Of Uganda’s talk shows, the struggle with ‘manels’

Television talk shows have gained notoriety for having ‘manels’—a panel consisting entirely of men. ‘Manels’ are even constituted to discuss what are ideally women-themed issues. PHOTO | COURTESY

As the television crew moved to switch-off their equipment to end their long September day, their guest, Patricia Achan Okiria—Uganda’s deputy Inspector General of Government—expressed her displeasure. Okiria had spent nearly two hours narrating her life story to Ruenah Kajumba, host of UBC’s “Super Soul Sisters” talk show. The ombudsman, however, forgot to mention her husband by name. 

“If they chase me from home, I will blame you people,” Okiria jokingly declared before insisting that the cameras roll again so as to capture that important detail.

Standing by was Jacinta Kagoro, the show’s producer. She saw this not as a setback as much as a vindication of her concept. Even as women attain success, men loom large over their lives. The media, therefore, is expected to play a key role to embolden women.

“We wanted to give an opportunity to distinctive women to tell us how they got there, to share their stories so then the young women who are still soul searching will know where to start,” Kagoro said in an interview on set in Kampala on Wednesday, adding, “Many a time, girls give up easily when they encounter barking and ridicule. ‘Super Soul Sisters’ come in to say ‘listen to my story; don’t be shattered’.”

A seasoned TV producer boasting nearly two decades in the industry, Kagoro is quite excited about her new project. She is quick to list anecdotes revealed by guests on the show. Did you know Cecilia Ogwal was the first woman to study Bachelor of Commerce at the University of Nairobi? Did you know Beti Kamya was the first female marketing manager at Uganda Breweries? Did you know Winnie Kizza was a street vendor? And who knew Shanitah Namuyimbwa, alias Bad Black, had a solid plan as a campaigner for rehabilitation of prostitutes?

“We want to listen to more stories. There’s so much we haven’t heard from women,” Kagoro said in a matter-of-fact manner.

It’s a bold mission statement in a country with gender disparities in media coverage. The Uganda media landscape is undoubtedly male-dominated. Television talk shows have gained notoriety for having ‘manels’—a panel consisting entirely of men. ‘Manels’ are even constituted to discuss what are ideally women-themed issues.

Dr Anne Abaho, the dean of Faculty of Social Sciences at Nkumba University, says this phenomenon is largely attributable to social factors.

“It’s because of the traditional attachment to the functional roles of men and women in society,” she said via telephone on Thursday, adding, “… when we come to media and why the media present women or gives a smaller space to women, if we stretch to areas like politics; politics is a male-dominated field because it requires you to be away from home, it requires you to go out and contest and compete and shout and lie where need be; and those are not attributes of femininity.”

No wonder, activist Lindsey Kukunda sounds a siren for radical approaches.

“We need to stop asking for permission, asking for rights that are ours,” she said on Friday via telephone, adding, “We need to just start taking them.”

But are women taking heed? Kagoro’s insight suggests so.

“I am overwhelmed by the response of women to Super Soul Sisters. It’s giving them a platform that they have been denied,” noted Kagoro, adding, “I am exploiting that vacuum that has been left empty for a long time.”

Brenda Akol, a make-up artist and aspiring talk show host, shares the same mission. Having spent the last five months running a live stream pilot of The Touch Show—which she says aims to teach women how to “lead and dominate”—Akol has since embarked on establishing studios that will host the fully fledged broadcasts.

Safe space

Akol hopes to tackle subjects like trauma, rape, abuse, addiction and stigma, which largely affect women yet receive scanty coverage in mainstream media. 

To this end, Abaho sees a future that presents a revolution in terms of addressing women’s issues in the media even as the risk of a spiral towards worsening negativity remains due to social media and ICT.

“The positive aspect in terms of change is that we have more female journalists, who are also joining the field. So, probably they could give a different shape and format of writing,” Abaho reasons, adding, “Maybe they could begin to look at how strong, how influential, how this woman has contributed to change in society and use that as a point on which to write other than the social stereotypes.” 

Kajumba, the host of Super Soul Sisters, doesn’t want her talk show to attract the feminist label. She reasons that “Super Soul Sisters” is not a single story “because how do we talk to women without the men?”

Kajumba adds: “It’s an opportunity that the young boy out there is going to get used to the idea of women in power. It helps both genders balance the equation.”

Certainly, the same equation Okiria was sure to balance.