In rural Africa where I live, established institutions for entertainment are few and far in between. Cinemas are non-existent and TV access requires expensive satellite dishes that few people can afford. To entertain themselves during their free time, people congregate in makeshift bars, where owners lure in youths with constant streaming of the latest European professional soccer.

But of course, availability of soccer is not constant, and people demand alternative sources of televised entertainment. For such occasions, locals tend to buy cheap pirated DVDs for computer gaming, or more commonly, drama series and movies, to be screened on the few laptops available in their circle of friends and family members.

Carts and shops selling these DVDs exist not just in market towns, but even some bigger villages, allowing common people to access some of the latest visual entertainment from the outside world at quite affordable prices (if not the best of quality). Given the relatively slow internet speed, these shops offer the only method to get hold of such entertainment products. Like locals, I also frequent such shops to see the latest offerings.

In the past few months, I have witnessed a gradual, yet noticeable, change in the offerings of the DVD shops in this little rural Tanzanian town.

The plastic packets of pirated DVDs adorning the walls and wooden cabinets of these concrete hole-in-the walls used to be overwhelmingly made up of Hollywood blockbusters and Chinese kung-fu flicks, mixed in with low-budget local stuff.

Recently, I have seen more and more Korean dramas on offer. Some are classics from the 1990s while others are surprisingly new and up-to-date. True to the sketchy reputation of pirated DVDs, most discs contain several drama series, with questionable English, and occasionally Swahili, subtitles for the foreign audience.

What is more, Korean dramas even feature on TVs in front of these shops. Bigger shops use these TVs to play samples of their best selections (so loud they can be heard blocks away) to draw people in. Along with segments of Korean dramas, Korean music videos are blasted into the streets, drawing curious pedestrians to stop and watch the colorful and synchronized dance routines of K-pop bands. Clearly, this strategy is helping to bring in extra revenue for the shops. Had it not worked, the shops would not be wasting precious electricity doing it.

Such a sight, of the packets of Korean dramas on sale, and K-pop being heard on the streets, was extremely rare when I first arrived in town some eight months ago. Indeed, we are seeing a rapid adoption process of a certain cultural product. The “Korean Wave” went from some unknown but exotic thing from a distant part of the world to a part of daily life in a matter of months.

The fact is that pirated DVD shops in Tanzania are promoting Korean drama and music as their core products to attract customers. It can be fairly assumed that they can no longer be considered pure niche products, but have potential to be, if not already, widespread.

It begs the question of how and why something so foreign can so quickly spread in a place that has zero cultural connection to Korea.

Photo Credit: Republic of Korea @ Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0

Photo Credit: Republic of Korea @ Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0

Two theories come to my mind on why Korean dramas and music can be accepted in Africa at a large scale.

First is the shallower of the two: the materialistic modernity portrayed visually in these products. The sights of beautifully dressed people walking among paved roads (so lacking here except when it pertains to white elephant projects), skyscrapers (non-existent even in the “big, modern" city Dar es Salaam), and subways (the nearest system is half a continent away in Cairo) are certain to mesmerize viewers who probably would not see such things in their entire lifetimes.

But the explanatory power of the above is a bit limited. After all, Hollywood movies show these “modern" elements just as much, and cultural products of other developed countries can also show the same. So why aren’t people here watching European movies or music videos, especially considering they already have such strong attachments to European soccer leagues?

The theory is further weakened by the fact that some Korean dramas sold here are not even about modern Korea, but ones portraying the peninsula’s imperial past, where physical modernity certainly was not present nor is it portrayed.

The better theory may be, although difficult to believe, there is a cultural linkage between the values portrayed by Koreans and those held by locals here in rural Africa.

Korean dramas tend to emphasize concern for the family and the community. And Korean culture, true to its Confucian heritage, prefers interpersonal harmony and non-confrontational behavior. From my observation, both of these are traits shared in the Tanzanian culture, where identification and devotion to one’s family and community are paramount to one’s identity and acceptance by society at large.

In fact, if cultural resonance with Korea is a key factor for locals’ acceptance of the Korean wave, then we can potentially speculate that Korean cultural products may further displace Western ones in the near future. After all, Western values embodied by Hollywood films can be completely opposite to Tanzania’s community-centric worldview.

And what is more, such a theory runs contrary to the commonly held beliefs among skeptics of the Korean Wave, including many Koreans, who believe that the uniqueness of Korean culture makes it impossible for Korean cultural products to spread beyond the confines of the East Asian region. Korean Wave’s unlikely success so far in the Tanzanian outback illustrates at least a partial universality of the cultural messages, if even if the message is fundamentally unpalatable from a Western point of view.

Either way, it is interesting to see the Korean Wave hitting a place that their creators and promoters probably never intended it to. After all, these cultural products are created to make money, and rural Africa, by any measure, is not an ideal market (certainly they will not earn a penny from pirated DVDs). But who knows? Maybe one day, the Korean Wave here will be big enough, and the locals rich enough, for some Korean entertainment companies to really invest in it, via concerts, TV shows, and local subsidiaries. That will be the day that the African consumer will finally be noticed by the world.

First Editor: Olivia Yang
Second Editor: Edward White

The News Lens has been authorized to repost this article. The original piece was published on the author’s blog here: The Advent of Korean Wave in Africa: Cultural Connection or Fascination about Material Modernity?