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In Africa, Big Brother watches us all

Unless you’ve been in serious hibernation for the past three months, you will be aware of a phenomenon called Big Brother Africa. In case you’ve just woken up, however, here’s what you need to know: twelve contestants, each from a different African country, are holed up in a specially adapted house in South Africa. They are under complete ’24/7′ television camera surveillance. The camera follows, literally, their every move. Every 2 weeks or so, they nominate fellow contestants they want evicted from the house. The African public then votes to eject an unfortunate housemate back into the real world. Two have already suffered this indignity. Ultimately, the sole remaining housemate will pocket US$ 100,000 at the end of the contest. The rest will get nothing.

Big Brother is also big business. An estimated 30 million viewers are supposed to be watching the programme across Africa. Millions of fans hit the programme’s website, and send SMS messages which then scroll across a strap-line on the screen. Big Brother Africa even pulled off a rare TV ‘first’ recently: a swap was done with the Big Brother UK house (the UK programme happens to be running simultaneously); one contestant from either house was put on a plane and flown across the seas overnight to spend a few days in the other country’s house. This caught the world’s attention: Big Brother Africa is big news. Both CNN and the BBC have done special reports on it. Even The Economist carried an article on it recently. It is being touted everywhere as a pan-African success story, a rare ‘feel-good’ achievement in a continent known only for war, drought and pestilence.

The makers of Big Brother Africa selected the housemates very carefully. Rigorous screening and testing was done in each of the 12 African countries. Looking at the results, it seems quite obvious what the producers were looking for: young, confident, hip, urbanised, relatively affluent Africans with a modern outlook. The seven men and five women selected certainly display these characteristics. The ‘fun’ for the audience is to watch how these youngsters interact: their friendships, enmities, alliances, love affairs and gossiping are on continuous display. Reality TV, at its most powerful.

If these housemates are a microcosm of the ‘new’ Africa, what are we to make of it? For a start, there’s certainly no shortage of confidence. These new Africans are ebullient, enthusiastic and entertaining. They seem worldly-wise and cosmopolitan in outlook. Indeed, it is universally accepted that the African version of Big Brother is far livelier and more sparkling than the UK one; the latter is notably insipid and the participants almost irredeemably dull. The Africans are spending their time in the house with great gusto, and Africa is putting on a highly entertaining show for the world.

Another notable plus: all the women in the house are strong, confident characters. They are competing on a par with the men. They do not play second fiddle to anyone. If this is the face of the new African woman, then perhaps our notoriously patriarchal society is fast coming to an end.

Now, then: you didn’t really think this article was about extolling the virtues of a TV programme, did you? I hope not, because the good news ends there. The housemates are also promiscuous, profane and obnoxious. They seem to have no problem in conducting multiple love affairs, nor in consummating them on camera. They are deceitful and duplicitous, often found stealing food and drink from the house pool and hiding it for themselves. Getting drunk is usually the highlight of their week. Their preferred reading material is pulp western fiction. Their long, tedious conversations contain not a hint of intellectual depth, nor of any spiritual or religious yearning. They are utterly self-absorbed and full of their own self-importance. Their hormones are in full control of their bodies. And recently, they decided to engage in near nudity in order to ‘raise awareness’ about world hunger. Ye Gods!

Much is being made of the fact that these young Africans have a new commonality, that the national traits that once divided Africa are fading away. This is true, but there is nothing to rejoice about. The thing that is uniting young urbanised Africans is not a new pan-Africanism; it is an unashamed adoption of the behaviour patterns and habits of western youth. These people could be placed in any western city with little problem. Sadly, it is all the negative traits they revel in: intoxication, materialism and sexuality. These are their new gods, and they worship them with great passion.

If this is the face of our future leaders, then we have a great deal to worry about. If brainless hedonism is to be the credo of the new generation, then we will soon join the rest of the world in becoming worshippers of empty brand names and treating life as an endless orgy where the goal is to ‘have a good time’. We will become part of the global assembly line producing wonderful, transient consumer ‘experiences’. Our dream of coming up with our own ideas and our own solutions will remain just that. Real life will pass us by; higher values will remain out of our reach. But hey, that’s OK: at least we’ll be hip and trendy!

Perhaps we can take heart that this group of urban youngsters has little to do with the reality of Africa. Most young Africans are a very different breed: they live far from any city; many have never received a telephone call, let alone worked on a computer; their lives still revolve around crops and livestock; they have certainly never watched Big Brother. These ‘true’ Africans may not be chic, and can even be termed ‘backward’, but they certainly still hold many values we would be foolish to discard: a quiet modesty; a charming openness; a respect for age and experience; a solid spiritual base; and a belief in common decency. But the sad evidence of Big Brother is that these are precisely the things we stand to lose as we march on towards material advancement.

Finally, there is another sense in which Big Brother is disquieting to Africans. Have we in Africa not always had a Big Brother? An unseen force that sets out the rules that govern our existence? A voice we hear always telling us what to do? An entity that sets us meaningless targets and tasks? That gives us short-lived, trivial rewards for our achievements, and sends us to the ‘sin bin’ when we break the rules? A body that rewards a selected few in great measure, but keeps the majority in abject poverty? And a power that makes the real money, while keeping us intoxicated and revelling in our silliness?

We in Africa are not masters of our own destiny, and have not been since we were colonised. Today, the colonisation of our minds continues apace. We accept, without question, that material advancement, western brands, and ‘modern’ values are all good for us. We mimic our teachers and ape their lifestyles. Someday, we must all break out of the house that Big Brother built for us, and start making our own rules.

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