JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA — Abby, a flirty mixed-race South African is falling for her Ugandan friend. But her parents, she says, would kill her if she came home with a black man.
Meanwhile, the Ugandan, Gaetano, has problems of his own. He's angered Bayo, a plump Nigerian economist, with a few too many jokes about thieving West Africans.
Soap opera? No, reality TV, African-style.
Billed as Africa's biggest TV event, "Big Brother Africa" is captivating audiences around the continent. The new pan-African version of the hit reality show "Big Brother" traps a dozen 20-somethings from different African countries in a house together for months, with the winner taking home $100,000.
The 24-hour live show is voyeuristic and often petty, with a great deal of emphasis placed on who will be the next to shower naked. But as Big Brother beams into millions of homes across Africa, it's also becoming an unlikely catalyst for cultural understanding on a continent often divided by ethnic conflict, nationalism, and xenophobia.
"The housemates went in with their own stereotypes," says Marie Rosholt, the show's executive producer. "They said, 'Nigerians are untrustworthy,' or 'South Africans are arrogant.' But I think those stereotypes dropped away in the first 24 hours."
"Now," she laughs, "they argue more about food than religion or politics."
According to producers, an estimated 30 million Africans have tuned into Big Brother Africa. That makes it the most popular show ever produced on the African continent and a big hit for DStv, the South African satellite television company currently expanding across Africa.
This the third version of the show filmed in South Africa, but unlike previous series that featured only South African contestants, the housemates on this version hail from all across Africa.
Like versions shown in the US or Britain, the contestants, whose every moves are recorded by a house wired full of cameras and microphones, spend most of the time doing the mundane - eating, arguing, and playing in the hot tub.
Occasionally the housemates must carry out "tasks," such as creating their national flag or body painting. How well they perform can determine their popularity both within the house and with the viewing public. Each week between now and the end of August, viewers will vote off their least favorite candidate. Two have already been eliminated since the show began May 25. The last one standing wins the money.
From the text messages sent in by viewers on the show's website (www.bigbrothersa.com), voting so far has been along national lines. Even the President of Botswana has given his blessings to his country's candidate, Warona.
The one exception to this blind nationalism may be Stefan, a highlighted blond who spends most of his day strumming away on his guitar and plotting pranks on his fellow housemates. Trapped inside the show's plush Johannesburg house, he has no idea that outside the house there's a debate raging about whether he, as a white man, has the right to represent his desert nation, Namibia.
But the show's cultural adviser, Kole Omotoso, says the mix in the house represents a new African reality that viewers would be silly to ignore.
"The point, first of all, is that Africa is not totally black, like Europe is no longer totally white," says Professor Omotoso, a well-known Nigerian writer and academic. "Because after 500 years of interaction, things have begun to change."
Stefan's whiteness, however, hasn't seemed to affect his popularity much. According to polls on the show's website, the Namibian bad boy has consistently been the show's most popular housemate, although some observers in South Africa suggest votes of white South Africans, the biggest watchers of the two previous shows, may be boosting his numbers.
"The last two winners were white men," says Edward Mokoena, a reporter for the Sowetan, the country's largest black newspaper. "I think a lot of white South Africans support Stefan because they identify with him because he's white."
But Mr. Mokoena also says the current version of the show is gaining support among black South Africans, who are interested in learning about other Africans.
The housemates, admittedly, don't represent all aspects of the continent's diversity. They all are young, speak English, live in urban areas, and come from relatively wealthy or educated families. Nor are there any Muslim contestants, although Islam is an increasing force on the continent.
The antics in the house are not appreciated by everyone on the continent, especially the more conservative countries. In Zambia, a group of religious leaders are lobbying to have the show removed from state television on the grounds that it promotes immoral behavior and sends negative messages about safe sex.
Still, there are plenty of stereotypes to overcome and new things to learn. Bruna, an Angolan whose country recently emerged from 27 years of civil war, discovered she had a lot in common with Cherise, a quiet Zambian from a poor family. Warona, the outspoken housemate from Botswana, discovered Tanzanian men were just as clueless as her own countrymen about sex and AIDS. And Gaetano had to admit, grudgingly, that maybe not all Nigerians are thieves.