Image: Tuko Macho trailer (Facebook)
There are many things that I like about Tuko Macho. I like that it was made by the same people who created Stories of Our Lives. I like the visual quality, even as I lack the words to describe why exactly. I like the scene in the trailer and the starting credits of the first episode where a parade of askaris are sitting together and one of them breaks the unison of the group to stare directly and dramatically into the camera. And I like that in the closing credits of every episode of Tuko Macho, the phrase “events, people depicted in this series are entirely fictional” appears. Because this disclaimer is not true and it is also not false. Here’s the thing: Tuko Macho delights in taking binaries– fiction/nonfiction, good guy/bad guy, right/ wrong– mixing them up with gorgeous cinematography and acting and then spitting them out so that they are no longer recognizable. This insistence on complexity and on blurring the lines of morality and of storytelling is highlighted even more when placed against the black and white version of justice spearheaded by Biko/Jonah, protagonist/anti-hero of the show.
The basic premise of the series is fictional: a vigilante justice group decides to take matters into their own hands in the wake of lawlessness in Nairobi. They call themselves “Tuko Macho”, meaning “We’re on alert”, and they capture people who are guilty of various crimes but who have slipped through the large and money lubricated holes in the system. They take them to an unknown location and ask residents of the city to vote on their guilt or innocence– and in turn, their death or life. The story’s characters are all fictional, including Mwarabu and Biko, who are the brains behind the vigilante group. Some of them are closer to real life characters, such as Salat, the lead police investigator on the case. But if a test of good fiction is its ability to depict real life events, then the series passes the test a little too well. Because as anyone who is familiar with Nairobi will tell you, Tuko Macho might be fiction, but it is also not.
In the forth episode, the series goes back on the end of credit promise to sample clips from Kanjo Kingdom, an investigative journalism piece on how Nairobi city council officials participate in the crime on Nairobi’s streets. As we move back and forth between real life and fictional footage, we meet Big Show, a city council official so intoxicated by his power and by the impunity in Nairobi that he has no qualms bragging on television. The show compels us to imagine a what if? in which Kenyans decided that enough is enough. What if someone decided that they had had enough of the broken justice system, of the hypocrisy and duplicity of religious leaders and of the complicity of those who are supposed to govern and protect us? And, if we followed our impulses and did something– if we took the law into our hands, would it truly allow us to breathe better?
The answer to this is not optimistic. At the series premiere, Njoki Ngumi of The Nest Collective explained that in making the show, “[they] were less interested in the performance of vigilantism and more in the moral ambiguity of it.”
Early in the show, Biko and his colleagues capture a woman pastor who ran over a pedestrian and left him to die, and then presumably bribed the right people to avoid the evidence going to court and her going to prison. In her final moments, right after it is revealed that the people have voted “Guilty”, a chill runs down my spine as she begs for mercy, even promising to do the right thing now. “Take me to court, take me to the police. I swear I will confess,” she says, to no avail. Why am I so bothered by this scene? Is it because she is a woman? This is, after all, what justice would look like. She killed an innocent man and tried to hide the truth, and then she continued to preach as if nothing had happened. But the verdict and sentence leave a sour taste in my mouth.
In Tuko Macho justice the only possible punishment for any wrong, not just murder, is death. A matatu driver breaks traffic laws and is put before the people for a vote because to Biko, small rules are just as important as big rules. Besides, anyone familiar with Nairobi knows how breaking small traffic laws can often lead to catastrophic results. But death? Isn’t that too harsh a punishment? Some of the characters on the show agree. So does the voting audience; the driver is set free.
Outside the group, this black and white approach to justice only causes more anxiety to those already susceptible under the current system. Nikki, a call girl whom Salat has been seeing, admits that Tuko Macho justice does not make her feel any safer: “I don’t trust them… I feel like they could come for people like me.”
This relationship is another instance where the show causes us to question black and white perceptions of justice. Prostitution is illegal in Kenya, and for many people the image conjured is a silhouette of a woman in a short dress and impossibly high heels walking in Koinange Street late at night. But Tuko Macho humanizes this anonymous silhouette, and Nikki becomes the person to whom Salat runs to for comfort and for emotional support. She teases him when he brings her chips and chicken for dinner. There is a clear rapport and warmth between them. Were it not for a scene early on in the series where she asks for her money right as she arrives, it would be easy to see him as her significant other rather than as her client.
Tuko Macho imagines a world in which our anger at the broken systems boils over, out of our impassioned conversations at home and on social media, and leads to action. Biko/Jonah proposes a direction in which this anger can go: an alternative form of justice that would, ostensibly, not be corrupted by power or money. But as we discover his back story, we start to wonder about his motives: is he inspired by justice, or by a desire for revenge? And what is the difference between the two? While his solution promises to make justice more attainable and accessible, it starts to fall apart rapidly: a system whose only punishment is death, without mercy and without room for the complexity of human beings, leads to fear rather than truth. While vigilantism might bring us brief relief, the series seems to suggest, it is not sustainable, and it is no way out of the painstaking work of thinking and building and thinking and building continuously. Or, as Salat points out, there is no simple way to justice.
All of the episodes of Tuko Macho are up on The Nest Collective, with new episodes coming out every Thursday.