In 1972 a poet named Stephen Spender formed a magazine called Index of Censorship with the sole aim of protecting the basic human right of free expression. For thirty one long years, Index of Censorship has reported extensively on censorship issues all over the world. The magazine has also paid special emphasis to the plight of writers from Africa who have and still continue to suffer from repressive and oppressive regimes in their home countries.
Though Stephen Spender died in 1995, the magazine continues to wax strong and has as some of its major contributors and champions writers like Nobel laureates Derek Walcott, Nadine Gordimer and Wole Soyinka amongst others like Salman Rushdie, Noam Chomsky, Erica Jong, Margaret Atwood, Henry Louis Gates Jr, Jack Mapanje, Vaclav Havel as well as the Nigerian writer and critic Adewale Maja Pearce.
Despite the untiring efforts of Stephen Spender and his tribe of champions of free speech, censorship continues to haunt us in diverse forms: from official gazettes to sermons from the pulpit, from the lips of prudes to the hot breath of those of who wield both power and influence.
On Sunday September 7, 2003, Cherise Makubale from Zambia emerged the winner of the Big Brother Africa prize of USD100,000 after spending one hundred and six days sequestered in the purpose-built BBA house in South Africa.
Cherise emerged winner after witnessing the exit of 7 other contestants and seeing the one hundred and six days through as one of the last five before being voted winner.
If Nobel Laureate, Professor Wole Soyinka had his way, Cherise would not have spent one hundred and six days in that house nor would she be $100,000 richer.
In the past one hundred and six days to put the BBA phenomenon in numerical perspective, Africans all over the continent, those who could afford cable tv subscriptions or a television set for those who caught the programme courtesy local television stations, were turned to voyeurs, as they spent valuable man hours glued to their tv sets as they followed every move, every word, every kiss and motion under the duvet for contestants like Abby, Geatano, Mwisho and a few others who dared.
What those one hundred and six days showed the discerning is simple: men and women are turned on by the shocking and the bizarre and are at their core voyeurs of the first order. Was that not why even though we knew there would always be bullets, blood and death, Nigerians still flocked to the Bar Beach to see armed robbers executed during the infamous days of the Bar Beach shows.
Africa was transfixed for all of one hundred and six days because we are human beings and human beings have never and will never master the urge to peep through the key hole. Isn’t that why when we chance upon an accident scene, we stop not to lend a hand, but to gape.
For those who may wish to argue the point, it would interest you to note that the most people were tuned in to BBA in the mornings so they could catch the housemates in various levels of undress as they had their morning showers. And the fact that we watched and sent messages show that the show was needed in Africa because no other tv show, reality or otherwise has so captured the imagination of the continent, save the World Cup.
One hundred and six days is a long time and in that period while those of us seeking cheap entertainment and titillation had our fill, those who consider themselves the guardian of morality and good taste raved and ranted, asking that the programme be yanked off air. A pastor in Namibia even went as far as organizing prayer sessions to make sure the Namibian house mate did not win.
Back home in Nigeria, the venom poured on this particular edition of BBA, the first to feature housemates from across the continent (the first had featured housemates drawn from within South Africa ) was alarming and was only comparable to the excitement with which it was received especially since a Nigerian, Bayo Okoh, was in the house.
While most Nigerians repeatedly turned up late for work because they stayed back to watch the shower scenes, others spent good money sending text messages to BBA pledging support for Bayo or railing at him not to be so quarrelsome and greedy.
I did not particularly enjoy the BBA experience, but when you are married to a woman who insists on tuning to BBA so she will be able to compare notes with her friends at the office or the salon, you are constrained to watch and in watching you form an opinion.
What I learnt from the experience is that human beings will do anything for money and secondly, that pretence can only last this long. You can never hide your true nature. Viewed from those angles, one can surmise that the BBA phenomenon is a successful sociological experiment and that the organizers were right to have conscripted renowned intellectual Professor Kole Omotosho, a man of many parts, to act as Cultural Adviser for the reality show.
Let me point out however, that the ground swell of criticism that trailed the program is not an African nay Nigerian phenomenon. No. I recall that in 2001, when Endemol, the show’s creator took the Big Brother Vehicle to France protesters picketed the Big Brother House and then stormed and broke it down because they wanted to rescue the housemates who were actually in there of their own volition.
In Nigeria the criticism assumed a more insidious coloration when it became a battle between two intellectual giants, Nobel Laureate Professor Wole Soyinka, who at a soiree in the premises of the French Cultural Center was reported to have lambasted the programme. Piqued, Professor Kole Omotosho had fired a response which was published in The Guardian.
Following his riposte a fierce debate was ignited in the public space by interested members of the public . ThisDay published a particularly scathing one from respected filmmaker Dr. Ola Balogun, leader of the rave making Iroko Dance Band, who all but questioned not just Professor Kole Omotosho’s motives but his sanity as well.
What the responses revealed was a prudish demeanour that exposes the Nigerian hypocrisy. We condemn BBA, but an evening stroll to New West Hall in Unilag will show you what moral fiber we are made of. We condemn sex on BBA but we sleep with young girls our daughter’s age inside our cars at Kuramo beach.