Sunday, April 20, 2008

Notes from TV Land: An Evening Spent Watching GRTS

You can tell a lot about a country by what they show on their National TV,
- Source Unknown

Hour 1: There are a group of children on TV. They are standing in neat rows, looking straight into the camera, backs straight (probably a teacher-enforced rule: occassionally one of them slumps, before looking at someone or something beyond the camera and hurriedly correcting their posture). A mic is set in front of the rows of children - at what we can only assume is a pre-agreed signal, one of the children comes forward, and stands in front of the mic. Slowly, lifting both hands into the air, he starts to sing, bringing the hands now together, now apart, in time with his song. "Baa...Baa...Black....Sheep", he sings elegiacally (for lack of a better word), pausing significantly after each word. There is an expression of deep thought on his face, which when we look closer seems to contain his whole life story: here is a kid who probably tops the class every year, and is teacher's pet in all the classes, and gets elected to become class prefect without fail every term. We can see in his frown and the seriousness with which he takes himself a tattle-tale, a kid the other kids pick on, at break-time, and who goes running off to tell the teachers and earn the other kids a caning. We can see this also in the lines of deep antagonism in his brow. Offsetting this, we can hear, in the mournfulness of his voice, and the sad echo of his clapping hand-swings, that he would give it all up - the teachers' love, the top grades in class - to become one of the gang, to be allowed to play football with the other kids at breaktime.

He stops singing at this point, and we realize he has come to the end of the first line (the one ending "yes, sir, yes, sir,"). He pauses, hands raised in mid-clap and soon we know why: it is to give the others - the ones standing in would-be-neat rows behind him - to repeat his song, in varying levels of mournfulness, synchronising their claps. He studiously waits for them to finish, looking straight into the camera all the while (as if waiting for you to break a school rule so he can run off and tell teacher). They, too, come to the end of the first line, and he picks up again, at last finding his stride, his voice settling in and even developing a few extra chords, high notes which were not present in the first line, variations on the basic "baa baa black sheep" melody, signs of his rapidly-increasing confidence. "", he sings hoarsely, dragging out the words, and when he finishes that line the chorus again picks up, repeating him word for word, vowel-drag for vowel-drag.

There is a screen transition, the diagonal wipe from the top so beloved of bad Powerpoint slide-showers, and the whole scene is replaced by a new one. It is the same group of kids, though now the person who was leading (the studious most-probably-a-prefect most-probably-only-wants-to-be-loved kid) is nowhere in si...oh wait - there he is, in the back-row, behind the tall girl with the blue bow in her hair. His place has been taken by a new kid, who appears to be telling a joke in Pulaar. This new kid seems completely different from the first one, as far as life histories are concerned (or at least, life-histories-as-can-be-read-in-the-faces-of-people, in as much as that is an inexact science): there is a smile trying to escape his mouth via his left cheek, he is a bit taller, he seems to be glowing (as compared to the other kid, and for lack of a better term), and, on the whole, he seems to be a whole lot happier: doing middling to well in class, but also getting along well with his buddies (and, as far as the first kid is concerned, probably not jumping in and bullying him with the other kids on the playground, but also probably not actively trying to get them to lay off either). This new kid pauses every few seconds, and the other kids behind him make various forced-sounding throat laughs, before he continues. At the end of his story they do the throat-laugh thing again, but for longer and showing considerably more teeth, giving the impression that perhaps they are really laughing this time, even.

Hour 2: There's a woman. She is advertising some form of bottled water. You are drawn to her mouth, and the movement of her lips - even when she is not on-screen you can still see those lips in your mind's eye, the way she keeps talking nonstop, on and on and on and on. And on. And on. She is advertising a new kind of attaya, claiming it is healthy, and genuine (you don't know what this means: genuine attaya). Her partner is a tall man with an Adam's apple that bobs up and down as he talks. The ad sticks to the usual person-with-problem-meets-person-with-solution (PWPMPWS) pattern, the man with the Adam's apple being the PWP, and the woman the PWS. The ad ends.

