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BigBrother Africa in Sex Shocker

By Reuters
By Reuters

6/30/2003 -

JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - Think African reality television and what comes to mind: Ethnic warfare? Starving refugees? Drought, famine or disaster?

Well, pull up a couch and check out the hot-tub on "Big Brother Africa," as contestants from 12 African countries cavort for the cameras.

Forget chaos and conflict. So far it's been mostly booze and bikinis in the first all-African reality television show beamed across the continent.

It's the latest and most ambitious of the worldwide "Big Brother" series, which takes groups of "normal" people, locks them in a house for months and films the resulting drama for the enjoyment of TV viewers.

"Big Brother Africa" has already dished up its share of teasing, talking and titillation -- the "shower hour" shots of contestants soaping up have been particularly popular.

And, over the weekend, viewers got an unexpected eyeful when two participants apparently had sex, an unprecedented shocker for a continent where conservative moral values hold sway.

But producers have higher hopes for this particular reality show, calling it a ground-breaking chance for Africans to get a look at each other as people, independent of the doom-filled stories from their region which dominate the world media.

"It certainly is a world first in terms of Big Brother," said Carl Fisher, director of local production for South Africa's M-Net pay TV channel, which is producing the show in conjunction with the Dutch TV production firm Endemol.

"'Big Brother', in a very small way, provides a different image about Africans. We are educated, we can engage with one another. We don't always have wars."

MILLIONS TUNE IN

"Big Brother Africa's" footprint is certainly growing. Fisher said the show -- which follows two series featuring only South African participants -- was reaching between 20 and 25 million people across the continent, with daily "round-up" shows carried by some 10 national networks.

Real fans have the option of 24-hour-a-day "Big Brother" coverage through DSTV, a pan-African pay satellite television service. While official TV ratings are hard to find in most African countries, DSTV says the Big Brother channel is now its second most popular offering after CNN.

Drawing young, attractive "housemates" from South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, Angola, Uganda, Tanzania, Ghana, Nigeria, Malawi and Kenya, Zimbabwe and Zambia, the show began on May 25 and is slated to run for a marathon 106 days.

Through a series of popular votes, the housemates will gradually be ejected from the house, leaving the final contestant to pocket a cash prize of $100,000.

Debate over the show has thus far focused on "what is African" with viewers raising questions about how fully the housemates represent their respective countries.

Namibia's representative -- a 22-year-old white man named Stefan Ludik -- has sparked particular discussion, with some commentators attributing his popularity to the possibility that white South Africans are backing him in racial solidarity.

But viewers have also noted that several other contestants appear to be of mixed race.

"I had a rude shaking-up of my preconceptions of what Africans today look like," wrote South African newspaper columnist Lizeka Mda.

"Of the 12, only six would have fitted the "Bantu" (black) label of the bad old apartheid days."

AUTHENTIC AFRICANS, WORLD CULTURE

Nigerian-born academic Kole Omotoso, the show's cultural advisor, said each of the housemates was carefully vetted for authenticity -- although by default all appear to represent their country's educated elite.

"We started off with the general understanding that everybody in the house has what we could call a veneer of world culture, in terms of MTV, jeans, Madonna, and the English language," Omotoso said.

The result -- to the casual viewer -- makes Africa appear a lot less exotic than some non-Africans might have expected.

The housemates squabble, flirt and relax in a plush Johannesburg house equipped with hot tub, basketball hoop and all the mod cons one might find in a middle-class house in London or Washington.

Recorded non-stop by 27 video cameras, the participants thus far appear pretty cozy -- instead of raging cross-cultural conflict, the contestants have engaged in marathon drinking parties and undercover make-out sessions.

"I have been amazed at the ease with which they seem to fit into each other's space," Omotoso said. Particularly comfortable together are South Africa's Abergail Plaatjes, a vivacious 25-year-old fraud consultant, and Ugandan Gaetano Kagwa, a 30-year-old student, who got together in an intimate liaison which raised more than a few eyebrows.

"Ugandan viewers have voiced mixed reactions to the event. One viewer in Kampala was not impressed, saying, 'Only dogs should have sex in the open.' However, other fans have posted congratulatory messages on the Big Brother Web Site," Uganda's Sunday Vision newspaper said on June 22.

Gaetano has had a chance to wow audiences outside Africa, taking part in a one-week swap with a housemate from the current Big Brother series in Britain.

Dubbed "the cheeky charmer from Uganda" by one British tabloid, Gaetano quickly got things rolling by kissing one female British contestant and reducing another to tears by comparing her to a pig.

Gaetano's notoriety jumped up a notch over the weekend when the cameras apparently captured him and Plaatjes taking their relationship to a new level.

"They have made the blankets bounce" proclaimed Johannesburg's City Press newspaper, reporting on the "steamy sex" scene that took place.

""There were rhythmic human movements under the sheets. It went for a few minutes, until a few minutes later when Abby's high-pitched scream and parrot-like laugh pierced the night."

PRUDE GETS THE BOOT

Angola's Bruna Estevao, who was the first person evicted from the house, said she felt she was punished by viewers who did not like the fact she was more conservative than some of the other housemates.

"I don't drink, I don't smoke, I didn't shower naked....I believe that's one of the reasons I'm out of the house," she told Reuters.

Viewer reactions are proving to be an integral part of "Big Brother Africa's" appeal. Cell phone text messages sent in by fans stream across the screen in their thousands during the show, trading jokes about the housemates or rallying people to vote for their favorites.

"Big Brother Africa" executive producer Marie Roshold said the positive response to the show demonstrated that Africans were hungry for new images of their continent and its people.

"'Big Brother Africa' has proved to be a huge success in that the people we have chosen are breaking down stereotypes. They are creating dialogue across Africa," Roshold said.

But show officials cautioned that not too much should be read into the Big Brother high jinks, saying the 12 housemates were chosen because they were fun to watch, not because they were ambassadors for their homelands.

"At the end of the day this is an entertainment show," Fisher said. "This isn't a social or political treatise about Africa." (additional reporting by Wambui Chege)