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The African TV Renaissance - African-themed programming

Dr. Zelie Asava explores African-themed programming

There has been a flurry of African images on our TV screens of late. From the characters of African origin in Raw and Fair City, to the African dramas and documentaries aplenty on Sunday night British TV, it seems that a renaissance is at hand.

From last year’s BBC 2 Botswana-based drama, The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency, to ITV/UTV/TV3’s ongoing South African-set Wild at Heart, African dramas have developed a healthy following on British TV. While these programmes may be criticised for their flaws – the former for its use of American and English actors to play Africans and the latter for its focus on white ex-pats in Africa – they bring a humanity and a vitality to images of Africa long absent on our film and TV screens. In each instance, the countryside is represented as lush and fertile, and communities are self-sufficient. Wealth and poverty exist but neither are fetishised and people work hard for what they have. Sadly, there is still little representation of cities, but at least these programmes move away from the traditional negative imagery of a desolate continent and instead show the beauty of Africa’s lands and people.

In The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency, the focus was on a vibrant small town and its African-run businesses. Unlike the latter show, there were no white protagonists, and yet conversely, the Celtic residents of Wild at Heart make it a highly relatable show for Irish viewers, while the British element recalls histories of colonialism at home and abroad. This show also centres on business in Africa, both local and ex-pat, and in these troubled times, we can all relate to the position of the recent emigrant, struggling to make a living in a new country.

BBC 2 has been vying with Wild at Heart for audiences on Sunday nights with its ownAfrican shows (now off-air), the documentaries Lost Kingdoms of Africa and Great Rift: Africa’s Wild Heart. The former is the first intellectual show on Africa which I have seen on British or Irish TV and one which uses an art historian of African origin as host, Dr Gus Casely-Hayford. In each show he consulted a variety of black African professors – again a TV first – to assist his exploration of Africa’s histories and in particular, its royal legacies, thereby dismissing the long-held belief that it was a primitive wasteland before colonialism.

With its focus on African collaboration, the show was able to gain more access to local experts, local rituals and even countries than ever before – this was the first BBC crew allowed into Zimbabwe for eight years. Each show has proved more fascinating than the last, revealing for the first time the true history of pre-colonial Africa, and exposing countless examples of the sophisticated, technologically accomplished kingdoms which formed the basis for the great civilisations of Europe. From the Nubian kings of Egypt (the paradigm for Athens, as the centre of the Greek empire), to the magnificent pyramids of the Sudan, the wonderful Benin bronzes, and the incredible architecture of the ancient city of Great Zimbabwe, the show was an education in itself. It illuminated how little we know of this great continent, the cradle of humanity, and our common ancestral home.

Lost Kingdoms was followed on Sunday nights by Great Rift: Africa’s Wild Heart, a geographical exposition of Africa. Once again, rather than follow the usual format, it presented a new side of the continent – volcanic lakes, geezers, coral seas, salt plateaus. It was narrated by Hugh Quarshie – another Englishman of African origin and a Shakespearean actor currently playing Ric in BBC’s Holby City – and visited places usually overlooked in favour of the tourist resorts of Kenya and South Africa. Here we saw the great rift valley explained, as we travelled down its expanse from Egypt to Mozambique, exploring the majesty and mystery of the place. While the show remained focused on wildlife rather than people – and as its title suggests, Wild at Heart, likewise focuses on animals as part of its entertainment – it, like the Facebook group ‘The Africa They Never Show You!’, with its images of high-tech cities and feats of architecture, was a revelatory experience. And, like Lost Kingdoms, which focused on Africa’s international trading history, this programme revealed the inherent globalisation of nature and history as it pictured those migrating creatures who fail to discriminate between ‘first’, ‘second’ and ‘third’ worlds as they make their journeys to better climes.

12 November 2010   


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