Posts Tagged ‘Television’

In Tigray

October 18, 2009

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The Marvels of Technology

January 2, 2007

It’s almost a duty for anyone from Kentucky to be a fan of college basketball. The state is the proud home of two consistently topnotch programs: the University of Louisville Cardinals and the University of Kentucky Wildcats. Most people, but not all, who live in the city love the former and loathe the latter. Nearly everyone who lives anywhere else in the state loves the state school and loathes the city school. It’s a rivalry that divides families and determines childhood friendships. It’s irrational, unreasonable, and totally engrossing. Basketball is a yearlong concern throughout the state, and it’s something of an obsession during the winter college basketball season.

The first time I ever missed an entire basketball season was when I moved to Madagascar in the summer of 2000. After a few months of training near the capital, I settled in Belo Tsiribihina, a small town on the west coast, in October of that year.

According to the World Factbook published by the CIA, there were 24 television sets per 1000 persons in Madagascar in 1996, the most recent year for which this statistic is available online. That same year, in the United States, there were 806 sets per 1000 persons. People in Madagascar have a right to be proud of their televisions, and, for that matter, whatever other technology they happen to have. My fellow teachers often boasted about the mimeograph machine in the school office. (But they neglected to mention it to me until after I used the blackboard to give my first test). The mayor declared a local holiday to inaugurate the first radio station in town. (I only learned about the cancellation of my classes as I walked to school at six o’clock that morning). Neighbors flocked to the few houses in town with a VCR whenever the owners rented a film. (They did so even when I stumbled upon a copy of Woodstock, in English, at one of the local epiceries and begged some friends to let me watch it at their house.)

About a month after my arrival, the family next door bought a new television. They giggled with excitement all day long as dad and the eldest son, in that worldwide rite of father and son togetherness, played handymen and worked to install the new set. The whole family tried to infect me with its enthusiasm, but I expected very little from small town television in Madagascar. Still, they invited me to its debut, and for the sake of good relations I went with a smile.

I crowded inside with all the other guests (immediate family, friends, distant relatives from parts unknown, and all the unfamiliar and uninvited faces in the back). They sat in silent but giddy expectation as the television scanned channel after channel of complete and absolute snow. Several times the auto scanner paused a little longer on one channel of static than on all the others. On these occasions everyone craned their necks and strained their eyes to find the image behind the fuzz.

When, on those rare occasions when they saw anything at all, they never agreed about what it was we were watching. Everyone saw something different than everyone else. I saw nothing but static on the television so I watched them instead, their cycle of emotions running from expectant, to triumphant, to disappointed, and then all over again.

They promised me, and each other, that reception improves as the weather changes with the seasons. Several minutes later, after no noticeable climactic change, they tried again. The television scanned again and, sure enough, settled on one channel that seemed just a little less indecipherable than all the others. Again, everyone squinted and claimed with excitement to see this or that in the static.

I began to lose patience. I realized that they planned to persevere until their moment of triumph, no matter how long. I had no particular place to go but still had no desire to spend several hours confined in a hot and crowded room with nothing to do but watch a screenful of static. I rolled my eyes in frustration and cursed under my breath. I wanted out but wanted to avoid offense. I fidgeted. A voice in my head started to mock them.

I decided to be rude, knowing I could explain it away the next day as a cultural misunderstanding. I offered my apologies, said my goodbyes, and started for the door.

Just then, however, the image cleared long enough for me to get a glimpse and decipher the program. First I had to identify the sport. It was indoors, on a wood floor, it looked like there were about ten men, they were wearing baggy shorts and sleeveless tops…it registered with a faint glimmer of hope. Then I saw the ESPN sign in the bottom right corner of the screen and I knew it had to be American, not some obscure French amateur league. I held my breath. A moment or two later the score flashed across the screen, Duke against Illinois…a college basketball game!

“Basketball! It’s American university basketball!” I exclaimed as they all cheered for their technological triumph.

I scrambled for my forsaken seat of honor before anyone else had a chance to claim it. Then, along with the rest of the hot and sweaty horde, I craned my neck and strained my eyes to follow the game, the most enthusiastic person in the room.