HARARE, ZIMBABWE — After Yvonne Damster gave birth to her baby boy last year, she was distraught when the father refused to acknowledge the child as his own. Damster says members of her community used her trade — sex work — to convince the man to deny responsibility.
“I was pained that he took me for a fool when I told him that the child was his,” Damster says.
To resolve the dispute, Damster turned to an unlikely resource: reality TV. A show called “The Closure” has become a pop-culture phenomenon in Zimbabwe since it began airing on national television in January. Each week, a couple involved in a paternity dispute is interviewed about their relationship before they settle the matter with a DNA test.
Viewers interested in appearing on the show are invited to call a telephone number to get in touch with producers. Damster picked up the phone.
“I felt that this was the only way that I would prove to him that he was indeed the father of the child,” she says. “I faced a bit of resistance from him, but he finally agreed [to go on the show] after being convinced by my relatives.”
“The Closure” is the brainchild of Tinashe Mugabe, principal consultant at Global DNA Zimbabwe, a DNA testing company founded in 2015. Mugabe also serves as the host of the television show, and he says it has changed the way Zimbabweans think about paternity testing.
“A lot of people did not have a conclusive way of resolving paternity issues,” he says. “Some used to base it on consulting a prophet or traditional healer to ascertain and trace the paternity roots of a child. Others would check paternity using physical features like similarities in lines in their palms. Or if a child refused to breastfeed, it was taken as a sign that the child did not belong to that family.”
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To a certain extent, the show serves as compelling marketing for Global DNA’s products. Because of the show, people have come to accept the role that DNA testing can play in resolving questions of paternity, Mugabe says, and interest in the company’s products has increased, though he declined to provide details.
But there is no denying the show’s popularity. While exact viewership data isn’t available, it’s the most-watched show on Zimbabwean national television, says Privilege Makaripe, commissioning editor at the Broadcasting Authority of Zimbabwe. Each episode airs on Saturday at 7:30 p.m., with a repeat episode airing each Wednesday.
“When we started screening it, it had one slot,” Makaripe says. “But because people loved it, we created a repeat slot during the week for people to watch.”
Hundreds of thousands of people also watch the weekly episodes on YouTube, and viewers comment and create memes and comedy skits about the show on social media.
Plot Mhako, a creative content producer and arts journalist, says audiences enjoy the show because it’s engaging and emotionally compelling, and because it addresses social issues that are rarely discussed publicly. That has made it stand out on Zimbabwean TV, which mainly consists of current affairs shows, soap operas, music shows and local dramas.
“Its popularity simply speaks to the void that we had in the entertainment area,” Mhako says.
Not everyone is a fan.
“In our Shona tradition, there is an idiom that says ‘gomba harina mwana’ — meaning a child sired from an affair doesn’t belong to the biological father but the one who raised him,” says Prince Sibanda, education secretary at the Zimbabwe National Traditional Healers Association. “But with what is happening after these tests are carried out, some relationships are being broken.”
Traditionally, Sibanda says, if family members harbored suspicions about a child’s parentage, they would consult healers to trace the lineage. Once the healers made their determination, the biological father would then pay a token of appreciation to the man raising the child.
Discarding such traditions in favor of a reality TV show is unfortunate, Sibanda says. “It’s bad to publish such issues, because you would have paraded your personal life to everyone, and your community will know your dirty linen, which could have been dealt with in private.”
Some relationships have suffered as a result of the TV show. Chrispen Shava, for example, says he married his girlfriend when she found out she was pregnant. Seven months after she gave birth, he discovered on the show that the baby boy he was raising was not his.
“I broke up with my wife a month after the DNA test,” he says, “when I realized that she was now communicating with the father of her child behind my back.”
Shava wants the child’s biological father to pay him back the money he has spent to raise the child. “If it wasn’t for the DNA tests,” he says, “I would have continued to look after a child who was not mine.”
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Mugabe says the show offers counseling sessions to help all participants manage stress. In September, however, the Medical Laboratory and Clinical Scientists Council of Zimbabwe, a government regulatory authority, criticized Mugabe and Global DNA for “unethical” behavior, citing the fact that Mugabe is not a registered member of the council and therefore not professionally qualified to issue DNA test results. In a statement, the council “urges the Zimbabwean population not to be coerced into receiving paternity results in such an unprofessional manner.”
Global DNA denies any wrongdoing and says it is working to provide the council with additional documentation. “We are an upstanding and ethical business and we operate within the legal parameters of Zimbabwean law,” the company said in a statement. Mugabe declined follow-up interview requests.
Going on television created challenges for Damster. After her episode aired in May, she says she was stigmatized. Some in her community ridiculed her for revealing her private life.
“I became shy to even go to the shops during the day, because of the way people were talking about me,” she says. “I ended up moving to a friend’s place for two months for the dust to settle.”
But she also received praise for being brave enough to appear on the show. “I started getting calls from various people across the world who had watched the show and wanted to help me leave my old ways of surviving as a sex worker,” Damster says. “Others offered me counseling, and others offered financial assistance.”
Perhaps best of all, the show confirmed that the man Damster alleged to be the father of her child was indeed the biological father. Now, she says, he is taking full responsibility.