In Uganda, Filipino soaps are primetime darlings

Ugandan audiences strongly relate to the everyman struggles found in soap operas from the Philippines. But sometimes their dramatic plotlines can be too exotic for viewers.

J.p. Lawrence
Henry Muwonge, a video jockey for the Ugandan television station Bukedde TV, dubs an episode of the Filipino soap opera "Be Careful With My Heart." Soap operas from the Philippines are often Uganda's highest rated programs, behind the evening news.

The woes of a young Filipina who dreams of escaping poverty might not seem like the most captivating television for a Ugandan audience, but every night, about a million people gather around to see the latest challenge that Maya de la Rosa must overcome in the big city of Manila.

Ms. De la Rosa is the lead character in “Be Careful With My Heart," one of many Filipino soap operas that have exploded on Ugandan television, usually rating second or third behind the ever-popular evening news.

Though American shows once dominated the East African television schedule, familiar themes like village-to-city migration and patriarchal Christian values have made the soap operas from the Philippines more attractive to the Ugandan audience.  

“You need to make sure that there's some element of African kind of living, the life that we see everyday,” says Robert Semakula, a programmer for Bukedde TV, one of Uganda’s top stations that runs “Be Careful With My Heart”. Each year for the last three years, Mr. Semakula has sorted through a catalogue of shows from foreign media, and lately, Filipino soaps have made the pick.

The distribution of soap operas to stations like Bukedde TV is big business, says Matt Graham, an international content specialist. The international soap opera industry sprouted in the early 90s when television stations across post-Soviet Russia and in developing nations had almost nothing to put on the airways. Cheaper-priced Latin American telenovelas filled the void for a long time, but the Philippines soon began exporting its own soaps centered on common people with simple yet dramatic storylines.

“Pangako Sa ’Yo” or "The Promise," the first Filipino soap aired on Ugandan television in 2012 was a major hit – also in markets like China, Cambodia, Kenya, and Zambia – and rival stations soon picked up other Filipino soaps.

Though there are often language and cultural barriers that don’t translate to this new audience, the popularity of these soap operas in Uganda shows the fulfillment of a particular niche within a globalized world: products foreign enough to be exotic, but familiar enough to be comforting. 

“This process has happened over and over again,” Mr. Graham says. "A show from one part of the world, that has no connection to another, becomes more important than anything else because the [receiving] country isn't developing its own material.” 

Relatable stories

When foreign soap operas arrive at Bukedde TV, video jockeys like Henry Muwonge translate them from English into Luganda, one of Uganda's primary languages. Bukedde TV, a terrestrial channel shown throughout the country, caters mostly to the Buganda, the largest ethnic group in Uganda. Many Ugandans have some knowledge of the language.

Mr. Muwonge, known as VJ Enrico, does more than just a direct translation. It's also his job to explain the parts of Filipino culture that may seem alien.

“We put some local ingredients – not a direct translation – but some additions which compare our culture and [their] culture,” he says.

Filipino soaps find an audience in Uganda because they adhere to a common formula, described by Graham, as a "Cinderella story, a young girl in the country who’s relatively innocent and looks after her relatives, and she’s immediately transported to a place of great corruption, a city or a rich family." Muwonge says these shows connect because they deal with poverty and other issues affecting Ugandans' everyday lives.

The first episodes of “Be Careful With My Heart,” for example, shows the plucky de la Rosa trying to overcome her family's money problems, being scammed in an attempt to get to America, worrying that the money she sends home maybe stolen, and dreaming of finding a proper husband.

"Unlike American TV that constantly shows us Hollywood glamour, totally the opposite of the actual life most of us live, these soaps reflect our society,” an editorial in a local Ugandan paper said

Translating culture

There is a limit to cultural understanding, however. Semakula, the program manager, and Muwonge, say they often have to censor salacious material that could easily offend the heavily conservative Ugandan public.

Uganda is notorious for its intolerance of gay people and has long had antigay laws. So when Filipino soap operas – which have recently begun to show positive portrayals of gay culture – show two men in a relationship, the station often cuts the scene or storyline.

“The audience won't understand that,” Semakula says.

Some critics complain that importing global media stifles the development of local content, but Graham doesn’t foresee the hunger for these foreign soaps declining. According to an October 2014 poll, Bukkede TV averages 954,000 viewers during the 8:30 p.m. time slot for Filipino soaps. 

Judith Nabwire, a housewife, says she knows what to expect when she watches a Ugandan soap opera. A Filipino soap, on the other hand, has the potential to surprise, while still reflect her daily life. 

“When a [Filipino] soap and a Ugandan soap are side by side, I think I would run and see the [Filipino] soap,” she says.

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