Jabu´s Homecoming is Zimbabwe´s first-ever WhatsApp drama series according to its producer, Ben Mahaka.

It is not a film in the traditional sense of a one-off video ordered from Netflix, Hulu, DTSV, or Amazon Prime. It is an interactive drama series uniquely formatted to the confines of the WhatsApp platform. This means the drama series carries emojis, texts, stickers, voices, and photos too.

📷 Some of the main characters in Jabu's Homecoming.

WhatsApp drama series resembles life in Zimbabwe

“The plot of ´Jabu´s Homecoming´ revolves around the Mobani family which is a Zimbabwean family grappling with the death of their breadwinner in the diaspora in South Africa,” said Mahaka.

“The process of trying to repatriate the body brings out a lot of ugly family truths long kept hidden whilst money flowed.”

In the drama, as in real life, “Jabu´s Homecoming” is motivated by lived experiences in Zimbabwe where 3 million-plus out of its 14 million citizens have left to settle in Europe, mainly the UK, South Africa, and the US.

“Zimbabwe has experienced a lot of economic migration. The traditional family structure doesn’t work anymore,” added Mahaka, alluding to the patriarchal nature of Zimbabwe´s society where a male figure usually makes the most important family decisions. Emigration – which leaves women heading households – flips that.

Emigration and its unraveling of the nature of the traditional Zimbabwe family is the motivation behind Mahaka making Jabu´s Homecoming WhatsApp drama.

Joining the family WhatsApp group

But how does the WhatsApp drama series work?

Fans join the drama´s WhatsApp family group.

“Once in, when the family group posts, fans are privy to the conversation that is going on within the Mobani family,” said Mahaka.

Unlike satellite television dramas, he adds, this WhatsApp drama is not time exclusive; it´s not time-bound, fans can catch up throughout the day as live interactive posts unfold. That the drama is delivered via the medium of WhatsApp is highly symbolic of how WhatsApp has occupied Zimbabwe family gaps created by emigration.

“It´s fitting that this drama is being delivered on WhatsApp, “says independent sociologist Cathrine Simango, who is a history teacher in Mutare City, Zimbabwe, and one of the early fans of the drama.

“Where long-distance landline telephones used to deliver messages between a Zimbabwe father in Australia and his family left behind in Harare, WhatsApp has grabbed the space. Where a Zimbabwe father in the diaspora would give consent by international mail to have his daughter married off in Zimbabwe, instructions can be couriered by WhatsApp real-time video today.”

Everybody is on Whatsapp in Zimbabwe, agrees Mahaka. WhatsApp, via mobile cellphone bundles that cost $0, 50 per week, is practically the internet in Zimbabwe. Broadband home Wi-Fi, whose packages start at $30 for 20 gigabytes a month, is still out of the reach of millions due to the high cost of Wi-Fi routers as well. It is little surprise therefore that 44% of all mobile internet usage in Zimbabwe is for WhatsApp activities.

“WhatsApp is cheap. The data cost of using Whatsapp is negligible compared to Youtube or Netflix,” said Mahaka.

Who is Ben Mahaka?

Ben Mahaka, a multiple-award winner, is one of Zimbabwe´s noted filmmakers, director, and actor. Mahaka shot to fame as a lead cast member in Studio 263, the most popular Zimbabwe prime time television show that ran from 2001 to 2006 and went on to be syndicated in neighbor countries of Zambia, Tanzania, and South Africa.

In the 1990s, Mahaka had already made his mark in Yellow Card, a hit Zimbabwean movie that was translated into several African languages and watched by millions all over the continent.

“I´ve been working in the film industry since 1996; starting as a writer. I wrote “Gaza”, Zimbabwe´s first-ever Ndau indigenous language drama series.”

📷 Ben Mahaka.

WhatsApp films are a niche

With Jabu´s Homecoming, Mahaka is improvising with social media technology in the hope of capturing international investment into Zimbabwe´s film industry on terms that are favorable to local needs.

“We want to get Zimbabwean productions that have the sort of funding that a lot of other low budgets international films get because for us those low budgets are high budgets,” said Mahaka.

In the 90s before the internet era, Zimbabwe used to be one of the African film production powerhouses. Its movies like Neria, and Yellow Card won global acclaim. However, from 2002, steep inflation, economic distress, and emigration of film professionals, and drying state support into productions threw actors into poverty, and quality productions stopped.

“The (Zimbabwe film) industry's journey from the 1980s until now is very much like Zimbabwe's own journey as a nation. It was very promising at the beginning,” veteran Zimbabwe actress Jesesi Mungoshi remarked to the BBC last year.

The advent of the mobile internet age in Zimbabwe and its swift adoption has accelerated hopes that a new golden, digital age of Zimbabwe film making is on the way. Producers are experimenting with Youtube film series and garnering millions of viewers with Youtube millennial dramas like Wadiwa Wepamoyo. Netflix has been paying attention, and onboarding its first Zimbabwe feature film Cook-Off, an $8,000 production, in 2020.

Mahaka thinks with a foray into WhatsApp film-making, Zimbabwe is whetting up the appetite of giants like Netflix or Dstv to come and invest in the local industry at terms that are win-win for all.

“I think this WhatsApp drama series is a niche we believe will open up, we are happy to be trailblazers.”

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