This podcast hosts Rob Burnet, founder and CEO of Shujaaz Inc, a multimedia youth platform based in Kenya which aims to improve the lives and livelihoods of young people in East Africa. Founded in 2010, Shujaaz Inc. distributes free monthly comic books, produces radio programmes, creates TV shows, runs social media accounts and more, using Sheng, a contemporary slang language employed by young people in Kenya. The stories they tell revolve around a 19-year old radio DJ and influencer, living on the outskirts of Nairobi. The DJ uses his media platform to bring young people together to talk about their experiences, the changes they want to make and the barriers that are standing in their way, spotlighting the stories of young ‘shujaaz’ (‘heroes’) who are creating change in their lives.
Shujaaz writers and creators communicate regularly with their fan base to understand the issues faced by young people in the region and how they have overcome them. Addressing issues such as gender inequality, reproductive health, local government, human rights, fake news, and political violence, Shujaaz Inc has reached over 9.1 million 15-24 year-olds across East Africa, connecting them with information, skills and resources that help them take charge of their lives. The Television Academy has recognised the company twice, awarding two Emmys, one in 2012 and another in 2014.
Rob Burnet studied Art History in St Andrews before moving to Kenya. He worked in several roles focused on development, including for the Ford Foundation, before setting up Shujaaz Inc. He advocates for storytelling’s power in peacebuilding and people’s empowerment.
What has storytelling got to do with peace-building?
As Rob discusses in the podcast, storytelling can lead to behaviour-change. Via its multi-media channels, Shujaaz Inc aims to educate young people in East Africa to make the best life choices for themselves. Its various outputs cover multiple topics, discussing (for example) contraception, the power of education, and entrepreneurial skills, while also warning young people about the dangers surrounding them: for example, educating them about gangs and terrorist groups like Al-Shabaab, who recruit vulnerable young people in the region.
They do this by researching real stories concerning young Kenyan people who have had both positive and negative experiences, and integrating these stories into their comics. Through this mix of accessible fact and fiction, they are able to educate their audiences without becoming didactic or directive. The characters created by Shujaaz Inc feel authentic, approachable and speak directly to young people. And as their storylines develop, these characters do important educational work in sharing alternative ways of thinking, opening up new possibilities, building shared identities, and challenging and shifting social norms.
Research has shown that young people who engage with Shujaaz Inc’s media are more likely than their peers to use contraception, thanks to the role models they encounter; that they translate the financial wisdom which Shujaaz characters share into tangible improvements in their own lives; and that they are better informed about the strategies used by gangs and terrorist groups such as Al-Shabaab to recruit vulnerable young people to their cause – among many other benefits. These attitude and behaviour changes are fundamental in building a more secure, peaceful future for individuals and communities.
‘Peace educators point out problems of violence and instruct their pupils about strategies that can address those problems, empowering them to redress the circumstances that can lead to violent conflict. In schools and community settings, they impart to their students the values of planetary stewardship, global citizenship and humane relations.’ (Harris, 2004, p. 5)
‘Peace education aspires to enable students to become responsible citizens… who can deconstruct the foundations of violence and take action to advance the prospects of peace.’ (Swiss Peace, 2021)
Via storytelling about other young peoples lives and life choices, this is exactly what Shujaaz does: it equips its audiences with vital knowledge and inspires them with role models, supporting them to develop positive mindsets, support themselves and embrace peaceful ideas and behaviours. In that sense, the work that they do is core to ‘peace education’, even when it is not explicitly reflecting on violence or peace. Shujaaz Inc is deploying the power of popular media like comics and the perennial ‘hook’ of a good story to help develop a new generation of educated, empowered, resilient and peaceful citizens in East Africa: a new generation of ‘heroes’.
What do you think?
- Has this podcast changed how you understand peace education?
- What different forms of peace education have you encountered?
- What medium has most helped you to learn about difficult topics like war and peace?
- How important is storytelling in education people about war and peace?
- Are certain age groups more open to learning from stories than others?
- Why does it matter that Shujaaz Inc’s fictional stories are grounded in real-life experiences?
- Is peace education something that schools should prioritise? Or is it better that it comes from outside sources?
- Do you think Shujaaz Inc could expand delivering this soft touch form of education to other parts of the world? If so, where might be most receptive to this kind of format?
- If you managed a youth-focused company like Shujaaz Inc what topics would you prioritise teaching?
If you enjoyed this item in our museum…
A huge thank you to Rob Burnet who took time out of his busy schedule to record this podcast: it was perspective-altering conversation. Thank you to everyone at Shujaaz Inc: the work you are doing will shape the world for generations to come. Thank you to the Visualising Peace team and Dr König for your help and advice. Finally, thank you to Magnus for making me aware of this company; you have been instrumental to my research this semester.