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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Reality Television Riveting Africa

NAIROBI, Kenya -- Nigerians howl at it. Botswanans scream at their screens. Ugandans watch it over cold Nile Beer, while some African politicians and clergy want the plug pulled on this continent-wide sensation.

It is "Big Brother Africa," the latest incarnation of the reality television show that started in Europe. An estimated 30 million Africans are watching, making it the most popular, and most controversial, show in Africa.

The show throws together strangers as housemates and then lets viewers watch their every move -- and the sparks that fly. The African variant has plucked a dozen young professionals from countries all across this vast, diverse continent and moved them into a comfortable house in Johannesburg with an oversize Jacuzzi.

At the start of the show there was an amorous Ugandan law student. An argumentative Nigerian businessman. A saucy South African business consultant who flirted with a cocky Kenyan psychology student -- and every other man in the house. The last one to survive 106 days in captivity wins $100,000.

Cameras catch their breakfast table belches, romantic liaisons and constant bickering and broadcast them to millions of homes and bars, and the contestants' interactions have become a Rorschach test of Africans' views of themselves.

"What is an African?" said Kole Omotoso, a Nigerian author and drama teacher at South Africa's University of Stellenbosch and the show's cultural adviser. "This show is prompting Africans to debate that issue. It's also educating viewers on so many other different levels, even though it doesn't seem like educational television."

Not everyone is so sanguine. Parliament in Malawi recently banned the show from its public station because of what lawmakers described as its corruptive nature. President Samuel Nujoma of Namibia ordered the government channel to broadcast educational programs, or anything other than a show he considers harmful.

Religious leaders have vocally denounced "Big Brother Africa." They are not a bit amused by the kissing, and portions of "shower hour," during which the camera records the contestants scrubbing themselves, has been declared dangerously close to pornography.

In Uganda, where the show's followers and detractors are fanatical, the Reverend Timothy Sekyanzi of the Church of Jesus Christ has prayed publicly for the Ugandan housemate, Gaetano Kaggwa, 31, to be voted off. The minister said he wanted to spare children from watching him roll around under the covers with Abergail Plaatjes, 25, a vivacious, tattooed South African.

But "Big Brother's" defenders are many. Though it may be subtle, one theme they point to is democracy. The contestants are nominated for eviction by their housemates and then voted off by viewers on the Internet or by cellphone text messaging. The will of the people decides how the show unfolds.

During late-night discussions, some important topics arise. The housemates have discussed the problem of AIDS. Stereotypes are mentioned, as is the racial mix of the house, which is mostly black but includes a white man and several people of mixed race.

"Big Brother" fans say even the housemates' revelry may send an important message in this strife-torn continent. "The fact that 12 different people from so different backgrounds can live in the house together for so long should be a lesson," said Alex Holi, 21, the Kenyan housemate who was recently voted out. "Our leaders can learn from us."

That came from a man who slipped laxatives as a joke into the beef stew he prepared for his housemates. Big Brother, a voice that booms over speakers throughout the house, ordered him not to serve it.

Die-hards like 20-year-old Lupita Nyong'o can go on and on about the antics of the housemates. Shocking, isn't it, that Abby kissed Stefan, the white Namibian, and then let Bayo, the Nigerian, hold her bare breasts in the garden?

From a business perspective, "Big Brother" has been a runaway success for M-Net and MultiChoice, which joined in the early 1990s to offer satellite television in English across the continent.

Satellite dishes and cable subscriptions are up since the show began in late May, and cellphone usage is booming as well with text messages voting out contestants every week. A winner will be chosen Sunday.