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Commentary and opinion on current civic, political, and religious events and issues.

Past Issue
27 August 2001

Northern City Journal
(ISSN 1528-9575)
Vol. 2, No. 35

Minneapolis, Minnesota

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"Survivor" TV Is an Ignorant Insult to Kenya

The filming of a fake "survivor" series in a part of the world where survival is often a daily challenge is offensive to Africans and ignorantly flaunts America's wealth.

by Jerome F. Winzig

CBS, the American television network once renowned for its news coverage under Edward R. Murrow and then Walter Cronkite, has hired Mwandiga Productions to rent the 239-square-kilometer Shaba National Reserve in Kenya for four months. The purpose has little to do with wildlife or nature. Instead, CBS is taping "Survivor 3," the latest in its infamous fake reality series. The influx of television crews and contest contestants has been a strange experience for the nearby inhabitants of central Kenya.

It's not the television cameras that are hard to understand for the people who live near the Shaba National Reserve. Rather, it's the very concept of the show. Many of the people near Shaba lead difficult lives eking out an existence in an arid region of equatorial Africa. For them, the notion of 18 people competing for survival in a contrived contest setting is ludicrous. The fact that the event is being filmed in a remote game reserve only serves to accentuate the show's lack of reality.

In an interview in the New York Times, Mohammed Leeresh, a local resident, was dumbfounded by the show's premise: "A million dollars? Just for surviving?" Then he added, wryly, "If they let me play, I guarantee you it would be mine."

That's not part of the plot, of course. The contestants on "Survivor 3" are all westerners who are, by the standards of much of the rest of the world, pampered beyond belief. They are accustomed to leading lives that are not threatened by daily hardships and catastrophes. What is most troubling, however, is that neither CBS nor the participants seem disturbed by how incongruous it is for comfortable Americans to play-act at surviving in a part of the world where survival truly is a daily challenge.

Kenyan environmentalists are also unhappy with the show's presence in the Shaba National Reserve. The Waso Trust Land Project, a local Kenyan non-governmental organization, says the show's producers have cleared 20 square kilometers of vegetation. The project says the filming has frightened animals away and is concerned that the show will leave behind the same trail of destruction left by the filming of the movies "Born Free" and "To Walk with the Lions."

The filming of "Survivor 3" is no small endeavor. The film crew numbers more than 200 and heavy commercial trucks are kept busy hauling provisions into the reserve. (Some "survival" test!) Guyo Mokku, the local Kenyan member of parliament, says, "These people have erected more than 1,000 tents and constructed other timber structures inside the park. They have also cleared indigenous trees and other acacia bushes that take years to mature. And after all these they expect us to sing praises for them; we are not that cheap."

When three Kenyan journalists tried to visit Shaba in June to document what was happening in the reserve, they were arrested. The journalists were accompanying a representative of the Waso Trust Land Project, but park ranger Abdi Boru told the journalists he had "strict instructions from the movie company to exclude journalists."

It's a pity that the American television media can't devote the same time and energy covering issues that are crucial to Africa. They could cover the effect the International Monetary Fund has on African nations. They could examine American trade policies towards Africa. They could take a look at the effect of last year's African Growth and Opportunity Act and how more of the same would benefit African nations even more.

What we'll get instead, however, is a lot of media hype about a group of Americans play-acting in Kenya. The Shaba National Reserve will merely provide an exotic backdrop for the show, so viewers can be thrilled by the prospect of trying to survive in what they regard as primitive Africa.

The whole affair is profoundly insulting to Kenya, demonstrates ignorance on the part of the show's producers and participants, and reflects poorly on the United States.

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