Why East Africa Is Hooked On Telenovelas

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.

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.

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EYDER PERALTA writing for npr.org

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