The quarreling sounds oddly familiar. Assigned to learn one another's national anthems, the dozen Big Brother Africa contestants cannot even agree on who should sing first. After an initial blowup, Bayo, an argumentative economist from Nigeria, says he has been insulted by Kenyan psychology student Alex and slinks off to mope, complaining that "nobody listens to me." "Don't behave in this way," advises Stefan, a forensic psychologist from Namibia, "because the entire house will suffer."
The contestants on the African reality-television program may be divided, but their antics have united viewers across the continent — and in the process created an unlikely cultural force. Since the launch of the program three weeks ago, millions of viewers have tuned in every evening, making Big Brother one of the most popular television programs ever produced in Africa. Three decades after the concept of Pan-Africanism fizzled out, satellite television is working where liberation philosophy did not: connecting and modernizing the world's poorest continent. "There is an integrating aspect to television," says David Mafabi, director of political affairs at the moribund Uganda-based Secretariat of the Pan-African Movement. "Shows like this may be superficial, but they show Africans coming together in a way that's often ahead of governments."
For now, that kind of integration is available only to wealthy — and, in the case of Big Brother, English-speaking — Africans. Although millions of Africans watch television in communal settings, fewer than 4% actually own sets. But led by South Africa-based satellite television company M-Net, which co-produces Big Brother and broadcasts to more than 40 African countries, the number of Africans with satellite TV is growing by around 10% a year. Currently, M-Net has more than 1.3 million subscribers, 80% of whom live in South Africa. Those lucky few, and those who gather in bars and clubs to catch the latest broadcasts, are discovering a shared love of soap operas, soccer and especially African versions of reality-television shows such as Big Brother and Idols. "For the first time they're getting just African images, African people, African heroes, African music," says Carl Fischer, head of local production at M-Net. "It makes business sense: African content attracts subscribers."
Big Brother Africa is actually the third iteration of the program; the first two featured South African contestants only and the winners were both white men. But the shows were so popular in the rest of Africa — fan clubs sprang up from Nairobi to Lagos — that the third series draws contestants from a dozen African countries. Because of massive population differences among countries, a one-viewer, one-vote policy for the show, which will run 106 days and offers $100,000 to the winner, was considered unfair. Instead, each country gets just one vote to evict a contestant; the majority of viewers in each country is taken as the vote for that country. Viewers in countries without a contestant combine to become a 13th vote. The multinational approach has created headaches for the show's producers. Last week viewers in more conservative countries such as Malawi complained about a shot of contestants' bare bottoms. At the same time, says Marie Rosholt, the program's executive producer in South Africa, "it's serving to break down misconceptions. There's a perception in the rest of Africa that Nigerians are less than honest, that South Africans are arrogant. I think our show challenges those views."
Critics say the contestants are all well-educated, middle-class hip-hop lovers who reinforce Western ideas of how modern Africans should behave. "They're getting people [as contestants] who watch the show already, not someone from a shack in Kampala," says Doug Mitchell, a lecturer in television at South Africa's Rhodes University. But Lorraine Onyango, 19, an information-technology student in Kenya, disagrees. "It's better with everyone from a different background," she says, chatting with friends in a Nairobi hotel. "They're learning about each other, and that's interesting." Even if, in the end, all they collectively learn is that a household of African twentysomethings can be as self-obsessed, vacuous and obnoxious as reality-television contestants in other parts of the world.