Big Brother Africa (the highest-rated television show on the continent) ended its run last week after a particularly popular eighth season. This African version of the internationally transplanted Big Brother reality game show features young Africans from across the continent in bawdy, often sexual scenarios. The castmates’ exploits from season to season have launched continental scandals that have left viewers transfixed.
Over the past few seasons, as the raunch has increased and pushed the limits of what’s acceptable on the traditionally conservative continent, several cast members have faced persecution, death threats and even lawsuits in their respective countries. And since shows like Big Brother Africa are imports, many Africans place the blame for the results on this cultural imperialism on the West.
“It’s not America; this is natural human behavior that you’re seeing,” says Fred Arthur, a Ghanaian viewer of the show. “People like to blame America for certain behaviors, but people are people. When you put a bunch of young people together, things happen.”
American cultural hegemony in sub-Saharan Africa was established long ago, largely with the help of Hollywood and hip-hop culture. The influence is clear, and it’s not limited to the small screen. Clumsy sex scenes that are anything but sexy are fast becoming a staple in Nollywood movies, where only a decade ago, kisses were a rarity.
Indeed, mass media has helped galvanize globalization, and there are those who believe that African cultural autonomy, or self-determination, is undermined by Western media dominance and influence. And with the rise of copycat reality shows, it’s clear that African national identities and cultural norms in this age of globalism are in danger of being diluted.
But the cultural damage from the influx of Western media might be just a bit exaggerated. Yes, watching Kim Kardashian and the stable of other infamous celebrities who’ve cashed in on self-exploitative ventures to capture fame and wealth has influenced the behavior of African reality stars, and the exposure to examples of that behavior from people who look and sound like them has impacted the average African (for better or worse). Still, the African entertainment industry itself is in such a maturation phase that the hybrids being created are testing the bounds of what’s acceptable in African culture and society.
So while Kim Kardashian’s sex tape catapulted her (and her family) into the kind of wealth that sustains generations, Big Brother Africa contestant Betty Abera is facing serious trouble in her native Ethiopia. She eventually apologized to all Ethiopians for “engaging in sex acts” on the show. To be sure, the castmates also find themselves in new echelons of society with new opportunities and riches when they return home; it ain’t the same.
Social media has turned the old idea of media penetration and saturation on its head. Instead, Africans are now uniquely positioned to represent themselves. With the emergence of a new African middle has come the ability to spread one’s own culture in ways that haven’t been seen before.
Nigeria’s own Nollywood has turned into an international media giant, extending its influence across the Atlantic into Caribbean countries. And with that reach comes a newfound power. Countries outside of the West have the ability to spread elements of their culture to other parts of the world, have their own voice, and the capacity to shape the image of their countries and their people.
Of course, it’s left to the countries themselves to pick and choose the models they will follow.
Beyond that, as is wont to happen, a chasm is emerging that separates what is becoming mainstream, popular African culture from the more nuanced reflective experience portrayed by underground ventures.
So whereas it’s easy to say that the influence of American culture on African society is bad, it might be more accurate to say that the flow in is bad, but the flow out has the potential to be phenomenal. African people have a unique opportunity: to shape their own image, to shape the world’s perception.
Contemporary media technologies such as satellite television and the Internet have created a steady flow of transnational images that connect audiences worldwide. And while right now that means shows like Big Brother Africa aren’t the most accurate portrayal of the typical African, they do show a kind of African that is far from what Westerners understand Africans to be. This is good. And it will likely get better.
Ultimately, it’s left to non-Western countries to establish the image they’d like to project and accept what they will of global culture and reject the excess. Africans have the opportunity to develop, enrich and preserve their own cultural values and ensure that they are conspicuously represented in the emerging global culture.
Bolanle Omisore is a freelance journalist who covers business, energy and environment news from the African continent. Follow her on Twitter @venerableladyB.