The Nest. On the shelves, I notice a copy of Nnedi Okorafor’s Lagoon, Ben Okri’s The Famished Road, and Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor’s Dust. There is also a framed poster of Chuchu’s 13-minute speculative fiction film To Catch a Dream, made in 2015 and featuring Ajuma Nasenyana.

Amal returns with Jim, who is dressed in a warm, black jacket and blue jeans. He is easy to talk to. I ask him what exactly The Nest is. He describes the collective as a whole spectrum of people from different backgrounds – some are medical doctors, others are in social work – who came together in 2012. Initially it was a platform for bringing people with alternative voices to the Kenyan audience. “That is why we brought Staceyann – we felt her poetry and her work was different from anything we were doing here,” he says. Over time, they realised that they had an internal voice to grow, rather than creating an environment for others.

That is what they are doing with Tuko Macho. The characters in this series are fully developed and three-dimensional, making them either convincingly loveable or hated and despised. For example, one would expect Nick Salat, the policeman tasked with tracking down the Tuko Macho group, to be a morally upright, law-abiding fellow. And he is – except that he has a hooker, Nikki, on speed dial. However, this relationship isn’t as superficial as one would expect of a hooker-client relationship. Nikki too has her fears, which, at some level, becomes Salat’s fears. She is afraid that Tuko Macho may eventually come after people like her. Nick cares enough to be visibly worried, although he doesn’t voice this. This is the kind of complex characterisation that is a hallmark of this series.

 

Roots in speculative fiction

Chuchu has previously made speculative fiction short films. He made Homecoming in 2013 and To Catch a Dream in 2015. I mention that these previous works were not as ‘linear’ as Tuko Macho. Chuchu agrees with this. He says the shift from short films to The Stories of Our Lives, which was longer than anything he had done before, meant that he had to go where he had been afraid of going previously. He says that doing a series is even more demanding because teams have to wake up at 3am for the work to get done. Chuchu does not label himself a speculative fiction artist even though he does work that often veers in that direction.

 

Why Facebook?

The Nest chose the social media platform to air their series because, Chuchu says, “We were interested in how it would be received.” Facebook gave them a better platform to interact with viewers and to get better feedback. There has been interest from TV stations, with approaches for airing on the local channels. That makes me wonder how the execution scenes would be received…

Chuchu says the execution scenes took their toll on the cast. I remember a conversation I had with a friend after watching Tuko Macho. He said that the first execution was almost expected. Charlo had been violent, after all. “But the second one got to me.” These reservations were shared by the cast members.

The Nest chose the social media platform to air their series because, Chuchu says, “We were interested in how it would be received.” Facebook gave them a better platform to interact with viewers and to get better feedback.

The reaction of the state

In our interview, Chuchu refers to the state’s reaction to Tuko Macho. Chuchu’s movie, The Stories of Our Lives, got a strong state reaction. The movie was banned from being aired and distributed in Kenya. George Gachara, the executive director, was arrested and held for ‘filming without a proper license’. The discussion blurs for me when Chuchu mentions state reaction. I take it that he means in real life when in fact he means in Tuko Macho. I think my confusion stems from the closeness of these stories to real life. The language is familiar. The environment is close to home. There is limited lighting in many of these scenes, “a reflection of what Nairobi really is like,” says Chuchu. “Some viewers from Mathare Slums saw the show as a documentary,” Chuchu says. It captured their lives exactly – another case of ‘the stories of our lives’.

“Some viewers from Mathare Slums saw the show as a documentary.” Jim Chuchu, director

“Light is something that is very important. In this city, there are people who work in bright spaces during the day, then go back to dark, dingy spaces at night,” Jim Chuchu says. “This is why we made the series so dark.”

Literally and figuratively, this unique series takes a look at some dark places…

 

 

 

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