Here's a classic scene from a telenovela.
It's the funeral of a very rich man whose heirs are battling over his fortune. An indignant woman says to a female guest: "You are disrupting the service. Who else would you be saving this seat for other than Richard Juma's second wife?"
Death, family feuds, mayhem over money — they're part of the plot in one of Kenya's most successful telenovelas, Lies That Bind (see sample in video below).
But many of the telenovelas on East African airwaves aren't locally produced. They're imported from Latin America and dubbed into local languages. And they're booming. Most cable companies have at least one telenovela channel. Billboards promote them. You can see them on TV sets in restaurants and government offices.
One reason for the popularity of the Latin American telenovelas is Africa's economic divide, says Pascal Koroso of Dubbing Africa, whose company started a few years ago with a staff of two dubbing soap operas and now has 250 workers who are busy 24 hours a day.
Some Africans are making a ton of money right now, but the vast majority are still poor — and telenovelas are aspirational, Koroso explains.
"Everybody aspires to be rich," he says. "Everybody aspires to move into the middle class. So these sorts of stories resonate in terms of people seeing [a lifestyle] that is possible for them."
"The themes are things that Africans identify with a lot," he says. "You know, the corrupt politician who rigged an election, your marriage is having a rough time."
"These [programs] resonate in countries that have undergone upheaval," says Carolina Acosta-Alzuru, a communications professor who studies telenovelas at the University of Georgia. The storytelling is all about struggles and suffering, she says. And that's not just something that happens in Latin America.
Acosta-Alzuru has found that the export of telenovelas works in a cycle. First they're dubbed in a local language. As countries start coming to terms with their own struggles, they produce their own.
Dorothy Ghettuba, who produced Lies that Bind, has been watching Mexican soaps since she was a kid. At her boarding school, the girls would fill a TV room to watch the Mexican telenovela Rosa Salvaje — Spanish for 'Wild Rose." One time there were so many of them sitting against a wall, that the wall tumbled.
"One girl had her leg broken," Ghettuba says. "She went to the hospital saying, 'Damn, I'm missing the soap series.' "
As a storyteller now, she realizes Wild Rose struck a chord with Kenyan viewers because of the interplay between rural and urban cultures.
"A girl comes from the village and she gets a job as a nanny or housemaid in a big mansion ... She's pretty, and the father of the house sees her," she says.
Bottom line, she says, is that the Latin American telenovelas work in Africa because they feel authentic.
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
If you turn on a television in East Africa, you'll eventually see something like this.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "YO NO CREO EN LOS HOMBRES")
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) You asked for my trust, Daniel (ph). You asked for my support.
SIEGEL: That's a scene from "Yo No Creo En Los Hombres," a Mexican telenovela. It's a genre that is booming across the continent. NPR's Eyder Peralta reports.
EYDER PERALTA, BYLINE: The offices of Dubbing Africa still very much feel like a construction site.
PASCAL KOROSO: So still under construction. We're setting up some more studios.
PERALTA: That's Pascal Koroso, whose company dubs Latin American soap operas. His company started just a few years ago with two people. Now, he's got 250 workers, and he's about to double. Across sub-Saharan Africa, he says, telenovelas have struck a nerve. Almost all cable companies now have at least one novela channel, and that means Koroso has people dubbing them 24 hours a day.
KOROSO: The themes are things that Africans identify with a lot - you know, the corrupt politician who rigged an election. You are in problem, your marriage is, you know, having a rough time. Who do you talk to? You don't - we don't know a psychologist. We know our priest (laughter).
PERALTA: Koroso says you also have to look at the economic boom taking place in Africa. People are making a ton of money right now, but the vast majority of Africans are still poor and telenovelas are aspirational.
KOROSO: Everybody aspires to be rich. Everybody aspires to move into the middle class, so these sort of stories sort of reason it in terms of people seeing something that is possible for them.
PERALTA: And really, telenovelas are everywhere you turn.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "WHAT LIFE STOLE FROM ME")
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) You sold me, Mom.
PERALTA: They're on billboards, in restaurants, in government offices. This is from the Mexican soap "What Life Stole From Me."
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "WHAT LIFE STOLE FROM ME")
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Your very own daughter.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) Understand me. We were about to lose everything, and I - I was very desperate, so desperate.
CAROLINA ACOSTA-ALZURU: These things resonate in cultures that have undergone historically upheavals.
PERALTA: That's Carolina Acosta-Alzuru. She studies telenovelas at the University of Georgia. She says novelas are not about their ending. Instead, they focus on drawn-out struggles. It's storytelling that thrives in the middle, that savors suffering. And so it's no surprise, she says, that they come from Latin America.
ACOSTA-ALZURU: We endure. We suffer that heartbreak. We leave the heartbreak in a very peculiar way.
PERALTA: What Acosta-Alzuru has found is that the export of telenovelas works in a cycle. They're first dubbed in a local language, and then, as countries start coming to terms with their own heartbreak, they produce their own novelas.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "LIES THAT BIND")
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As character) Move.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #5: (As character) Please, stop disrupting the church.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As character) You are disrupting this service. Who else would you be saving this seat for other than Richard Juma's second wife?
PERALTA: Dorothy Ghettuba produced "Lies That Bind," one of Kenya's most successful homegrown soap operas. It's about a magnate who dies and leaves two families fighting for his inheritance. Ghettuba says she remembers being inspired by Mexican soap operas since she was a kid. At boarding school, the girls would fill a TV room to watch "Rosa Salvaje." One time, there were so many of them sitting against a wall that the wall tumbled.
DOROTHY GHETTUBA: One girl was not very quick, so she had, like, her leg broken. She went to the hospital, like, saying, damn, I'm missing the (laughter) soap series.
PERALTA: And as a storyteller now, she realizes "Wild Rose" worked in Kenya because it was the story of urbanization.
GHETTUBA: A girl comes from the village, and she gets a job as a nanny or housemaid in a big mansion, and then hell breaks loose when she's pretty and the father of the house sees her and the beat goes on. This stuff happens.
PERALTA: Bottom line, she says, is that telenovelas work in Africa because they feel authentic. Eyder Peralta, NPR News, Nairobi.
(SOUNDBITE OF CORNERSHOP SONG, "SLEEP ON THE LEFT SIDE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.