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The TV

Americans love TV. At least, these two Americans love TV. We held out for a full two months, but inevitably we came to terms with the fact that we just weren't going to make it a whole year without some tube.

At first we thought we'd just rent a TV and VCR for the year, so I paid a visit to a local establishment called "Vision Hire". It turns out that renting a TV & VCR for a year is more expensive than just buying them outright, as the lady there pointed out to me. Lest you think she was cannibalizing her own business, she directed me to a store operated by the same company, called "Telly Vision World" (no kidding), which specializes in used merchandise. For about $220, I bought an ancient-looking but servicable Telefunken TV, and a Hitachi VCR that had that 70's silver hi-fi look to it. I should have known better, but I guess since much of that 70's stereo equipment is so solid, I figured the equivalent VCR would be a good buy. [Hindsight: I learned a lot of things while I was in Africa, and one of them is that I shouldn't be such a stupid idiot all the time. -tu]

We rented the movie "Fever Pitch" as well as a "Friends" video and an "Absolutely Fabulous" video to inaugurate the golden age of viewing. We excitedly plopped the new equipment in front of the couch, plugged everything in, and settled in to scratch a serious TV itch. First up was "Friends". Could the video format be wrong? There was no color, and the top half of the image flopped all over the place. But the sound was fine, and we were starving for TV, so who cared.

"Absolutely Fabulous" seemed to play just fine, though. Unfortunately, I'm not much of a fan of the show, but Julie enjoyed it. We took a break for dinner, our TV hunger temporarily sated. "Fever Pitch" was on the dessert menu. Good movie, but every few minutes the picture would start flapping around, and the sound would get all wonky. I fiddled with the tracking knob and everything else, but it didn't help at all.

Our feeling was that something was wrong with the VCR. We decided that I should go back to Telly Vision World, return the VCR, and apply the credit to renting a newer one, even though it would be more money.

The employees at Telly Vision World had other ideas. It seems that the concept of a customer returning a non-functional purchase is a relatively new one in Botswana. I spent several hours crawling my way up the chain of command of the Telly Vision World/Vision Hire retail empire, amid much resistance at each step of the way, until I found myself sitting across from the proprietor. I'll call him Vision Hire Guy (VHG for short).

The discussion that followed, I can only characterize as somewhat bizarre from my perspective as an American consumer. After following a lengthy and circuitious path, involving various negotiations as to the precise level of flakiness of the VCR, the relative (in)accessibility of our domicile in Gabane to Vision Hire's crack installation (and presumably repo) crew in the event that we rented a new VCR, more personal and corporate history of VHG and Vision Hire than I really cared to know (moved to Botswana in the early 70's, from the UK, to run U of Botswana's computer center, and probably soon fired for being a dolt (I'm kidding of course)), it finally culminated in me agreeing to trade in the flaky used VCR I'd bought the day before, applying the price towards the purchase of a brand new VCR from Vision Hire. The final sticking point proved to be the exact amount due. The price of the new VCR was something like 1200 Pula, and I'd paid 525 Pula for the used one.

As VHG worked it out on a scrap of paper, it looked pretty straightforward to me. I'd give him 675 Pula and the old VCR, and he'd give me the new VCR. Never mind that I would have much preferred to take my 525 Pula and give my business to someone else, but I figured that was a lost cause at this point. Anyway, he works this out, and looks at the numbers, and says:

VHG: "OK, so the difference is this... [points to '675 Pula'] Now, sometimes what I like to do in these situations is to test the other guy a little bit, to see what kind of person I'm dealing with. Since you seem to have made a mistake with the original VCR, and I'm agreeing to take it back... what I'd like to do, is ask you to pay me 700 Pula... as a gesture of goodwill, to pay an extra 25 Pula and make it a round 700."

I kid you not. There followed a long silence, while I stared at the desk and took several deep breaths. All kinds of ideas popped into my head of how to reply, most of which I'm glad to say I suppressed. After a few moments, the following thought repeatedly asserted itself: "5 US dollars... I can get out of here and never come back for just 5 measley bucks." I looked up, gave VHG a big grin, and through clenched teeth said "Deal!"

