Here's a classic scene from a telenovela.
It's the funeral of a very rich man whose heirs are battling over his fortune. An indignant woman says to a female guest: "You are disrupting the service. Who else would you be saving this seat for other than Richard Juma's second wife?"
Death, family feuds, mayhem over money — they're part of the plot in one of Kenya's most successful telenovelas, Lies That Bind (see sample in video below).
But many of the telenovelas on East African airwaves aren't locally produced. They're imported from Latin America and dubbed into local languages. And they're booming. Most cable companies have at least one telenovela channel. Billboards promote them. You can see them on TV sets in restaurants and government offices.
One reason for the popularity of the Latin American telenovelas is Africa's economic divide, says Pascal Koroso of Dubbing Africa, whose company started a few years ago with a staff of two dubbing soap operas and now has 250 workers who are busy 24 hours a day.
Some Africans are making a ton of money right now, but the vast majority are still poor — and telenovelas are aspirational, Koroso explains.
"Everybody aspires to be rich," he says. "Everybody aspires to move into the middle class. So these sorts of stories resonate in terms of people seeing [a lifestyle] that is possible for them."
"The themes are things that Africans identify with a lot," he says. "You know, the corrupt politician who rigged an election, your marriage is having a rough time."
"These [programs] resonate in countries that have undergone upheaval," says Carolina Acosta-Alzuru, a communications professor who studies telenovelas at the University of Georgia. The storytelling is all about struggles and suffering, she says. And that's not just something that happens in Latin America.
Acosta-Alzuru has found that the export of telenovelas works in a cycle. First they're dubbed in a local language. As countries start coming to terms with their own struggles, they produce their own.
Dorothy Ghettuba, who produced Lies that Bind, has been watching Mexican soaps since she was a kid. At her boarding school, the girls would fill a TV room to watch the Mexican telenovela Rosa Salvaje — Spanish for 'Wild Rose." One time there were so many of them sitting against a wall, that the wall tumbled.
"One girl had her leg broken," Ghettuba says. "She went to the hospital saying, 'Damn, I'm missing the soap series.' "
As a storyteller now, she realizes Wild Rose struck a chord with Kenyan viewers because of the interplay between rural and urban cultures.
"A girl comes from the village and she gets a job as a nanny or housemaid in a big mansion ... She's pretty, and the father of the house sees her," she says.
Bottom line, she says, is that the Latin American telenovelas work in Africa because they feel authentic.
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