Big Brother, the Dutch reality series that has been exported in localized versions around the world, also has an Africa version which throws together house guests from Angola, Botswana, Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, Nigeria, South Africa, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe. Big Brother Africa follows the same formula as all the other versions, including edited daily television broadcasts and a lavish web site with live video streaming.
As is the case with Big Brother editions elsewhere in the world, the titillation of sexual voyeurism is a key part of the attraction to Big Brother Africa, and fans got their fill recently when Meryl, a 24-year-old woman from Namibia, and Sheila, a 25-year-old Kenyan, were seen on the live feed sharing a bed under the covers when a housemate, 29-year-old Tanzanian Mwisho, walked in.
Mwisho seemed to have handled the situation delicately, but what I thought was interesting was this report of the scene in Malawi’s Nyasa Times. Malawi, you may recall, entered the world’s consciousness over the arrest, conviction, and pardon of Tiwonge Chimbalanga and Steven Mongeza for having participated in a traditional same-sex engagement ceremony. Some of the reactions noted by Nyasa Times include:
“I am shocked. But these things are happening everywhere – maybe these are signs of the end of times,” said Winnie Makumbe-Machekano from Malawi.
Expressing her disappointment on her Facebook page, Kathay Katengeza another Malawi viewer wrote: “Lets hope Meryl gets nominated next week, I’ll b the first one to vote against her…akakhala [when it comes to] Sheila atuluka [she is getting evicted] Sunday.”
Another viewer known as ChrissieBee wrote: “Africa! Oh Africa! Where art thou cultures and believes? If it were the US or anywhere else, I wouldn’t have a problem with it! This is Africa for God’s sake!”
“Oh, and Sheila, you are a hypocrite. What happened to “I can’t f*** in this house” “I can’t do anything like that in this house?”
Fidelyn commented: “They do it on TV; they don’t do it on TV, what’s the difference? Either ways it doesn’t change the fact that these things happen in real life. Sheila is just being real….she said she’s bi. Whilst Meryl never mentioned she even does women.”
You can find more reactions on BBA’s forum here. BBA’s facebook page is here. Much of Africa is deeply conservative and discussions or depictions of homosexuality are extremely rare. But with this rather innocuous display (innocuous in our eyes at least), another debate opens where it had not previously taken place. As is the case with North America many decades ago when LGBT people were first beginning to become noticed, the reaction is harsh and outrageous. But that harshness and outrage isn’t universal, and it is in those differences that the stage for debate is set.
BBA demonstrates in microcosm a new phenomenon that has become ubiquitous, but it’s one that we’ve barely noticed. The constant presence of cameras, television, the Internet, and mobile phones has drawn our world ever more tightly together. Whether it’s Twitter in Iran, SMS messages in Mogadishu, or video cameras attached to mobile phones in Kampala, we know today in an instant what is happening in places that would have gone completely unnoticed just ten years ago.
Without the Internet, I certainly would not have learned that a three-day anti-gay conference was about to take place in Kampala in 2009. And without email, or mobile phones with video cameras, we wouldn’t have been able learn about the Anti-Homosexuality Bill that was introduced in Uganda’s Parliament and the public debates and demonstrations that took place afterwords. The world is shrinking, and ideas are being exchanged as a result. Nothing happens in a vacuum anymore. Through the process, everything we previously knew about personal privacy has been completely obliterated. But if there is an upside to that, it is this: evil cannot be hidden so easily, and the powerful can no longer hide people like Meryl and Sheila and pretend that homosexuality doesn’t exist. Modern communications won’t make tyranny impossible; it is just another tool that can be used to suppress as well as liberate. But it does mean that oppression can no longer be hidden. The individual now has the power to strip tyranny naked, and we will know this when the next genocide is live-blogged and YouTubed. Such is the age we live in, and the power that virtual communications has in transforming the world. The entire world.