“Blood and Water” : Who’s Telling the Young African Stories? – Ini Abasi Jeffrey

Late last month, the trailer for Blood and Water was released on Twitter and there was so much excitement regarding an original African series coming to Netflix. Finally, we could consume content created for us and by us, but like all things African, Blood and Water is not everyone’s story. It is a South African teen mystery/drama series that follows the life of Puleng Khumalo – played by Ama Qamata – an intelligent, inquisitive 16-year-old girl who is on a quest to find her long lost sister who was kidnapped at birth.

The allure of this series is that it was created by Africans on a huge platform like Netflix, however, to stand out, it has to bring more than just that uniqueness, and it struggles to do that throughout the first season. The conflicts present amongst friends and family in the show are not new but the series seems to avoid dealing with them head-on, and so goes about skimming over them with convenient plot devices.

 The pilot introduces us to Puleng and her family, who celebrate their missing member’s birthday every year, however, Puleng is fed up with the ritual hoping the family will move on. One subtle hint you might notice is the loving relationship she has with her brother, Siya, played by Odwa Gwanya, this is a reoccurring theme in the series and one of her motivations to find her lost sister.

In the episode, Puleng reluctantly goes for a party with her wild friend Zama Bolton (Cindy Mahlangu) where she meets the beautiful and popular Fikile ‘Fiks’ Bhele, played by Khosi Ngema, who Wade (Dillon Windvogel) – her sidekick and love interest later on – says looks like her and also shares the same birthday as her lost sister, raising suspicions and setting the grand question that drives the series: Is Fikile, Puleng’s lost sister?

When Puleng transfers to Parkhurst College – an elite private school, we are introduced to other characters like the politically active and dogmatic Wendy Dlamini – played by Natasha Thahane – who hates Puleng for her perceived privilege and whose meddling constantly puts Puleng in tight corners; Thabang Molaba as Karabo ‘KB’ Molapo, the bad boy of the series who later falls in love with Puleng, bringing a peculiar complication to her search for her sister. These characters are not all that engaging, not because of their acting – even though some line deliveries are clunky, but more because of the writing which just serves to propel the story forward, never lingering to explore emotional moments.

The series tries to be edgy with profanity, drug and alcohol use, as well as sex scenes that all sit weirdly in the episodes leaving them feeling forced and boring, but there are some heavier themes – human trafficking, drug dealing, mental health, sexuality – that if explored more ,would have made for a darker and more gritty series. Despite all its shortcomings, Blood and Water gives us beautiful shots of South Africa – including a cameo from South African rapper Nasty C – and shows a luxury that is sometimes absent from the African narrative the world is used to.

The reception to the series has been stellar though, with a lot of my friends excited to finally see a young adult series where majority of the cast look like them. I asked some of them what they thought about Blood and Water and Praise, my friend since high school, said:  “Netflix SA needs to fix their hair and make up department but the plot is quite brilliant, even though, sometimes, the characters fluctuate.” 

Kegbu, another friend I met in university, said: “I feel like the acting was pretty decent but Fikile was too gentle”

Alpha, another friend who, I think has binged the whole Netflix catalogue, said: “I think what attracted me to it is the fact that it’s African, it evoked many emotions from me when the acting was good but Fikile really needs to change her wig.”

Blood and Water is a welcome addition to the Netflix catalogue and a hit within the Nigerian young adult audience. As an inevitable second season is greenlit, we’re left with two questions: is Fikile Puleng’s lost sister? And who is going to tell the other young African stories?

Ini-Abasi Jeffrey is currently a medical student hoping to write film scripts in the future.

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