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Our Kenyan news are soap operas


While the expatriate is not deliberately snooty, he is unconsciously snobbish due to his delicate upbringing in the gentle England, where he spent most of his youth smelling flowers and reading poetry. He rarely watched television, and rarely does now, except for the occasional wildlife documentary featuring lions eating wildebeest.

Certainly, he never watched nor watches soap operas, those overly-dramatic ‘personal-interest’ shows that claim to portray the real lives of real people. To an extent this is because his parents always believed soap operas to be ‘low entertainment’; it’s also, however, because the upper-middle-class English tend not to pry into the lives of others, and so feel they’re being prurient even when they watch the trials and tribulations of fictional people. True, soap operas get huge viewing figures in Britain, but this tends to be from a predominantly working-class television viewer of the sort the establishment likes to pacify by feeding it rubbish.

However, the expatriate in Kenya will soon find that he’s obliged to watch some soap opera or other. After all, he has a maid, and she will watch all manner of Nigerian films and Indian soaps; also, perhaps he has a Kenyan mother-in-law who spends her evenings watching South American soap operas. Or perhaps he’ll stumble upon one of these recently-introduced Chinese soap operas. Whichever, he should be prepared.

Recently, Europe introduced a quota system, insisting that the streaming company Netflix provides a certain percentage of European content for European customers. Kenya has such fine rules, too, but there’s no denying that most soaps viewed in Kenya are imported.

The problem with imported soap operas, the expatriate will find, is that in order to be comprehended across borders, they need to be emptied of almost all specific cultural references. Consequently, although the background language will always sound different behind the English-language dubbing, the fundamental characters and storylines are invariably much the same.

Whether Chinese, Indian, Mexican or whatever, the following are standard: there is a handsome man, who is usually rich; his rich house is decorated with kitsch furniture; he is in love with a beautiful young woman; however, he has a cruel mother who treats the young woman unkindly.

There is also a wicked businessman who always tries to undermine the ‘good’ rich hero. Often, sisters or brothers are wicked, too. Frequently, people are slapped; often, they cry; always, they seem to pause, frozen, with different types of very serious facial expressions, for inordinately long periods of time, for no apparent reason, expecting that this must make production costs cheaper. Most Indian soaps that the expatriate might encounter in Kenya seem to be one third action, and two thirds of these inexplicable close-up stills of faces.

The expatriate will sit, bemused, as his Kenyan host laughs out loud or covers her face in fear during these programmes. When the programme ends, the expatriate will change the channel to watch that other soap opera, the Kenyan news hour from 9-10pm. He will likewise laugh and cry.

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