On many Sunday afternoons, religious open-air services are held in rural marketplaces.
The crowd puller is not so much the rhythmic dancing to the beat of drums. It is the testimonies. Past misdeeds are described in great detail, with the audience participating appropriately by punctuating the testimony with gasps, groans, shouts of praise or handclaps. Look no farther for a human story, warts and all. Testimony givers are great storytellers.
This past week’s May 8 South African election is a reminder of a time of testimonies – when for two years, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission exposed the world to apartheid’s sordid details. There were a lot of testimonies.
The TRC received 20,000 statements from victims, 2,000 of these in public hearings and nearly 8,000 applications for amnesty for perpetrators. The TRC provided a solid foundation for books, films, and an understanding of the past.
Apartheid survivors told harrowing story such as, “I watched the police carry my son’s intestines to the ambulance.”
Perpetrators divulged awful details of their actions and even demonstrated methods of torture. Many people, including the chairperson of the TRC, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, often broke down and wept openly.
The South African Broadcasting Corporation, in addition to broadcasting live hearings, covered the TRC through hourly news bulletins on radio and television and longer current-affairs radio packages in all of South Africa’s eleven official languages.
The icing on the cake though was a special weekly hour-long in-depth TV programme reporting on the human stories coming out of the previous weeks hearings.
SABC situated the testimonies in the wider South African context with information not before the TRC.
They covered exhumations, found photographs and newspaper cuttings, interviewed family members and friends of victims and perpetrators.
They contextualised the human story by describing geographical areas and historical events.
The show became a learning tool for the world and South Africans who had lived in a lack-of-information-bubble.
A previously unacknowledged history was taught to people crowding around TV sets in ways more powerful than years of schooling could have. And it became the show with the highest TV ratings across all channels.
Today, young people watching television on traditional TV sets are decreasing. I learnt this while preparing a presentation for a class a friend teaches in a US university.
While discussing research materials such as watching documentaries on PBS, my friend said none of her students watched, owned or even knew how to operate a television.
Conducting my own research among young Africans, I have learnt that this is increasingly true here.
Except for sports, still watched communally, preferably on a bigger screen, watching TV is becoming an individual exercise. Traditional television sets, which we saved money to buy, are no longer a status symbol.
We can blame the rapid increase in Internet connections, users, speed of transmitting information, Facebook, YouTube and Netflix. Too much choice!
Few people have to leave their desks to watch television. A click gives you access to programmes from all over the world.
We can also blame the lack of testimonies invoked in human-interest stories.
Thinking about a possible future without the communal gathering around a television set era brings a profound sense of loss.
Many were introduced through television sets to the cultures of people they would never have had a chance of meeting. The communality of watching created added value through informal focused group discussions.
Can today’s television choices provide for more representation of human stories with relatable everyday themes and empathetic storylines to the point that we identify with people on television?
Many people watch television because they see themselves in the characters. Part of the attraction of listening to the testimonies in the village market and the South African TRC was really in seeing our own lives and histories playing out.
Wairimu Nderitu is the author of Beyond Ethnicism, and Kenya:Bridging Ethnic Divides. E-mail:[email protected]