A new ad: the same woman again. This time she is advertising bottled water. It is the same pattern as the last ad (again with the guy with the Adam's apple), though this time the woman concentrates more on the healthy aspects of the water. She takes us on a tour of the water factory, ending it with a scientist in a white lab coat holding up a meter - the camera zooms in on illegible markings on the meter, which she assures us means the water's the healthiest you could get anywhere. The scientist's expression stays neutral all through her presentation, an anti-life-story-as-read-in-people's-faces measure. Finally there is a shot of her and Adam's-apple-man on the street, each carrying a bag full of plastic water bottles (of the brand in question, obviously), singing happily, clapping and dancing. The ad ends.

A new ad: again the same woman. She is advertising for a phone company now. She is talking loudly on her cellphone, walking down the street, when she bumps into a stranger (really Adam's-apply-guy pretending to be a stranger) on the street. The "stranger" almost falls over, and in a fit of anger turns around when he regains his balance, and grabs the front of her grand-mbubu collar, bringing his face
close to her, and inquiring in no friendly terms what the meaning of this is. The ad then begins to show classic signs of belonging to the PWPMPWS pattern, as the woman starts to harp on about the good cellphone service she is getting, the unbeatable prices, etc. They are joined by a younger woman dressed in a black work suit, who mostly stands around and holds her jaw-bone whilst they speak, presumably in various stages of amazement. Finally they are all three smiling and laughing, in joyous reaction to the information the woman just gave them about the cellphone company. The woman goes back to the person she was talking to - who we discover now was all this while on hold - and bids her goodbye: we discover it was an International Call, and the woman could literally only afford to do this (i.e. leaving an international call on hold, which no one in real life ever does) because the cellphone company's rates are so cheap. All laugh, sing, dance. Ad ends.

A new ad: The same woman. Adam's apple guy. . Carry out ad in typical PWPMPWS fashion, perhaps deviating here and there for effect.

Repeat the above about twenty times.

By the end of the hour we feel the empty feeling you feel when you feel you are intimately familiar with someone without knowing a thing about them, not even their real name. We feel this about the Woman and, to a lesser extent, Adam's apple guy. We don't feel this about the jaw-clutching young woman - her passive participation in the ads leaves us strangely unmoved (which is in stark contrast to the mixed feelings - not altogether non-violent - we now harbor about the Woman and A's-a guy).

Hour 3: The public announcements service is on. The first section is about people. First a picture is shown, taking up the right part of the screen. The left part is then filled with text. The announcements about people fall under one of two categories: 1) Birthdays, 2) Obituaries/Charity. One way to distinguish between the two is the music that plays - for the former a "Happy Birthday to you" sang in Christmas Carol fashion, for the latter slower, sadder music: recitations from the Holy Quran if Muslim, church hymns if Christian. Another way to distinguish is that the first category includes more pictures of young people, the majority still probably in primary/high school, whilst the second is mainly made up of more adults and older people.

After the people section there is the public notices. There is one about a warning from the power company to people who still owe them money to pay up or get disconnected. There is another about an auction of used cars that took part in some race across some desert, for charity. A third calling people to a general meeting for something or the other. The background music is tinkling, Christmas-Carol-y in feel.

Afterwards a program schedule comes up, yellow text against a garish red patterned background, announcing "The News" as the next program item.

Hour 4: The lights go off just as the news starts. The lights come back on just as the news ends.

Hour 5: We turn off the TV, and sit down with our notes, wondering exactly what the past 4 hour's worth of programming would tell someone from outside about the country. Finally we go off exhausted to bed, and promptly fall into a nightmare starring the Woman, A's-a guy, and the most-likely-a-prefect kid.


  1. very good blog, congratulations
    regard from Catalonia Spain
    thank you

  2. I love the Gambia - the coast around Bakau, up country Georgetown etc. Would any of your Gambian friends like free copies of a paper in Pulaar? See

    We mail them free of charge if specifically requested.

    Thanks, Jane