The Dish

So, after a couple of weeks, we realized that something was missing. Broadcast TV. In Botswana, that means a satellite dish. Through my adventures at Vision Hire and Telly Vision World I'd learned that there are two choices: an analog dish, costing around $250, which receives the four major South African TV channels, or the digital dish, for ~$350 plus $40/month, which contains the analog channels plus fifteen or so more channels of mostly crap, but also CNN, the Discovery Channel, ESPN International, and some other marginally interesting stuff. Our decision tipped in favor of the analog dish, since a $40/month subscription fee for mediocre TV is highway robbery, and also because of our general feeling that having 20 channels available would impede our ability to get any work done.

So one Saturday morning when the itch for mindless drivel was especially vexing, we paid a visit to Western Electric in nearby Mogoditshane. Western Electric is a division of the Western Departmental Store. It's next to Western Clothing World, and across the street from Western Auto Parts and Western Fried Chicken. This is all true.

We paid our money, but rather than let us leave with the dish and receiver, they insisted on making an appointment to send their guy to install the dish, halting our bid for immediate gratification in its tracks. The guy, named Obert, showed up around Wednesday or so. He took a quick look at the house and declared that the ideal way to install the dish was to bolt it to the front of the house, outside the second-floor window and just under the thatched eaves. We thought that sounded like a crazy thing to do to a picturesque cottage in the country, and told Obert we'd have to clear it with the landlord before we did anything like that. I wondered if we could maybe find a place behind the house. Unfortunately the roof of the house is pretty steep, and the slope behind the house is covered with brush and rocks. There was really only one suitable spot that provided a line of sight to the correct part of the sky and was also not in a place where it would create a horrible eyesore. Unfortunately, there was nothing in this spot to attach the dish to, only a small patch of rocky dirt.

Obert seemed pretty disappointed that we weren't willing to let him get on the ladder and bolt the dish to the front of the house, but he told me he could come back and finish the job if we could either get permission from the landlord to deface their cottage, or get a post installed in the spot behind the house. We talked a little bit about what the post would involve, and he indicated that it would have to be a strong steel post set in concrete, since the dish catches the wind pretty well. He left the dish and associated stuff with us, and we told him we'd get back to him.

The Post

So that's how I found myself, the following Saturday, hacking through roots and prying up rocks with a garden trowel, attempting to dig a hole deep enough to anchor a mounting post for the satellite dish. (Just so you know, I've skipped over the long and arduous account of the long and arduous process of acquiring the steel post and the cement.)

Digging that hole was no picnic. Our best digging implement was Julie's garden trowel, and the ground back there puts New England to shame in the rockiness department. After an hour or so of blister-raising digging, I still couldn't quite find enough room between rocks to make an adequate hole. (I did discover a couple varieties of interesting underground-dwelling grubs.) I made a few hopeful attempts at placing the post in the hole, but no matter how I wiggled it, the square base just wouldn't sit low enough.

I scouted other spots. I consulted the dish manual for the longitude of the satellite. I dusted off some trigonometry to try to figure out exactly where in the sky that would be. I had no compass, but even so I pretty much convinced myself that the spot that Obert had identified really was the only suitable place for the dish. However, I eventually figured out that I could try digging another hole right next to the first one, providing I was willing to hack off a few branches from an overhanging tree, which I certainly was.

The second hole was only marginally easier to dig. Eventually I found myself between a rock and a hard place, so to speak. The only thing for it at this point was to bring in the heavy artillery: a hammer borrowed from the landlord's tool collection he'd left in the spare room. A few dozen whacks with the hammer, and I'd managed to chip off just enough rock to make room for the post.

There's one important aspect of my ordeal with the lost/broken computer that I forgot to tell you about last time. During those painful hours and days that I had been sitting in our house cursing my fate, there had been a continuous building process going on just outside, as local men hired by the landlord cleared brush, mixed concrete, dug holes with pickaxes and hauled rocks up the hill in order to finish the steps to the house. Even if it was little comfort, the guys outside breaking rocks and shoveling gravel in the unspeakably hot sun had been a constant reminder that I really had nothing to complain about.

