- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 6, 2000

NAIROBI, Kenya

On the edge of the sprawling Mathare slum, inside a tin shack located where two bustling dirt roads intersect, an impromptu debate unfolds inside Ann's Beauty Salon.

The topic: a culture 7,000 miles away. The unlikely point of contention: Which is better "The Bold and the Beautiful," "Friends" or "Days of Our Lives?"

Most of the Kenyan women passing the evening here have come not to be coiffed but to watch Ann's television set, one of the neighborhood's few. As a Swahili commercial jabbers about Cadbury's hot chocolate, the women agree on just one point: All three American shows are immoral.

"A father takes a son's fiancee? And she goes along with it? In the African tradition, it's not acceptable it's immoral," says Patricia Kiilu, a 45-year-old teacher. The other women nod. "And it's hard to watch with your children. Africans wouldn't want to explore their feelings about sex like that."

Such conclusions are understandable; what they see on the little black-and-white screen might as well come from a different planet.

As in most of Africa, much of Kenyan TV reflects values imported from the United States, England or Australia strange worlds populated with evangelical preachers, professional wrestlers and denizens of long-demolished sound stages like "The Fresh Prince of Bel Air" or "Knots Landing."

And it's not like you can just channel surf. For many of the 27 million Kenyans living outside Nairobi, the capital, the only option is government-run KBC, which shows heavily biased news and imported television shows.

The most popular program in the country is "The Bold and the Beautiful," an American soap set on the California coast. Professional wrestling runs a close second.

Nairobi's 2 million residents have six channels to choose from twice as many as they had a year ago. The most popular is KTN, a private network that came on the air in 1991 and caters to expatriates and well-heeled Kenyans. During the day it runs mostly CNN, wrestling and music videos. At night its top shows are reruns of "Melrose Place," "La Femme Nikita" and wrestling.

The others broadcasting in the capital, besides KBC, are three private stations that show mostly Western-style programming, and Family TV, which shows almost exclusively foreign Christian evangelists and gospel singers.

In some areas on the east coast and in central Kenya, viewers can pick up one or two of the private channels.

People in Nairobi still recall how thrilled they were when KTN came on the air and began broadcasting the Australian soap "Neighbors." Traffic clogged every night as people rushed home to catch the 6 p.m. show.

In recent years, KBC has started to produce a few local shows in Kiswahili a couple of soap operas, a talk show and a game show modeled on "The Price is Right." But with early reruns of "Friends" and "Oprah" going for $150 to $200 an episode, it's difficult for station executives to shell out up to $4,000 to write, produce and market a show made in Kenya particularly when the final product resembles a high-school production, complete with cotton-ball beards and curtains that barely hide camera equipment.

Still, the popularity of locally made shows, despite poor production quality and predictable plot lines, is a testament to Kenyans' eagerness to see, on their TV screens, something that resembles real life.

The most popular local show is "Tausi," a soap with characters that Kenyan viewers can identify with: a prisoner who claims he was jailed for being poor, a mother struggling to keep her daughter from being alone with a boyfriend, criminals trying to evade a police officer by posing as religious old men.

Also popular is "Vioja Mahakamani" ("Questions in the Court"), a courtroom soap. Criminals and police are regulars, and the female judge is a familiar face to most Kenyans.

On the government-produced show, the cops come off as squeaky clean. In reality, Kenyan police are seen as far more likely to extort bribes than to rescue you.

"Sometimes you just watch for the laughter, not the truth," said Waithaka Waihenya, a former television and radio critic who is now assistant editor of the East African Standard daily newspaper.

Many themes seem familiar: the immediacy of young love, family tribulations, the drama of crime. But "Tausi" and "Vioja Mahakamani," like all locally made shows, not only reflect life's moral questions but make clear what they think the right answers are.

Frequently, the answers lie in religion. A discussion about custody of a child ends with everyone agreeing that all children ultimately belong to God; characters conclude that one man's house has been "captured by devils."

Another popular program is "Omo Pick-a-Box," a game show in which questions are tailored to individual contestants: A house cleaner gets easier questions, while a lawyer gets harder ones.

It's difficult to know who's watching what in Kenya. Until recently, no ratings system existed. In 1996, though, stations pooled their money and began asking handfuls of viewers to keep written diaries of what they watched.

As a result of the uncertainty, advertising income is undependable. Shows frequently air at different times or not at all if enough advertising revenue doesn't come in for a particular week. Stations disappear from the air mid-program if they don't have enough ads.

And most Kenyans don't even have television. Figures from 1998 show that 10 million people one third of the population have watched TV at least once in their lives, and 1.7 million households have television sets, up from 890,000 in 1997. But the average television set, which is black and white and costs about $60, is still out of reach for the average Kenyan, whose annual income is $280.

Does it really matter if the faces and stories Kenyans see on the screen don't reflect their own lives? Many think so. In fact, some Kenyans say they think it's so shameful to be absorbed in Western culture that they won't admit to watching "Friends" or "The Bold and the Beautiful." Some call it pornography or brainwashing. Even prominent TV critics say they don't like watching television.

"In terms of building a sense of dignity and belonging, they need to see themselves, enjoy themselves, laugh at themselves," said Kibisu Kabatesi, a former critic and producer for KBC.

As he spoke, he ran his finger down the TV schedule, touching listings for one foreign show after another.

"When you do this, what are you doing?" he said. "You're turning these people into these other people."

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