Africa's 'Big Brother' show unites continent

Friday, July 11, 2003

Search for unity

Africans debate if 'Big Brother' TV show can break stereotypes

By Mehul Srivastava ~ The Associated Press

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- A Nigerian and an Angolan stand at a kitchen table arguing over who deserves more eggs. In the next room, a South African and a Namibian coyly flirt on the couch. Outside on the basketball court, a Zimbabwean stands alone and sulks.

As the inhabitants of the "Big Brother Africa" house live out their daily soap opera, people across Africa are debating whether a reality TV show about 12 petulant housemates in a Johannesburg suburb can bring a sense of unity to a fragmented, impoverished continent.

This week, while President Bush tours five African countries focusing his attention on AIDS, civil wars and the legacy of slavery, fans of "Big Brother Africa" are watching a people do what Big Brother contestants do wherever in the world the hit show has been produced: flirt, quarrel, cook, shower, get bored, go to sleep.

"This show is a safe route to see what other Africans look like," says Lizeka Mda, an editor at South Africa's Sunday Times. "Everybody has stereotypes, and here thanks to this show, all the preconceptions have been shot."

The "Big Brother" format pioneered by Endemol, a Dutch company, locks often disparate people in houses rigged with television cameras.

But the Endemol South Africa version is the first to throw together people from 12 countries across a whole continent.

"It's entertaining and it's informative," said Jennifer Ngotho, a 20-year-old Kenyan. "You get to learn about other cultures."

For Africans, the show has been revolutionary, allowing them to get to know their neighbors for the first time. As millions struggle just to survive, travel abroad is a luxury to all but a few of the most wealthy Africans.

For the estimated 30 million viewers of the English-language show, it's a first opportunity to watch a Zimbabwean play basketball, a Nigerian cook a meal, or a beautiful Angolan woman take a shower.

"It's refreshing to see Africans who are not starving, or dying or in a civil war," said Carl Fischer, a producer of the show. "With so few African images on TV, essentially we are providing the opportunity to observe social interactions between people most Africans normally don't get to meet."

Viewers have reacted eagerly, sending thousands of messages a day such as "Go Africa, this is how we are," and "Show the world, Africa."

The target audience, like the housemates themselves, is the urban elite. The show is beamed 24 hours a day to over 30 African countries, but it's only available to those rich enough to afford satellite dishes. Those who own a TV set can at least get a daily half-hour recap.

Viewers get to phone in their votes in the popularity contest that will decide which housemate wins the $100,000 reward at the end of the 106-day show. By Thursday, two had been voted out.

Since "Big Brother Africa" was launched in May, cliques have formed. The Namibian and the Tanzanian walk around shirtless during the day, occasionally flexing their biceps. The unpredictable Zimbabwean is shunned by the other women and tries to move into the men's dormitory. The flirtatious South African has hooked up with a Ugandan.

Africans have elaborate webs of stereotypes about their neighbors: Nigerians are corrupt and loud, South Africans violent, Mozambicans poor.

"Big Brother Africa" has taught many to think differently, Mda said.

Watching Bayo, the gentle Nigerian housemate, wake up early every day to clean the house has shattered her belief Nigerians were lazy, Mda said.

"It's an education," she said. "It's Africans talking to each other, without the politics. It's just us."

In the house, much time is spent on romances and squabbles, and there's little sign the housemates will rise above the ordinary.

"I wish the housemates would talk about real issues," says Hleziwe Hara, a Malawian living in Kenya. "Given that 'Big Brother Africa' is being watched by people all over Africa, they shouldn't be arguing over eggs."

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