Fast forward a month, and I have a computer, but instead of sitting inside enjoying it, there I was, engaging in sweaty manual labor while exposed to the elements. I had heaved a 50 kg bag of cement up the front steps. I had hacked a ragged hole through root- and stone-infested dirt using a garden trowel. I had broken rocks with a hammer. It had just started to rain, mosquitos were closing in. And I hadn't even mixed any concrete yet.

Julie kept abreast of my progress and a watchful eye on what must have been a thoroughly crazed expression on my face. She kept saying things like, "you can finish this later if you want...", "look, it's raining, why don't you take a break?", and "you know, I'm afraid of what will happen if this doesn't work... why don't we wait until Monday and ask Mr Taylor for help?"

But I was possessed by that point. I almost cried, but I got that post put in. Eight months later it's still holding our satellite dish up and serving as a monument to the irresistable lure of television.

The Reward

Was it worth it? I'll preface my comments by saying yes, even bad TV is worth almost any sacrifice. But I feel I must say a few words about the programming we've brought into our home.

We receive four channels from our dish. They are SABC 1, 2, 3 (SABC stands for South African Broadcasting Corporation, the state-owned media company) and BOP TV. BOP TV is the channel of Bophutatswana, a province of South Africa and a former homeland. It's similar to the SABC channels, but even smaller-time.

SABC 1's formula seems to be trashy TV aimed at the urban black market. SABC 2 is trashy TV aimed at the rural markets, and alternates between programming in English, Afrikaans, Setswana, Sesotho, Zulu, and various others of South Africa's 11 official languages. SABC 3 is the ever-so-slightly more upmarket mostly English-language channel. And BOP would probably be outclassed by some public-access cable channels in large American cities, although they consequently have the sense to concentrate their programming on music videos (except on Sundays, which appear to be reserved for American televangelists).

These channels show a remarkable variety of shows from around the globe. I've seen shows from French Canada (badly dubbed into English), English Canada, American-language soap operas you've never heard of that are filmed in Mexico (e.g. "The Guilt"), Australia (including the cult favorite women's-prison drama, "Prisoners Of Cell Block H"), Italian martial-arts movies set in the US and badly dubbed into American English, a few BBC programs, and a fair number of American programs.

There's some incredibly bad TV on display, and some of the worst of it is from the good old USA. We've seen the pilot for the new Judge Reinhold sitcom, where he plays a bumbling but lovable Secret Service agent. I doubt you'll be seeing that in the US, even on UPN. Another shining example of American ingenuity is "Rock And Roll Gymnastics", which involves accomplished male gymnasts dressed in (for example) rodeo outfits doing routines to the sounds of rockabilly music.

But the bad TV from around the globe pales in comparison to what the South African entertainment industry is able to produce. Recently I had the pleasure of seeing a telecast of a circus on ice, visiting South Africa from Russia. Imagine, if you will, costumed Russian circus performers on skates, juggling, clowning around, what have you. Then, suddenly, from a prop bouzouki wielded by a skating clown, out pops a chicken on skates. The clown herds the amazingly sure-footed chicken around the rink until the crowd has been whipped into a screaming frenzy. Next, they bring out the goats on skates, who prance briefly on their hind legs. Then dogs on skates. A bear on skates. And for the grand finale, a goose on skates. All narrated expertly by a local broadcast duo who I suspect may have rather been calling the cricket match.

Don't even get me started on cricket.

To be fair, there's some welcome programming on the tube. Every afternoon they show a couple hours of CNN International. They show "Prime Suspect" and "Frasier". The aforementioned "Prisoners Of Cell Block H". There's the weekly English Football round-up show, and the occasional full telecast of a Premiership or Champion's League game. And I've developed an unexpected attachment to "Traders", the cheesy Canadian drama centered around a high-flying Toronto investment bank. Julie's become a big fan of another Canadian show, a prime-time soap called "Black Harbour". Also to its credit, South African TV has remarkably few commercials -- especially appreciated when you consider the quality of the commercials here....

Well, that's probably more than enough about TV. Next time, I'll address some less banal topics, hopefully. | Thatcher Ulrich