Back in the day, family time was limited to evenings and nights, but it was an important part of our lives. In many African homes, it was the only time families got to spend with each other. Sometimes they would talk about how their day went, other times, they would just sit in silence and watch whatever was showing on television. In my house, my sister and I watched TV with our parents mostly because we didn’t have a choice. There was only one TV in the house.

The last time I sat with my whole family in the same room was in 2004. It was a Thursday. I can’t remember what month it was, but I remember we were watching an episode of Wale Adenuga’s Super Story. In a few weeks, I was going to be shipped off to boarding school. Memories of that day still float around in my head, like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle dancing in a zero gravity chamber. I remember sitting on the floor in our living room, staring at the moving pictures of Adenuga’s art on the screen, but that’s about all I can recollect, not much else.

Family time in a collectivist culture

Most African cultures are collectivist in nature. They stress the importance of communality and interdependence. In collectivist cultures, one person’s business is everybody’s business, individuals are encouraged to put society’s needs ahead of theirs, and family and community are vital players. More emphasis is placed on family in collectivist cultures than in individualistic cultures (as in the West). And central to family and family building is ‘family time’.

In my family, much of our time together was spent in front of the television, watching Super Story, NTA network news, or whatever the relevant television gods had to give us at the time.

Over the years, however, I can’t help but notice how our family time has gone from frequent to occasional to non-existent as TV has gone from ‘one screen’ to ‘many screens’–first with the PC, and now with mobile. With the evolution of TV came the dissolution of our family time and in crept a culture of individualism–at least with us, the children. Maybe there is no direct relationship, but the parallel lines are too close to ignore.

TV and culture

In December 1996, the UNGA (United Nations General Assembly) proclaimed this day, November 21, as World Television Day. According to the UN, the decision was taken “in recognition of the increasing impact television has on decision-making by alerting world attention to conflicts and threats to peace and security and its potential role in sharpening the focus on other major issues, including economic and social issues.”

More than being a tool for impacting decision-making and alerting world attention to conflict, television is a vital tool for culture formation. For many, it is the window through which they see and understand the world. It is a platform for cultural transactions–where people ‘buy’ and ‘sell’ cultural abstractions. The UN realised this and dedicated a whole day–today–to the celebration of the impact of this medium of communication. It is, however, no hidden secret that the Occident has had the upper hand in the usage of this medium to influence the world and its many different cultures, from its television programmes to its different technological innovations; from shows on CNN and HBO to the advent of on-demand TV shows and the ability of different people to use the same Netflix account on different devices at the same time.

netflix showing on the television
Credit: TechnoBuffalo

I have a theory. My theory is that the gradual dissolution of family time and an embrace of individualistic cultural practices is a widespread phenomenon in urban areas in Africa. When people had just one TV set at home, they often had family time together in the evenings (this is for the families that spent time together watching TV), but as the concept of television has fragmented from one giant cube (or plasma screen) to laptops and mobile phones (and multiple user accounts), family time has become a thing of the past, reflecting in the deviation from the African culture of collectivism to embracing a more Western culture of individualism.

Ask a young African urban dweller to describe himself and you will more likely hear him use words relating to uniqueness, independence, and self-sufficiency. Years ago, this would have been less likely so as collectivist (African) cultures usually describe themselves in regards to their roles in groups (a good son, a good husband, etc.). These are effects of Africa’s embrace of the West’s individualism. At the risk of sounding homogeneous, I reckon that less technology-permeated (perhaps, rural) societies still operate on mostly collectivist principles.

I’m not saying there is a causal relationship between TV’s fragmentation and the dissolution of family time; what I’m saying is that there is a possible relationship. But, of course, this is a theory, and I might be wrong.

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