Tuesday, September 25, 2007


I have decided that television ruins and homogenizes cultures.
Let me explain.

I didn’t watch much television until later in college and into grad school. Having not had a TV in high school, or the time to watch it through most of college, I missed out on a lot of my generations’ “pop culture” references. In fact, I am still catching up. (For example, I have yet to see a James Bond or a Batman movie, and I can count the number of Saturday Night Live shows I’ve seen on one hand). So I wasn’t that concerned with not having access to TV during my service. Granted I’ve seen my fair share of movies when I’ve taken days off at the regional/transit house up North, but that was an unexpected luxury for sure. Because my family here does have a TV, I’ve actually been exposed to a fair amount. Most of it is entirely unwatchable. French, American, and Venezualan soap operas prevail, but the Senegalese shows are even worse (if that’s possible).

But I prefer the banality of RTS (the national station) to the effects of American television networks on Senegalese culture. What I mean is that on several occasions I have observed totally inappropriate programming and I’ve seen what cable does to “family togetherness.”

During PST my Thies family had basic Senegalese TV. They watched the news, various Senegalese music videos and of course the beloved Venezualen soap, Barbarita. When I came back for IST, they had expanded their channels and among others now have a 24 hour all-American music video station. As a result, our nighttime interactions were drastically different. Before, we would sit around together, eat dinner, maybe cook together, visit neighbors, look at magazines, chit-chat, braid hair etc. But with the new MTVesque programming I absolutely could not ever talk to them without hearing and seeing Sean Paul, Britney Spears, Kelly Clarkson, Usher, and Snoop Dogg videos in the background. Most of which are wholly inappropriate for such a conservative culture.

I understand that to some extent it might be beneficial for Senegalese to be exposed to other cultures, expand their horizons, etc. But I doubt that exposing them to half naked, subservient women in rap videos is going to do very much for the blatant gender inequality in this country. If I were my host father, I probably would have locked up and immediately married off my daughters after seeing some of those videos. After being here for just a few months some of those videos actually made me blush and squirm in my seat. They were so inappropriate and suggestive. Because of the television my family spent less time interacting with me, and there was little incentive for me to come home from training right away. Thus during IST, I spent much more time out with other volunteers socializing.

Now I’m not saying that television should be censored. I’m just sharing my observations about how awkward I felt and how disappointed I was at the reduced “family” time.

Up at site I’ve also had some moments where I wanted to run to the TV and rip the cord from the wall. Desperate Housewives plays on Saturday nights on RTS (24 hours, LOST, and Monk also play weekly). This particular Saturday I was watching an episode of Desperate Housewives with my 13 year old nephew, Oumar. I have no idea why this episode was chosen, but it was one of the racier and more controversial episodes I had ever seen (granted I’ve seen about 3). The whole thing glorified infidelity, and addressed sexuality (kind of). It’s probably a matter of time before I’ll have to have a conversation with people in my town about the spectrum of sexuality, and homosexuality/bisexuality/transgender/queer culture, but I just was not ready for it at that moment.

At the end of the episode of the actresses’ sons was making out with his boyfriend in a pool and a neighbor walked in on them. My little brother was so perplexed. He had no idea what was going on even though he speaks French (all shows are dubbed in French). He asked me, “Binta, what are they doing?” Now homosexuality is actually illegal in Senegal not to mention that it’s so taboo that I’ve never even heard it talked about in country. In that particular instance I chose to totally ignore the opportunity for dialogue. I lied to him and told him that they were playing and that the woman was surprised because they tricked her into thinking it was her kid…or something ridiculous like that. He just nodded and said “oh.”

Looking back on it, I HATE that I felt so helpless to address something that I feel so strongly about. And yes, I do look at it as a wasted opportunity. But it’s a slippery slope when you’re dealing with such a sensitive subject. I felt that using Desperate Housewives as a means to bring up homosexuality would not exactly help me make a point. Instead I opted for silence. My point is not that the topic should not be addressed (obviously it is high time) but that the exportation of scandalous images and mothers walking in on teenage boys making out, and then ultimately not supporting his choice (a later episode), is a horrible way to start the dialogue.

Talking to volunteers in villages without televisions, I am always slightly jealous of the peaceful, quiet evenings they spend under the stars, laying on mats with their families. My evenings are relaxing and I cherish the family time, but they are always tainted and a little less romantic when theme songs and commercial jingles resonate in the background.
(Disclaimer: Though I might be “anti-TV” now, give me a few more months and we’ll see if I’m not glued to the screen the next time RTS airs a re-run of Monk.)

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