Home > Malawi > Malawian Media Consumption, Part II: Television

Malawian Media Consumption, Part II: Television

July 16th, 2008 | Jonathan Gray

Only in very wealthy areas does everyone have a television. Communal watching is more common, therefore, either at a successful neighbor’s house, or at a bar or restaurant. To give you an idea, none of the interviewers I met (all of whom are high school grads, around 16% of the country, I’m told) had televisions at home, Or to come at this another way, when Malawi and Egypt were playing an important qualifying soccer match, I took the first half as an opportunity to walk through town to listen out for where televisions existed. The video shows did great business, the bars and restaurants were packed, but that was about it: everywhere else had radio or nothing.

Malawi only has one television station of its own, TVM, which plays a heck of a lot of political coverage – ranging from the sometimes boring, sometimes very exciting parliamentary coverage (I heard on the radio a segment where they were debating whether the president had raped the country, whether a country could be raped, how one could rape a constitution, etc.) to simply placing the camera at an official dinner, without the mic anywhere relevant. It also plays Malawian music videos and other local stuff such as soccer games, news, or ceremonies, or religious programming (more below). So for anything else, one needs satellite, which is relatively cheap compared to the States, but still often prohibitively expensive for Malawians.

All the same, I was told that successful people may get satellite and share costs with others, or allow neighbors to watch, collecting a small fee when particularly important or popular events are on, such as an English Premiership match (in case you’re counting, Arsenal boasted the most fans, given their relatively large number of African players). Different satellite packages exist, and clearly a lot is available, since my first (Indian-owned) hotel had a few Indian channels, while the Korean-owned hotel that I stayed at in the capital, Lilongwe, had several Korean stations. More commonly on, though, are South Africa’s sports stations (especially with Euro 2008 on while I was there, these were constantly on during game time), BBC World News, a few South African music video stations, Botswana TV, movie channels, Sky News and/or CNN, and God TV.

More after the fold…

Yes, lots of God on television. On all days of the week at all times, I often saw African or American preachers at work on television. Though on one level, religion isn’t in-your-face in Malawi (if I said “bless you” when someone sneezed, since this phrase isn’t used, people gave me an odd look or complimented me on my level of faith), its presence in the public sphere is notable (many stores have names such as Jesus is My Boss Mini Shop, or Praise to Heaven Tire Store). I was particularly intrigued to see God TV on in many a restaurant. That said, it speaks to the degree to which a lot of television was speech- and monologue-based (news and parliamentary access taking up, as said, a lot of time too).

Almost totally absent were American prime time dramas or comedies. There was a South African channel that played an odd assortment of dramas (BSG, Chuck, Brothers and Sisters), but I never saw anyone turn to the channel, nor did I hear people discussing these shows. All the same, the DVD and VCD pirates in the Lilongwe minibus depot were proudly selling Prison Break and CSI, so obviously some such shows have presence, albeit reduced.

Interestingly, then, almost all channels involve screening real life events (parliament, sports matches, sermons, news), or borrowed content (movies, music). It makes for a very different public discussion of TV: gone is talk of Meredith and McDreamy, Jack and Kate, and instead, for instance, I often heard people jokingly debating with each other by saying “Mr. Speaker, sir” (learnt from parliamentary television or radio), or discussing the news. Obama, in particular, is big: Sky News’s channel ident. included a quick clip of Obama saying “Yes We Can” and every time it played, it often swung heads, his voice recognizable to many. Many people wanted to talk Obama with me, and many of them knew a lot about him (more, I’d bet, than the average American voter), meaning that I often got my news updates from others, as when a guy in a bar told me he was happy to see that Hillary was working with Obama now, leading to him and others discussing their joint press conference of the previous day.

Far and beyond parliamentary or news programming, though, was soccer programming. My familiarity with football (the real football, not the handball that Americans doggedly insist on calling football) was probably single-handedly responsible for opening up half of the people with whom I talked. Watching Euro 2008 in the bar at Rumphi proved a wonderful experience, as did catching the spectacular last second goal (quite literally: all stoppage time had been played) by Malawi against Egypt, thereby assuring a victory against the African champions, and increasing Malawi’s chances significantly of qualifying for the African Nations Cup, and possibly even for the World Cup in nearby South Africa in 2010. Soccer shirts were all over the place, from Eto’o Barcelona shirts on poor kids in villages to the Rumphi bartender I befriended who cycled his wardrobe through Malawi, Arsenal, Inter Milan, Real Madrid, and France shirts.

Also, since some of the only drama is provided by Nigerian soaps, as noted in my previous post, a stark difference in the gendering of melodrama is noticeable. I would often sit through lunch in a room full of men, none of whom were talking because they were all transfixed by the scheming and plotting in this afternoon’s Nigerian soap on a channel called Africa Magic. Arsenal and France got the cheers in football, but Nigerian lovetalk got the rapt attention and studious silence. And while Escom, the power supplier, did a better job up in Rumphi, in Liwonde we had blackouts two to four times a day, so serial drama just wouldn’t really work, nor would whodunit procedurals, since you’d have to bank on missing important parts.

Finally, it should be noted that Internet video was pretty much nowhere to be seen. I couldn’t download Word files or access the New York Times’s website in fancy hotels with wi-fi, elsewhere the Internet was used almost solely for email, and thus YouTube and Hulu were hardly in the cards.

That’s it for now. Next up … music

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